Mark Hodson is one well-travelled man. Having had an enviable career in travel journalism, he is now co-founder and editor of travel sites 101holidays and 101honeymoons. We caught up with the man himself to pick his brains on all things travel.
In a recent interview for A Dangerous Business, you reject the idea that calling yourself a ‘traveller’ sets you aside from ‘tourists’, saying “We are all tourists, only some are more enlightened than others”. Is there any typical tourist behaviour that gets on your nerves, and how do you go about becoming enlightened?
I think the key is humility. The unenlightened tourist views the world as a playground for his selfish amusement. The enlightened tourist understands he is just a small speck, privileged to be able to visit extraordinary places and witness how other people live.
I read an article earlier this year in the Guardian about Vang Vieng in Laos, which has apparently been turned into a non-stop party town, where every day young backpackers get wrecked on cheap drink and drugs and float down the Nam Song river on rubber tyres. At least 27 of them died last year of overdoses and drowning, and now the local people – who are animists – are reportedly scared to go near the river because they fear evil spirits.
To my mind this is quite depressing, one of the worst forms of decadence and cultural arrogance, and yet I suspect that many of these backpackers regard themselves as superior to package tourists.
Fortunately, humility tends to descend on travellers at some point, even those who aren’t looking for it.
You quit office life when you were 27 and spent three years working during the summers and travelling in Asia and Latin America in the winters. Where would you recommend for a first time traveller looking to spend a few months (or more) abroad?
When I first went travelling I bought a round-the-world ticket, then quickly realised this was a ludicrous idea. There was simply so much to see and do at each stopover, it seemed crazy to be constantly jumping on a plane to the next place. In pretty much every country I visited I wanted to spend more time.
So I would advise people to focus down on a specific part of the world. The most obvious destination is Southeast Asia because it’s so culturally rich and diverse, as well as being convenient, cheap and easy to navigate, but there are plenty of others. I’d like one day to take a long road trip around the USA.
Having made the transition from print journalism to online editor and freelance travel writer, you’re a man with your finger on the travel pulse! Any thoughts on upcoming travel trends for 2013 and beyond?
It might sound like a cop-out, but I would say “more of the same”. The trend towards increased connectedness will only increase, as more people carry smartphones, connections become faster, data roaming charges are reduced and wifi becomes more ubiquitous.
Personally I don’t regard this as a universal good. I think it’s increasingly difficult to fully immerse yourself in a travel experience when you are never far from the next email or status update. But I admit to being a bit old-school in this respect: in the 1990s I travelled for months at a time with only airmail and poste restante to communicate with my family and friends at home. That way of travelling is now lost.
We love hearing about ‘off the beaten-track’ destinations – could you tell us yours?
I don’t think you need to go very far to get off the beaten track. For example, I love the Balearic Islands, which many people regard as package tourist destinations. On Ibiza you can find wonderful little coves with clear water and very few people (I recommend Cala Mastella in the north east). Take a ferry from Ibiza Town to the island of Formentera, which has stunning beaches and more bicycles than cars.
You were the first travel journalist to file reports from the Maldives, Thailand and Sri Lanka after the Asian tsunami in 2004. You also recommend travelling to anywhere just coming out of a civil war. What are the benefits of travelling to the places many people would be keen to avoid, and does it ever worry you?
Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been in countries that have recently emerged from civil conflict or communist dictatorship. Vietnam in early 1992 and El Salvador in 1993 were particularly exciting.
I find it fascinating to see a country at a period of critical change, and after a period of strife when tourists are rarely seen, local people tend to be extremely welcoming. Obviously it can be risky. Looking back, El Salvador was probably at bit dangerous at that time, but the people were so warm and friendly that it didn’t seem so. I think that when Libya settles down that will be a tremendous place to visit.
However, it’s also possible to experience this kind of critical change in “safe” destinations. London during this summer’s Olympics took on a kind of transcendent quality. Washington DC must have been fun when Obama was elected. These events are not difficult to predict.
When you were a travel journalist working for the Sunday Times, you would ironically call yourself a member of the ‘best job in the world club’. It obviously is harder than many people think – for one thing, do you ever truly get a holiday?
That’s not really the problem, though it did get very tiresome constantly being told by friends that I was “on holiday” when I was racing around a resort, inspecting a dozen hotels a day and getting up at 4am to catch a flight home.
The problem with travel journalism is more a question of earning power. The work is so badly paid that writers are forced to sacrifice quality for quantity, churning out third-rate round-ups or – increasingly – hastily sketched blog posts. The process of coming up with ideas, getting them commissioned and organising trips is very time-consuming and that constant treadmill becomes stressful, and stifles creativity.
Is there anywhere you visit time and time again, and if so how do these destinations change?
I’ve always made a point of trying to visit new places and not becoming a “specialist” in any one part of the world. However, I do like to return to cities I know and witness them changing – the way neighbourhoods suddenly become fashionable and skylines get rearranged. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of New York or Hong Kong or Rio or Bangkok.
You’re a big fan of India. How should first-timers prepare for a trip to India, practically as well as mentally?
India is truly amazing, although it’s more helpful to think of it as a continent rather than a country. It’s so diverse, so vast and so packed with extraordinary things to see that you shouldn’t try to bite off more than a small chunk at any one time.
I would not spend more than a couple of months there if it’s your first time as it’s so exhausting, and plan at least one “holiday” during your trip. Goa is excellent for this, or you could head north into the mountains. India is a life-changing experience – a place of enlightenment, to refer to your first question – and I think the best way to prepare for it is to go with an open mind and plenty of time on your hands.
A huge thanks to Mark! Don’t forget to check out 101holidays.co.uk and 101honeymoons.co.uk for the most up-to-date, inspiring travel ideas.
Images by Mark Hodson