Have fun at all coasts.
Since I couldn’t come up with any suggestion or tip, I decided to tweet clever to a friend who recently completed a 1000-km coastal drive from Chennai to Rameswaram. He, also the travel editor with a leading web publication, was giving live updates on his site as well as on Twitter. Readers could send in comments, feedback and advice with the designated hashtag. While I did keep an infrequent tab, what really caught my goat was the nature of the trip – its dynamics, the immense interactivity and the unabashed capability of the exercise to be a crowd puller and pleaser. What had me pinching chin was also the travellers’ increasing willingness – even enthusiasm – to see places through the eyes of others. What was once considered sacrosanct in travel – the ‘me-and-my’ space had become ‘mine-and-yours’ and everybody else’s domain.
I had heard about Twitrips – trips where you are guided around a city purely through suggestions you receive over Twitter – a few years ago but quickly dismissed it as a twerp thing: after all, who would set out not knowing where to go; and once you reached, not know what to do. Heard of something really enjoyable and eye-opening like ‘ask the locals’?
Then Emma Dance herself was a true blue local. Even then, it took a Twitrip for the journalist to discover her native Bath like she had never before. She was part of a group of travellers, bloggers and social media addicts who were let loose by a PR firm to possibly uncover previously unknown faces and facets if the historic town. Each member of the group was assigned a different thing to do and Emma decided to see her city through the eyes of a tourist. Setting off armed with her phone and a guide map she was overwhelmed by how complete strangers chipped in valuable suggestions and advice. She started off with the ‘best breakfast’ she ever had – from the café just round the corner where she lived! Based on another suggestion, she took an open top bus ride around Bath – something which she had never done and never suspected to be so enjoyable. Somebody also directed her to the Roman baths after which the town was named – a historic place she hadn’t visited since her schooldays. At the end of the day trip Emma claims that the ‘tourist’s perspective really opened her eyes to what a beautiful city she lived in.’ She was pleasantly awaken from the complacency of seeing the beautiful city every day and humbled by the care, pride and the enthusiasm of her fellow residents.
Twitrips may not be so emotionally moving for everybody but definitely is catching on; even two years ago when Benji Lanyado of The Guardian newspaper kicked off the trend there were no dearth of followers. Readers and non-readers alike flocked in tweeting tips and directions. His visit to Krakow in Poland was aided by several thousand suggestions and many more followed him around the enchanted town, through the Renaissance arcades and Baroque spires. This exercise in ‘social travel’ became nothing short of iconic. Spurred by the cult popularity it enjoyed, the newspaper set off on its third instalment of ‘reader assisted road trip’ through the United States in June this year through many trips including a 1000-mile stretch from Austin in Texas to Albuquerque in New Mexico.
At the onset of the journey, Guardian staff writer Katie Rogers gushed ‘I’ll be tooting around Austin, kicking off on 24 June and I’ll wind up in Albuquerque by 28 June. In between these two key destinations, there’s plenty of desert (and desserts), a colourful assortment of small towns…and a huge amount of driving. The 1,030 mile route I’m hoping to cover is ambitious but is designed to provide insight into one of the most distinct – and perhaps misunderstood – stretches of American landscape.’
The hashtagged suggestions began rolling in:
‘Go to the rural rodeo and talk to a bull rider who has been on the circuit for awhile.’
‘Check out the courthouses in the small towns.’
And Katie made a discovery even as she marked the beginning of her journey: “The Texans are all deeply proud of their weird and wonderful state.”
As expected (or suspected), at the root of these pioneering Twitrips is commerce. This one in June was part of ‘Discover America’ campaign by The Guardian in association with Brand USA which was one of the newspaper’s largest brand partnerships, covered across platforms, focusing on arts, culture, music and of course, Americana. Who is complaining, anyway – it is a win-win for everybody. For the newspaper: “Twitrips have proved to be extremely popular with our audience. To be able to adapt this concept for a commercial partner whilst simultaneously activating our network of global readers is hugely exciting,” according to the news entity’s commercial officer. For America: “The main objectives of Brand USA are to rekindle holidaymakers’ love affair with America…positioning it as a diverse destination still to be explored,” said Brand USA CEO. For the reader: “The road trips were brilliant. The Guardian should try an Australian one next to tie in with the Australian edition,” commented one reader and ardent follower ‘trimphone.’
With everybody content there has to be no toll at all. But it might be a tad too early to conclude so. “Guidebooks will soon be redundant,” a good friend warned me. I say a ‘good friend’ because I am working on a few guidebooks myself. Then, will Twitrips really sound the death knell of guidebooks? Yes, I see the excitement in hitting a strange town with absolutely no idea of what to see, where to eat or sleep; it’s an ultimate traveller fantasy – imagining yourself as a modern day Ibn Battuta. Then if I were to tweet a suggestion to somebody on a Twitrip to Delhi, it would be the art galleries and the eateries in Old Delhi. I asked my wife Minu where her suggestions would go and it was ‘India Habitat Centre and Hauz Khas village.’ While I am good with the first one, the second I believe is a tourist trap; at least for the overpriced ‘theme’ restaurants where the theme is restricted to the décor and an unpronounceable menu. Do you see what I mean? You, Twitripper, will still need a guidebook to tell you about the Red Fort and the Raj Ghat.
There is also the all-important issue of connectivity. Although India is the second largest user of mobile phones in the world, smart phone stats are dismal. A Nielsen survey pegs it at less than 30 million or just 10 per cent of mobile phone users in urban India. My dear ‘good friend’ even if smart phones eventually become an extension of every urban hand, Twitrips will remain a niche community act at best fostering closeness and pride. Might also activate readers and re-invigorate wanderlust.
And one new way to trip.
(All images are Googled as per requirement; in case of any copyright infringement, do let me know. I shall be happy to replace it.)