12 Years of Travel Blogging: A Look Back and A Look Ahead

October 14 marks the 12th anniversary of my very first blog post on this website. I mark this date as the start of my travel blog.

My first post came almost a year and a half after registering the domain name for the website and 5 months before I actually turned over the keys to my house to begin traveling.

The last dozen years have seen a lot of change in the world of travel blogging. It has gone from a 100% amateur activity done for the love of traveling and sharing stories, to a highly professional activity complete with conferences, professional organizations, and support organizations.

The changes in travel blogging since 2006 have been incredible and I think the changes over the next 12 years will be even greater. In this article, I’m going to reflect back on where travel blogging has been and what the future holds for this still, relatively new, medium.

SCUBA Diving in the Great Barrier Reef
SCUBA Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

Travel Blogging’s Early Days

I don’t want to spend too much time looking backward because I think the most exciting things are in the future. Nonetheless, here is a brief summary of what things were like when I first started my blog.

  • There was a time when most of the travel bloggers knew each other, at least online. There weren’t that many of us. I met several of the early travel bloggers in person when our paths crossed. I met Dave Lee in Bali in 2008. I met Jodi Ettenberg in Bangkok in 2010. I met many others, most of whom have long since stopped blogging.
  • Blogging back then was literally blogging, and by that I mean my website and others were weblogs. My site started out and for several years was really just a diary of my travels. I put zero thought into SEO or into social media. The titles of my articles were usually attempts at trying to be cleaver by using song titles or puns.
  • When I started out there were a few travel content sites which were making money, but for the most part, individual bloggers weren’t making money. The only real option for making money was Google Adsense, which wasn’t really very good (and still isn’t). There were few affiliate programs and no sponsorships.
  • There were no press trips. In fact, the entire travel industry was pretty much ignorant of what was happening online. I was doing my thing for 3.5 years before I was ever contacted by someone in the tourism industry. Sometime around 2011 or 2012 things exploded and it went in the opposite direction with everyone wanting to work with bloggers.
  • The first TBEX took place in 2009 in Chicago and it was just a one-day event in a single room. About 120 people showed up which was well beyond expectations. By 2013, there were 1,300 people in attendance in Toronto. If you add up all the attendees at various travel blogging events around the world today, it is probably well over 3,000 every year.
  • Social media wasn’t that big of a deal. Twitter was the biggest social network, but there wasn’t a mania about it. Facebook existed, but it wasn’t that big of a thing at the time. There was no Instagram or Pinterest. I put far more effort into my MySpace page when I started than I did on Facebook. The biggest metric that I cared about at the time was Feedburner subscribers. (I still think RSS is important, but it hardly gets the attention it deserves anymore.) Twitter really started to get attention in 2009-2010.
  • The vast majority of bloggers have given up. I have many people say that I had an early mover advantage in that I started early. There is some truth to that, but mostly it is the survivor’s bias No one sees the sites which no longer exist and they only see the sites which have survived. A few years ago I cleaned out my travel blog directory removing all of the sites which were either gone or hadn’t been updated in at least 6 months. I deleted 75% of them.
Getting ready to ride in a Formula 1 race car
Getting ready to ride in a Formula 1 race car

Things are much better now than they were before. Finding a WordPress host is now trivial and there are companies which specialize in that and nothing else. Sites are more secure, and of course it is easier, but still not easy, to make a living from your website if you are willing to put in the work.

The olden days were not the good old days.

Travel Blogging’s Future

Old men reminiscing about this past isn’t very interesting or valuable. The real question is, where do things go from here?

We’ve Reached Peak Social Media

I think we’ve reached peak social media at some point in 2018. Facebook is mostly useless now as a way to reach your audience. Their algorithm allows only a small percentage of your fans actually see anything you post unless you pay them money. Twitter is so ephemeral, that you have to post multiple times, which only makes the problem with noise even worse.

Instagram has become the dominant platform, but you can’t really drive traffic via Instagram (you sort of can), and follower growth for most people has ground to a halt because of the Instagram algorithm changes.

I’m not saying Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram are in any immediate danger of going away, but I also think they aren’t really going to get any bigger or any more important. So many people have been burned by these social media sites that they are hesitant to put all their eggs into the social media basket. If you rely on a social platform, then at the end of the day you don’t really own anything. The company that owns the platform had your fate in their hands.

