Writing is a lifelong passion that has evolved from being a hobby to my bread and butter – with a generous sprinkling of icing sugar!

But while I’m first and foremost a writer, choosing to narrow the scope down to travel writing is something quite new for me.

As a journalist, I’ve covered a myriad of stories from my travels – some for print, some for radio – but the main difference is a conscious commitment to the art and ethics of travel writing.

Jose Horte

Interview with José Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor (2007-2012)

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC's "Fun Taiwan" in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC’s “Fun Taiwan” in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Whether to call myself a “travel writer” is something I grappled with for a year. After I returned from a one-year sabbatical to travel the world and publish a book, I had a knowing that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

But many questions arose for me: Is it too niche? Are there enough publications out there to buy my work? How will I fund my travels? Do I continue to write for other genres? What if I want to share my travel stories on other platforms like radio or online podcasts?

These were questions I did not have answers for. Even when I left my full-time job as a Senior Producer with Channel NewsAsia, and delved into this as a full-time freelancer, I still did not have a clarity as to what I was meant to do.

And perhaps, therein lies the problem.

I was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, the question is not “what am I meant to do?” but “what do I really want to do?” I did not dare ask that. I didn’t feel like I had a right to.

But I’ve come to a space where I realise that being a travel writer is not about fitting into a pre-set mould, but doing what I’m really good at and passionate about. It’s a niche that I can define and carve out for myself, based on my own strengths, passions and experience.

I learnt this only when I put a pause on life, dropped everything, and headed to Melbourne to attend the Australian Festival of Travel Writing. It was a meeting of minds, a gathering of travel writers from around the world, and those aspiring to be travel writers who were hungry to learn.

Birds of a feather flock together – so the adage goes. But the flock isn’t quite as homogeneous, as I’d soon find out.

AFTW handout

One thing I realised – to my delight – is that while travel writing is just one genre of writing, there are many subsets within this genre!

The panel discussions over the weekend saw a most varied line-up of guidebook writers from Lonely Planet, authors of travel books (from fiction to French wines), academics who had written stories of migrant identity, journalists and foreign correspondents etc.

Travel writing encompasses commercial or service writing (e.g. paid reviews), academic writing (e.g. with sociological slant), news & journalism, culture & heritage, travel fiction, travelogues, travel memoirs, lifestyle etc. It was mind-blowing!

AFTW panel sessions

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, you need a niche festival like this to bring out the diversity within the genre. If it were a generic writers’ festival, all these differences would be lost because travel writing would be regarded as one genre.

At the Singapore Writer’s Festival last year, I sat on a travel writing panel too – as a featured speaker – with Pico Iyer. There was just one panel on travel writing, and that was us. I don’t think we represented the diverse nature of this genre at all.

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer - Singapore Writer's Festival 2012

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer – Singapore Writer’s Festival 2012

At the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, some panel discussions made me snooze, others made me sit up and listen with a pounding heart.

By the end of that weekend, I was more aware of what I naturally gravitated towards and what I did not really fancy doing.

For one, I will never be a guidebook writer.

It does not thrill me to be the first to find a cheap hostel with hot-water showers, or to recommend a list of “authentic” local eateries for backpackers to try. I am not interested to sell my soul to review a ski or spa package because someone paid me to. And much as I consider myself a die-hard foodie, I don’t think I’d want to focus solely on food and restaurants on my world travels.

I am a storyteller with a grounding in journalism. I want to tell real stories.

And while my wildly idealistic self was somewhat tamed by travel writers I admire (namely Rolf Potts, author of “Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-Term World Travel”), I still believe this will remain the core of what I choose to do.


Rolf Potts in Machu Picchu

I will probably still do commercial writing, go on media junkets, write food stories and resort reviews, and maybe even pitch for a gig with Lonely Planet, but they will be conscious decisions I make to make a living out of doing what I love.

In essence, I see myself as a travel journalist; as essentially a writer… who travels.

For now, that alone is clear. Enough.

During my week in Melbourne, I took away many other important lessons. I will write about them as they settle, then rise to the surface. Stay tuned. xo