April 26th, 2009

If you’ve ever wedged yourself into an airplane seat, checked your luggage or checked into a hotel, you know there are few perfect trips on this planet. Something invariably goes wrong.  At times, very wrong. It may be a computer scheduling glitch you can almost understand. Or something bizarre, but entertaining.  Even outright incompetence at almost incomprehensible levels.

The Titanic Awards seeks to take a different approach to these often spectacular underachievements in the travel industry… by celebrating them.

Over the last decades, the travel industry and media have unwittingly teamed up to create the gap that The Titanic Awards aspires to fill. Because travel, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, is the world largest industry, transporting 903 million travelers internationally last year (five to 10 million of us moving about internationally at any given moment), there are large financial interests involved. And when Big Money enters the ring, they use the power of their advertising budget to influence the “news hole” – what the print media calls that shrinking space of words and pictures that come in between the ads.

Somehow these ads seem to affect travel more than other reviewed subjects. You see critical reviews of books, movies and plays in the media, but when was the last time you saw someone say a destination was awful? Or that they disliked a fancy new resort?  Hard to imagine Islands Magazine with a cover that boasts “Five Islands that Totally Suck!”

Many editors (and their ad sales teams) believe that travel writing is where people go to escape — that they are largely in the business of fulfilling dreams. Their readers, they posit,  don’t want to hear about anything negative or overly critical.  Editors may also state – and rightly so — that you can’t pan an entire genre. Condemning a destination is akin to saying all children’s books are poorly written. “If we have to narrow it down to individual restaurants and hotels and tour guides,” says Charlotte Observer Travel Editor John Bordsen, “why should we choose a bad one to critique instead of helping readers by telling them about the good ones.”

It’s not just the editors who avoid harsh reviews. Many travel writers are plugged into this matrix as well. That is, they feel obligated to sell a destination. Either they believe that making the reader want to go there is a sign of literary success or they have taken free trips (or free VIP upgrades) and are afraid of getting black listed by PR firms for future freebies if the review is less than glowing.  Sometimes travel writers who try to convey less flattering information find that the editors aren’t interested or that it takes so many words to cleverly craft the issue to keep it from coming across as whiny that it no longer fits into the allotted space.

The problem, of course, is that if you eliminate all critical reviews for one reason or another, travel is getting an exemption from journalism and what you’re left with can be hard to distinguish at times from travel brochures. That presents at least two issues: 1) It makes us feel all the more disappointed when our own trips are less than perfect. 2) If the media is not holding poorly run airlines, hotels, restaurants, tour operators, tourist boards and their like accountable, who will?

This website is not attempting to fulfill the accountability gap in the travel industry; it’s more like a shot across the bow.  Besides, some of the strange and unflattering aspects of travel can be the most interesting and entertaining.

Perhaps the more celebratory format of the Titanic Awards will allow the media to embrace this often neglected underbelly of travel more readily.

Please help us keep it updated by sending in video links, news links, photos and official studies.  And we want your opinion: Take the  World’s Worst Travel Survey now.

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