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The State of the Contrarian Travel — The NEW CT Manifesto is Revised

Friday, March 21st, 2008

As is CT tradition, each year in mid-March, much like the celebration of Groundhog Day, the Alpha Contrarian deliver a review of the state of Contrarian Travel to other Contrarians. Here is an abridged version of his report.


It’s been a brutal and complicated year for contrarian travel. Many contrarians have called it “The Nightmare Year.” Others, such as Lael Powell-Rushing have been even more pessimistic. Last month, Lael suggested that 2007 is the beginning of the “Contrarian Travel Apocalypse.”

Reasons for pessimism are obvious: favorite destinations are being ruthlessly exposed at an alarming rate. In September of 2007, the New York Times runs a spectacularly detailed 2,000-plus word story about Yemen (a contrarian fave), complete with suggestions for hotels in and around Sanaa, as well as hikes and architectural history. Then, still in September, the Chicago Tribune splashes its cover page with a feature called “Biking through Yooper Land” — yes, that’s Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a spot near-and-dear to us, a spot breathtakingly free of tourists. Meanwhile, earlier that summer, the Washington Post ran stories about touring Greenland and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and worst, California’s Anza Borrego Desert State Park. And the Los Angeles Times puts Bhutan – yes, mfing Bhutan — on its cover.

It’s bittersweet. We’re excited. Yes, we were happy to learn about a crop of ski resorts in Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains. (We love Contrarian skiing in obscure mountain ranges in Eastern Europe) But we were troubled to learn about these resorts in the Time’s Travel section, along with a million other readers, including the same assholes who ski at Hunter Mountain that we’re trying to get away from.

The point: In 2007, it finally became undeniable. The mainstream travel press is contrarian. Sure, travel sections — from the Times to the Toledo Blade — have always been running stories about offbeat, quirky, adventures, but the difference is now it’s EVERY FRIGGIN WEEK, and the quirky story, once a 15 inch story buried on E-12, is now on the COVER.

Every week we pick up the Travel section with fear: what secret will they reveal next? What place will be ruined? Yes, winter is the best time to go to the Oregon Coast. YES, if you hunger for the authentic, tourist-less Russian experience, January — not June — is the time to go to St. Petersburg. Yes, a brilliant way to experience New York City is via water — kayaking and canoeing the city’s vast wildness.

It makes sense. The world is getting smaller,travel is getting easier; the proliferation of romantic road adventures stories, the popularity of adventure travel, the Rick Steves-ification (everyone wants an undiscovered Swiss Mountain retreat), the

shear numbers (you can’t write or visit the same place 50 times) are all conspiring to make the Contrarian approach mainstream.

End Result: It’s getting harder to be contrarian. Instead of being despondent, instead of mourning the good old days, instead of sitting around and waiting for the Travel Channel to destroy our favorite village in the northern Phillipines, we as Contrarians must simply adapt and get smarter. On Mar. 22nd at the CT’s annual convention — in Chokoloskee, Florida — the Alpha revealed his Updated Manifesto, which involves four keys admonishments.

The Contrarian Manifesto 3.0.

“If they zig, we must zag”
“If everyone is an obscurantist, we must be more obscurantist.”

First, we must go deeper, accept more inconvenience. We will continue to look for the obscure, the rarely visited, the tourist-free places. It’s going to be harder, but we will simply have to travel further, go to harder and harder to reach places. (Meaning: instead of satisficing ourselves with Novia Scotia on a tour through Canada’s Maritime Province, we must go further — we must take that ferry to Newfoundland.)

Second, we must accept more risk, aka the “Kenya Strategy.” When a SARS outbreak strikes Hong Kong, tourists vanish, hotel prices plummet. When a bomb explodes in central Nairobi, the Kenyan tourism industry is shattered. This is when we go on that safari of Masai National Park. Likewise, if a tsunami destroys the coast of northern Thailand, we return to Phuket, as soon as the hotels reopen, as soon as the International Red Cross he Thai government deems it safe and passable. We accept a higher degree of risk — because we loathe other tourists, and want to encounter places untrammeled by tourism, and we want cheaper prices.

Third, if people say it’s unpleasant, if “they” describe the place as loathsome (cold, unfriendly, boring, dirty, ugly, hostile, dangerous)) if it’s the “worst place in INSERT STATE COUNTRY, we must go. We will go to Gary, Indiana, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the oft-maligned bordertowns of the U.S Mexico border, and the notoriously unpleasant creations of the Soviet era in South Central Russia.

Fourth, secrets. OK. Listen, the CT is a cooperative. We’re a group of people who like to travel in a particular way. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that we have to keep a few secrets. (After telling fellow CTers about the joys of visiting Prague in January, rather than summer, we were dismayed to see that the New York Times ran a story telling the rest of the world that January was a great time to visit the Czech capital.) We’re not going to get creepy and 007 about our travel tips. BUT… we now know that we will need to create a special MEMBERS ONLY section. And if we can find the time, our tech guy, and UP Editor, Tim from Hurley, will help establish a system of vetting members.

We’re not going to charge anything, but we’re just going to ask CT members to sign a Contrarian Oath. (More on this later — in brief, it’s our set of contrarian travel principles)

Finally, we’re going to continue to value traveling over writing. Yes, we’ve been pretty slow this year about getting content up. Yes, we’ve heard plenty of complaints “where is the Gotham Guide!. When is the next Panhandle feature.” But again, as the Germans say: Reisen erste, später schreiben

English translation: “Travel first, write later.”

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