The United Nations

The World Travel Market is an enormous convention at which parts of the planet attempt to sell themselves to other parts of the planet. Journalists moan about having to attend every year – and they should. The decks of business cards, the seething, snearing salesmanship, the awful catch phrases that sound like they’re from a shit Chanel No 5 ad (Turkey: Unlimited)... all of it is a reminder of how corrupted travel writing has become. Everything says: you need us, because we need you; if you say the things you want us to say, we’ll buy adverts from you and you’ll keep your job for a while longer. Few people will admit it, but the spirit of travel, exploration and adventure have little place at this kind of thing.
When I arrive to the Excel Centre, it’s a crisp, clear autumnal morning, muddied only by 200 or so little plumes rising from smokers standing outside. Long before a national dress is spotted, this artificial fog is a sign of the cosmopolitan crowd, as are the ruined toilets, already squalid by 10am.
Inside the cavernous building, the nations are grouped by continent. For the first hour or so, I wander aimlessly, marvelling that the Bahrainis and Iraqis have turned up, and trying to find the stand of every country I’ve visited. Few of them promote the things Wee Mo and I found great when there, but like I say – this is about sales and angles. Still, I swipe a free coffee from the Colombians, and a bit of zesty quinoa from the Bolivians, and stand staring for too long at one obscenely glamorous Argentinian woman, always ready to run away should she meet my gaze.
This is the WTM at its best – part perving session, part anthropological study. Go to the vast Indian section and listen to men snort and cough as though they’re trying to inhale a snooker ball; go to the African section and feel your soul lift when watching a Ghanaian smile; slink past the Scottish stand and watch the bamboozlement of Japanese visitors on seeing a Scottish-Indian in full Highland dress. Or watch the Thai girls titter with embarrassment when a 6’4” German with electric blue eyes catches them looking at him; and try to ignore the bloated Turk as he makes up lascivious questions for a French beauty.
But, generally, people-watching is fun. Talking can be too, especially you find someone who speaks the truth, whether it’s one of the pretty Scandinavian girls, or one of the passionate Greeks, and especially when it’s a bubbly (!) happy (!) Russian (!!!). In fact, I think the only person I don’t enjoy talking to is one particular American.
Generally, the attitude towards journalists at the WTM is one of patient acceptance. Those manning the booths won’t sign any six-figure contracts with us; we may even end up costing them money. Any benefits we bring to their companies will be difficult to measure, but somehow there’s still a vague belief that we could review them negatively – smash them down and eviscerate them in print (even though in reality, because of the reliance on advertising and PR schmoozing, that would never, ever happen). So they placate us, smile, give us cards, tell our people to talk to their people and warn that a rock-solid commission will have to be in place before anything will happen.
I meet this particular American on a Floridian stand, and we spend the first couple of minutes shooting the shit in that slightly distrusting, disinterested way. He starts telling me about a cliff somewhere in the Deep South where, at nights, they project faces of Civil War heroes of the Confederacy – the southern side, y’know, the racist one. General Lee and all the good old boys go up there, because who doesn’t want to commemorate pro-slavery martyrs once in a while?
(None of them are the American in question)
Nicholson Baker wrote in The Mezzanine that there are two ways to get out of a piece of small talk – a joke or a piece of useful information. It’s a couple of days before the US Presidential election, so I opt for the former. “Well, depending on how the vote goes, there could be another civil war brewing by the end of the week,” I say, turning on my heel to leave.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me straight away, but someone who extols the virtues of watching a pro-slavery laser show isn’t all that keen on having a black president for another four years. And so I find myself locked in a Republican Thunderdome for the best part of 15 minutes, occasionally asking questions of his illogical views. Troubling though it might be, at least the crazy bastard is being honest. I toy with the idea of telling him: you’re here to promote America, but you can have no better salesman than Barack Obama, the world fucking loves him and is desperate for him to be re-elected; if the man with the magic pants gets in, people will like your country less and you will earn less money. But I have neither the balls nor the patience for it, so I slope off as soon as I can in the hopes of doing a bit of Actual Work.
In the not too distant future, there may or may not come a time when I start writing about European city breaks. Given how much I’ve travelled over the last four years, it’s a subject about which I know embarrassingly little. To clue myself up, I decide to hit the European section with a simple question: what is the best thing about your city?
As soon as the words leave my mouth, you can see the poor dears’ brains being torn assunder. On one hand, they want to make a genuine recommendation – to speak up for what they love. On the other, they’re under strict instructions from their superiors to push this or that. Some people seem to act honestly: a rep from Madrid says “food markets” before I’ve even finished the question; the cheery Russian recommends Muscovite battle re-enactments which sound wonderfully insane and not in the least profitable.
But others, well, they just can’t stop doing their job. A fat-necked Croat piously lists everything there is to do in Zagreb; a Swiss lady with expensive glasses delivers a sales-pitch with all the passion and flair of a cash machine; a nerdy, dark-haired Dutch girl thinks hard for a second, seemingly on the brink of saying something worthwhile, something true, before capitulating and telling me about a new museum.
Around the Excel centre, hands are shaken, business cards exchanged and secret smiles elicited. Deals are done, others cancelled; an overwhelming number of false promises are tossed around like confetti. As the afternoon drags on, so the madness increases along with my desire to leave. A couple of Arabs leave their stand to have a wild, gesticulating argument in the main foyer. A Spaniard, apparently important in some way, is trailed by film crew, his path bulldozed by a frantic PA. Once in a while someone – I never quite know who – walks past, trailed closely by the soup-thick stench of booze.
“Finally,” I think to myself, “Some honesty.”