When it comes to secrets, the CIA has nothing on the travel biz. Even spooks don't trade secrets with more relish than the travel industry, or rather travel publishing.
Google 'travel' and 'secret' and out spew the predictable websites (travelsecrets.com, secretflying,com) and endless listicles on the best/top/incredible/essential/money-saving travel secrets. Years ago I wrote a book of travel tips. Sooooo 2003. We don't want tips these days, apparently, we want Essential Travel Secrets You Need To Know Before Your Trip (according to Vogue).
Travel writers the world over dish their 'best kept secrets', not to mention travel writers' secret tips on making it as a travel writer. Travellers, it seems, are obsessed with getting the inside track, the low-down, the skinny, the local. That's what distinguishes them from crass tourists.
Thing is, pretty much none of these secrets are secret.
Destinations too are not merely undiscovered or underappreciated, they're secret, dammit. This was brought home to me recently at the newsagents as I scanned a table of 'lavishly illustrated' books, published in Britain with the series title Best-Kept Secrets of...
The tome on Europe uncovers the little-known treasures of the Louvre, St Paul's Cathedral, Rialto Bridge and Budapest's Chain Bridge. Get there before the crowds! The book on Paris gives the skinny on secrets such as the Eiffel Tower, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Champs Elysees. Who knew?
Is it a mandatory rule in travel publishing to brand even the bleeding obvious a secret?
Even material aimed at locals playing tourist in their hometown lures us with 'secret' bars, clubs, laneways, shopping...
When I worked at Lonely Planet in the '90s, writers would agonise over whether to include that secluded Thai beach, that wonderful home-stay in Slovenia or the neighbourhood bar in Brooklyn, knowing that bringing more travellers would forever alter those places. But they never engaged in the conceit of calling their find a 'secret' since it was going in The Book. Secret no more.
Is 'secret' just mindless click-bait like the 'Exclusive!' tease on trash mags? Would we pass or scroll by if travel pieces were upfront about 'B Attractions' or 'Beloved Local Landmarks'? Does it pander to travellers' vanity of knowing supposedly hipper places? Of sourcing intel from the traveller grapevine?
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Some trade secrets -- on the mechanics and economics of travel -- might qualify for the tag. But when 'secret' is used slap-dash for any destination this side of Paris, it's a bust.
Last year a travel liftout ran an otherwise excellent piece on 'Europe's Best-Kept Secret.' That would be Poland. Can an entire country be a secret? A month later, another feature touted Italy's 'best-kept secret': its 'deep south'. And apparently much of Eastern Europe is one big secret. Gee, it's been there a while. Just because you never heard of Latvia, doesn't make it a secret.
A decade ago, we had the much-mocked bestseller The Secret. Clearly, travel publishers can't shake the law of attraction when it comes to the selling power of secrets. It's also more tactful to package places as 'secret', rather than imply your reader is a travel ignoramus.
That's the dirty little secret here.
Suzi Petkovski is a freelance writer who avoids like the plague travel books with 'my life', Tuscany or Provence in the title.
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