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Sixteen times round the world

7 November 2010

I had the privilege last weekend to meet Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News and a legendary figure in travel journalism. I was in Jordan and he’d stopped in for a couple of days – he did outline his week at one point: it ran something like Tokyo, New York, Amman, Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York again, Manila, Bangkok, Las Vegas… and I gathered that that was a pretty normal week for him (I may have got some of those cities wrong, but the gist is there). I asked if any of that was just exploratory travel, or if it was all pursuing stories: he said it was 100% the latter. That takes travelling ‘on assignment’ to a new level. In amongst other conversation – and I don’t think I’m breaking a confidence here – he mentioned that he does 420,000 miles a year.

I like the “20”. Makes me wonder: if you get to 400,000 miles in a year, do you notice the extra 20? I mean, does it drag, like the last section of a climb, or does it just sail by like all the rest?

It has to be said, though. Despite that mind-bending figure – well over 1,000 miles every single day, on average, or the annual equivalent of more than sixteen times around the Earth – it’s small beer for some. This guy Tom Stuker does more than half as much again, rather like the George Clooney character in the movie Up In The Air.

But Greenberg looked great on it. Lovely guy, really easy to talk to, very down to earth (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). He told me he never travels with checked luggage: at any one time, he has half a dozen suitcases in transit with Fedex, tracking him around the world, so they’re always there – wherever ‘there’ is – when he is. He has six houses in various countries, so if he sees something he wants to own, he buys six of them, keeps one with him and Fedexes the other five.

What struck me most, though, was that someone who is pretty much a household name in America could walk down the street in London without a glance. No disrespect to Greenberg, but despite his eminent status – and everyday prominence – he’s not just virtually unknown in Britain; I’d say he’s completely unknown. Simon Calder, Britain’s nearest equivalent to Greenberg in terms of being a serious investigative travel journalist who is perpetually on the go, could similarly (no disrespect again intended) walk down the street in NYC in peace and quiet, I’d guess.

That says a lot about this very strange industry, by definition global and outward looking, but in practice completely insular and market-restricted. US travel – its history, its direction, its favourite destinations, its preoccupations, its style – has extraordinarily little in common with, say, British travel. And British travel has got virtually nothing to do with French travel or Spanish travel, which are completely different again from Israeli, Korean or South African travel.

On the cusp of World Travel Market – one of the biggest annual events in the travel industry, which starts tomorrow in London and absorbs huge amounts of attention among travel professionals – it seems obvious to me that there is no travel industry, at least not globally. Every market is talking to itself. Although the customers are thinking about anywhere but home, for the professionals every scrap of attention is focused on what ‘home’ does.

And that goes for travel journalism, too. It’s delicious: the most determinedly global, outward-looking, cosmopolitan branch of journalism is in fact the most parochial of the lot. Travel journalism obsesses about domestic trends. Celeb gossip, business news, sport and fashion are all far more global than travel could ever be. They, at least, speak to the world.

Good on Greenberg; long may he keep flying. Journalists with his depth of knowledge, dedication and expertise are rare. This odd little business needs him.

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