See the Klout sticker? Whelp, that's gone too.
See the Klout sticker? Whelp, that’s gone too.

Going Back to Basics

I’ve been seeing a trend the last year of bloggers going back to basics, and I include myself in this group. This means putting less of an emphasis on social media and more of an emphasis on their website and their email list. The website and your list are the things which you own. Everything else is out of your control.

For me, this has meant spending more time creating content for my website. An article like the one you are reading is something that I might have written in a Facebook group last year. Now I’m putting everything back on my website as I can exercise greater control and benefit from it.

The only social platform that I put any effort into now is Instagram, and even then, due to algorithmic changes, I post much less frequently than I did before.

Higher Quality Engagement

Engagement is a word that is often thrown about without most people understanding it. Engagement is usually meant to be anything anyone one does with respect to your content. A like, a comment, or a share are all lumped under the banner of “engagement”. The problem is, not all engagement is the same.

A like on Instagram might take a second of someone’s time, and with such a short window of time, there is no guarantee that they actually paid attention to it.

If you look strictly at the numbers, podcasting is one of the smallest things I do, yet it is consistently is one of the first things which people mention to me when I meet them in person. The reason is that they can hear my voice for 45 minutes and develop a deeper bond than they would from 2 seconds of looking at a photo and clicking like on Instagram.

45 minutes of audio is fundamentally and qualitatively different than a like, yet many people lump them together as they can both be counted as a single engagement point.

The future will be a move towards higher quality engagement, whether it is audio, video, or in person events.

The Continued Death of Print

Print publications have been withering away the last 10 years. Every year brings less add revenue and usually fewer subscribers. Several travel magazines have already been shuttered, and most of the newspaper travel sections have been closed. The surviving travel magazines are significantly thinner than they were a decade ago and some have cut back on the number of annual issues, and most have seen reductions in staff and freelance payments.

Print publications will continue to shrink to stay alive, but there is a point at which you can no longer cut back anymore. Many of the major travel magazines are reaching this point. We could see one of the big three travel magazines in the US fold in 2019 and the others might disappear in the next 3-5 years.

We are down to only a handful of newspapers in the US with full-time travel editors. As newspapers shrink, they have to protect their core news business, and that usually means jettisoning sections of the paper which are not seen as vital to the business. That usually means the travel section.

On the other end of the spectrum, you are starting to see bloggers hire writers and developing a team of people.

When print publications stop printing, they are competing on the same level as smaller independent websites. They might have larger budgets and bigger brand recognition, but they also have massively higher costs and overhead.

Some blogs will end up meeting the former print publications somewhere in the middle as they keep growing, and the large companies keep shrinking.

Independent websites will continue to become a larger and more important part of the travel media landscape.

Me and English language students in Prambanan, Indonesia
Me and English language students in Prambanan, Indonesia

The Death of Freelancing

Freelance writing has been the backbone of travel publications for several decades. Unfortunately, as print publications have shrunk, so too have opportunities and rates for freelancers.

While it is still possible to make a living doing freelance travel writing, it is becoming increasingly harder to do so. The universe of potential freelancers increased dramatically with the rise of the internet, and the number of outlets has shrunk. Simple supply and demand can tell you what the outcome of this is going to be.

I’ve had many conversations with freelancer writers over the last several years. Some of them have been able to transition to becoming website publishers, however, most of them haven’t been able to successfully make the leap. The skill set required for running a website is very different than those required to successfully do work for hire with editors.

The successful freelancers will be those who can make the switch to becoming website publishers while using their freelance work to help build their website.

More Successful Travel Blogs

I noticed at both TBEX events I attended this year that the number of bloggers making a living has increased dramatically. It used to only be a handful of people who were able to do this, but now the number has become quite significant.

While the odds are still against any particular blog ever becoming a success, the number of blogs which have made it keeps rising.

There will be a corresponding rise in professionalism amongst bloggers as the successful ones work to distance themselves from the smaller, unprofessional sites which have dogged the reputation of bloggers since their inception.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been so active in SATW. I’m trying to help lay the foundation for professionalism as travel blogging grows in the future.

12 years of blogging pin

11 Replies to “12 Years of Travel Blogging: A Look Back and A Look Ahead”

  1. Thanks for this article and always being so generous in sharing your wisdom—also, for your efforts to expand SATW interest into blogging. One of the challenges is for writers to expand their knowledge of the business of blogging.

