Travel and nature writer Jini Reddy surveys the freelance work prospects for those in her field, including how, when it comes to writers of colour, the Black Lives Matter protests have led to the start of welcome changes in the market.

Whether you write features or books, the recent uncertainty has been calamitous for many travel writers. Others are biding their time, taking stock and searching for new opportunities.

Full disclosure: the last time I was a bona fide globe trotting freelance travel features writer was about four years ago. Since then I’ve written two books in the genre, both with a UK focus. My latest, Wanderland, for Bloomsbury, about my search for magic in the landscape, was published in the UK in April, at the start of lockdown. Lucky me! Silver lining though: I’m now proficient in Zoom, don’t bat an eyelash when invited to guest on podcasts, have made friends with a number of independent booksellers and have learned more about book marketing on the hoof than I’d ever have imagined possible.

In between researching and writing my books, I was commissioned to write features on just a handful of non-UK destinations, namely Namibia, South Africa, New Zealand, Greece and Iceland. Much as I’ve loved exploring and writing about UK landscapes recently, I do believe that travel further afield brings greater insight into and connection with global cultures and communities, and the challenges people on the other side of the world face – challenges often arising from the actions we take here in the West. Given the climate crisis, and the impact of carbon-emission spewing flights, these sorts of trips will need to be rationed in future, further impacting on restless travel writers – and local hosts across the world.

So while I only dabble now when it comes to travel features, I share the concerns and anxieties of many of my pals who work in this area full-time. For example, I am currently developing a new book idea and it involves long-haul travel. The international airport in one of the countries concerned remains closed, and a second country is prohibiting all international and domestic travel except for work purposes. What to do? I’m adapting the idea, sitting tight and hoping and praying that the situation will improve. Meantime I’m promoting my current book, coaching aspiring non-fiction narrative writers, hopefully netting a few feature and travel commissions, working up a pitch for a book column and, together with a producer friend, a pitch for a radio programme.

I do believe that travel further afield brings greater insight into and connection with global cultures and communities and the challenges people on the other side of the world face

But what of my fellow scribes? Katie Monk is a freelance travel writer and self-published author of There She Goes, a guide to solo female travel. She says she’s stopped pitching features altogether for the moment, citing too many unknowns. “I’ve pivoted to copy-writing, PR, and alternative therapies to help people deal with anxiety and stress,” she says. Her advice for travel writers? “If you don’t already have a blog, now is a good time to start one. Same goes with a book.”

Writer and author Dixe Wills says work “pretty much fell off a cliff” during the pandemic. He has had to postpone all the trips he had planned for from April to June. What’s more, he says: “None of the newspaper articles that were set to run over that period did so, which meant I didn’t get paid for them (I will eventually of course). I also had a meeting with a publisher postponed for a couple of months, so that also slowed things down on the book writing front.” He is still pitching though. “The vast majority of what I write is UK-based and involves a lot of being outdoors by oneself or in a small group, so it is a natural fit for our times.” He suggests travel writers think local: “Even though that seems the antithesis of ‘travel’ writing.”

Many editors – those who haven’t been furloughed or lost their jobs – have had their budgets slashed and are facing the same uncertainties as the rest of us. Liz Edwards, a travel commissioning editor at The Times and The Sunday Times says that while opportunities are few, she still welcomes pitches. “The stories we’re running now might not quite be our usual line-up, but there’s plenty of variety – first-person pieces, opinion, interviews, human interest stories – and my advice would be pretty similar to normal. We’re looking for strong ideas, outlined in tight pitches that tell me what the angle is, where it might fit in either section, and why you’re the writer for the job. One difference might be that we’re not planning very far ahead, so I’m more interested in stories that work in the short term.”

It’s a similar scenario over at The Guardian: “We are still commissioning, though there’s less space and budget at the moment,” says travel editor Jane Dunford. “Pitches with strong angles, particularly on less explored areas, and stories about travel opening up after lockdown and what holidays look like now are of interest. Our focus is primarily on the UK and other destinations in Europe that will be welcoming UK travellers – specifically places you can reach by rail. We’re keen to commission writers from more diverse backgrounds, to share more voices and wider range of experiences of travel.”

If you’re a person of colour, travel in the wake of a pandemic throws up unique challenges. The brandishing of ‘un-welcome’ signs, and confused messaging from UK counties and countries abroad has already set alarm bells ringing. I personally feel hesitant and anxious about travelling to a degree that I haven’t previously. How will I be received? Will I be welcome? It’s a familiar refrain for many of us, wherever we may be in the world. And until recently these are not concerns we’ve felt able to air in the travel media.

If you’re a writer of colour, now is most definitely the time to pitch that feature you’ve had on the back burner.

But that has changed. The Black Lives Matter protests have had a seismic impact on travel media, shining a spotlight on the dearth of features by writers who are Black, Asian and from other marginalised backgrounds. Equally there’s been a focus on the lack of representation among commissioning staff and within the industry more broadly. The issue of travel beyond the white gaze has, interestingly, begun to open up opportunities, and the chance to share the unique insights and challenges writers hitherto not in demand bring to the table.

There has now been a spate of features looking at this issue from all angles: the need to diversify voices and content, the tourism industry more broadly, and among the explorer community. Here’s hoping we’re looking at a new dawn, and not a merely a brief respite from business as usual. If you’re a writer of colour, now is most definitely the time to pitch that feature you’ve had on the back burner.

Meera Dattani wrote a piece on decolonising travel for The Telegraph and has realised this is a theme she wants to focus on: “I’ve plenty of ideas and I’m considering who best to pitch them to.” She is resolutely upbeat despite recently losing her job as editor of digital adventure magazine – she is now also looking for a part-time role as an editor. Given the travel restrictions and the inevitable shrinking of budgets, she’s willing to consider a job outside of travel writing. “I had so much passion for my previous job, so whatever I take on next needs to be something I care about, and which pays decently.”

As for myself, a Guardian feature I wrote recently looked at how book publishing is increasingly welcoming diverse voices, where exploration of landscape, place and travel are concerned. As someone who was born in Britain and raised in Montreal by Indian parents who grew up in South Africa, this is good news, and I think there is cause for optimism. Travel writing in book form is broadening to include memoirs of exile, displacement and returning; explorations of identity and belonging, along with nature narratives of all kinds. As one agent I spoke to said: “Publishing is now having to take a good, hard look at itself and make changes; and that goes for travel too.”

Travel writing in book form is broadening to include memoirs of exile, displacement and returning; explorations of identity and belonging, along with nature narratives of all kinds.

My own sense is that the more stereotypical ‘hero lit’ travelogues, often guilty of ‘othering’ local people and turning natural landscapes into a mere backdrop for their adventuring process are on their way out – and not a moment too soon. This fills me with hope for the genre and for aspiring authors.

We all just have to hold our nerve, take a leap of faith and hope 2021 will see us return to doing what we love best: getting back on the road, a rucksack or suitcase in tow, and a notebook in hand.

Jini Reddy has a passion for writing on travel, nature and spirituality. She has written widely for national newspapers and magazines in the UK and her new book, Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape (Bloomsbury) was published in April. It was recently longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. Her first book, Wild Times: Extraordinary Experiences Connecting with Nature in Britain (Bradt Travel Guides) came out in 2016 and won the book prize at the British Guild of Travel Writers Awards in 2017.