2020: a strange year to be a travel writer, indeed

2020: a strange year to be a travel writer, indeed

Towan Headland Newquay
Covid, combined with months of unclear guidance and cancelled commissions, makes 2020 a year to forget for many travel writers.

I’ve loitered in eerily deserted airports, I’ve been mildly reprimanded by La Policía Nacional for the hardly heinous crime of forgetting to wear a mask, and I’ve even had the bittersweet “pleasure” of boarding several empty flights. Despite all of this, it wasn’t until 21st December – the day that much of the EU temporarily banned UK travellers – that this absolute toilet of a year hit me. 

That might seem like a brazen statement to make, but I’m fully aware of the seriousness of the pandemic, and I’ve not been oblivious to the utter devastation it’s caused either. Like many before me, I’ve certainly felt the cataclysmic impact of this bastard virus.

I’d say the reason it’s taken so long to hit me goes all the way back to March. Just two days before the first national lockdown was imposed, I was on a short, last-minute break in the Lake District. I originally had a trip to northern Italy booked in for the same week, which had to be cancelled due to the steep rise in cases in that particular part of Europe.

While browsing the shelves of Bookends – a lovely bookshop in Keswick – my phone began to light up: a national lockdown had been announced. One by one, all of my confirmed jobs for the coming weeks and months were being cancelled, including two large copywriting contracts for travel organisations, three firm commissions for national newspapers and a couple of press trips. Overnight, I had no work.

At some point between panicking and waiting for the government to support the self-employed, fight-or-flight mode was activated. As a freelancer, I knew I had to do something, so I spent the following few weeks pondering whether I should throw in the towel and find a more ‘stable’ job (an alien concept, considering I left a ‘stable’ job to pursue my flexible career,) but decided that I had to try and make the best out of a very, very bad situation.

Having had the proverbial travel rug pulled from beneath my itchy feet, I saw best to utilise my time spent at home. I read plenty of educational books, attended virtual seminars, took a couple of online courses, built a new website and invested in more magazine subscriptions than I quite frankly know what to do with. I also began to use social media platforms like Twitter more ‘professionally’ – resulting in new opportunities and vital contact with other writers in the same boat. 

I probably had little to no work for a good few months while I brushed up on my skills. I’ve been a professional writer for around ten years, but only freelance for the last four of them, and those initial few months were probably the longest I’d gone without any prospect of work. I won’t say it was easy… because it wasn’t. But as I was still chipping away and working towards something, the scale of the pandemic hadn’t truly hit me yet.

Sooner or later, some work returned. I adapted and focused mostly on UK locations, and in my debut for the Telegraph, I wrote a love letter to Minehead, my annual childhood holiday. I also showcased my Brummie roots in The Independent, and for The Guardian I followed in the footsteps of both Tolkien and England’s last cave people.

Continuing to adapt, I tried to keep up with the muddled travel guidance and pitched timely pieces across the board. These tier-relevant pieces on Cornwall, Birmingham and Herefordshire were picked up by The Telegraph, while The Independent commissioned a piece on Birmingham’s hospitality plight.

Once international travel routes re-opened I was lucky enough to be able to fly again. Firstly, I wrote about why a trip to Tarragona was worth the quarantine. Incidentally, this was where I got that right good rollocking from a Spanish policeman. I didn’t catch everything he said, but I just about made out ‘estúpido’ and ‘Inglés’. Gracias, Spanish GCSE.

Perhaps the perfect example of how timely my travel pitches had to be came when the Canary Islands were finally given a travel corridor. News broke on a Thursday evening, I pitched an idea the next afternoon, and on Monday morning I was on a flight out of Heathrow for this postcard from Tenerife. Despite the last-minute nature, I managed to wangle a stay in this ludicrously elegant resort. I still think about the jacuzzi on my balcony. 

We’ve all had to work reactively this year, but it’s only now when everyone begins to wind down for Christmas that the wrath hits the hardest. Not only is Brexit looming, but much of the EU (and inevitably, the world) is closing its borders to UK travellers for the time being, which once again puts everything at risk.

I did have high hopes for a positive start to 2021. I’ve just confirmed two Caribbean commissions for January, but I’m now once again facing the prospect of my work being somewhat calamitously shelved at the time of year where I’m supposed to be enjoying some rare freelance downtime.

While there are undoubtedly rocky times ahead, I’m fortunate enough that myself and those close to me still have good health. This Christmas, my thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones, and those who are blocked from seeing their family due to the estúpido actions of this government. Each last-gasp announcement Boris and his cronies make continues to be met with incredulous disgust. Will they stoop even lower? Probably.

My thoughts are also firmly with those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. There are too many to list here, but for me personally, the loss of Sunday Times Travel Magazine was a real shame. Although I’d never written for them, it was the first travel magazine I read religiously. Absorbing such consistently incredible travel writing gave me the inspiration and confidence to one day be published too.

I’d like to wrap this up by personally thanking each and every commissioning editor and travel PR. This year has been one of the most challenging on record, but you have all gone above and beyond to ensure that freelancers have the commissions and the resources to do their jobs – thank you. 

Truthfully, 2021 may not be much better… but we’ll get through this at some point. I’ll try to enjoy the break, and I hope you all do too. 

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