  2. Good article,
    Agree with everything, Gary, but I’m not sure about this line…

    “As newspapers shrink, they have to protect their core news business, and that usually means jettisoning sections of the paper which are not seen as vital to the business. That usually means the travel section.”

  3. Interesting and insightful. There’s nothing here I disagree with and I think your analysis of the future is spot on. At some point PRs, companies and brands will have to take digital content more seriously as an advertising medium, which I don’t feel is happening across the board yet. Sure some do, but on the whole there is still a reluctance to put advertising bucks into travel blogs, a failure to recognise that niche marketing and working with bloggers who are trusted by their readers is going to be critical. There’s also a failure to realise that bloggers who are trusted by their readers work very hard to earn that trust. Yellow Pages has gone (phone directory – not sure what you call them in the US), we can all fast forward through TV ads, print is just not reaching sufficient levels on the whole – but still many PRs/companies are still hung up on getting an article into print. I guess it boils down to a lack of knowledge/comprehension – not just for PRs/companies but for us bloggers to be able to prove how well we can do, to present a message that the client/potential client understands. These days as a successful blogger, you have to be writer, editor, salesman, CEO and fulfill dozens of roles – it’s exciting and very challenging. It’s going to be an interesting ride over the next few years and fascinating to be a part of it…

  4. I really enjoyed this post despite it’s a mention for SATW. There’s a lot of things that were spot on and I could take a thing or two from your writing; not something I often do anymore. Thanks for this.

  5. I appreciate it when a blog tells me something new, and I’d never considered that blogs and independent sites will continue to grow until they meet the former world of print somewhere in the middle. Hope for us all.

    1. I think bloggers do this best, they’re one of the few parties that can find new gems and see things from a different perspective. I rarely find blogger really finding new things. Most of us click bait things saying ‘hidden gems’ when in fact it’s not.

  6. I love reading your perspective Gary. I’m currently redesigning my blog and find myself totally deemphasizing social media in favor of just trying to get people to subscribe via email. I’m sick of the algorithm changes, the inanity of social media, and the inability to own or monetize anything on these platforms.

    It’s still a pity that most traffic comes through SEO. Personally I’ve been using an RSS reader again (for the first time in 7 years) and I wish this or something like it would become popular again.

    SEO is great for those actively searching, but bad for bringing in readers in a more casual or browsey mode. This totally skews the content production towards immediately actionable, SEO optimized articles.

  7. Agree with everything, Gary, but I’m not sure about this line…

    “As newspapers shrink, they have to protect their core news business, and that usually means jettisoning sections of the paper which are not seen as vital to the business. That usually means the travel section.”

    I think they will/do drop sections that are not core, but my experience in radio was that Travel brought in more ad revenue than any other specialist sections, so it was absolutely the last section to be shuttered.

    1. In the 80’s and 90’s you were correct. Elizabeth Becker noted in her book “Overbooked” in they travel section used to bring in 25% of the revenue for newspapers. At least in the United States.

      However, Expedia and other OTA’s killed that business and most local travel agents stopped advertising in the paper.

      In the US, there are only a handful of travel sections left anymore. I think they can be counted on your hands. (LA Times, NYT, Washington Post, USA Today, WSJ, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle) They used to give out 4 different categories of newspapers for the Lowell Thomas awards based on circulation. Now there is only 1 and they can only get 7 newspapers to submit.

  8. Really interesting reflections Gary.

    I am far from a full time blogger, with only about 60 views a day. I now I could ramp that up quickly by going big and fast on social media, but – as you say – i’ve never really seen the point.

    I’d far rather people find me on a search engine, and that traffic gradually grows, than get on the drug of short-term spikes and ad money. At the moment about 90% of my traffic is straight from search, which a year in i’m really pleased with.

    The challenge is how to stand out in this sea of ‘10 best things to do in x’ posts, and high authority sites ranking for anything useful.

    I feel it comes down to habits and goals.

    I aim to post once a week, and my goal is just to help out as many people as I can, and keep a record of my travels. It’s a sustainable hobby alongside a full time job.

    As long as I don’t get too far ahead of myself I should continue to be happy.

    In week 1 I was so excited if even one person arrive to the site. To have over 60 a day now and nearly 200 subscribers is awesome!

    Imagine where i’ll be in a year :)

    The market is saturating, but there’ll always be a little bit of space for everyone, you just have to be happy with the bit of space you get!

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