TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice


Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, by quiquefepe

My dear readers, today’s post is about the travel blogging industry. I think some of you would find it to be an interesting read, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to check out my Best of the Blog page. 

On Saturday at the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) conference in Huntsville, Alabama, it was announced that the first TBEX Africa will take place in July 2018.

It will take place in Harare, Zimbabwe, to be exact. And the primary sponsor will be the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, a government-run organization.

Holy shit. TBEX actually entered a business partnership with Robert Mugabe’s government.

Background: TBEX is not representative of the whole travel blogging industry.

TBEX is the largest travel blogging conference. A few different conferences are held in different parts of the world each year — generally one in North America, one in Europe, and one somewhere else. And because they’re so big, they tend to dominate the industry.

I’ve attended one TBEX, in Girona in the Costa Brava region of Spain in 2012. It was a fantastic experience, but that was more due to Jaume Marin and the team at Costa Brava Tourism, who have long been leaders in creating innovative marketing campaigns for travel bloggers. (I mean, they threw a party in a castle with a “ham room” filled with jamon iberico! Yeah. That had nothing to do with TBEX; that was all Costa Brava.)

TBEX is only interested in making money; they have zero interest in bettering the travel blogging industry. Because of this, most of their conferences are geared toward beginner bloggers. I call it “churning and burning newbies.” They’re the easiest to convince to buy a ticket; it’s easier to build a conference around the needs of beginners. Most of the talks are geared to beginning topics on SEO, Instagram, freelance writing, and the like.

And while the sessions haven’t changed much since 2012 (though newer platforms like Snapchat and Pinterest now have a presence), the demographics at TBEXes have changed a lot. Few long-time professional bloggers attend anymore; if they attend, it’s usually because they’re giving a talk. Nowadays, many of the people who attend TBEX haven’t even started a blog yet. Isn’t that crazy? I can’t wrap my head around that.

The watering down of TBEX has been bad for the industry. As the quality of the attendees goes down, the quality of would-be sponsors and industry attendees goes down, the work the newbies produce isn’t as good and doesn’t get as wide an audience, and because TBEX is such a big conference, this sends the message that travel blogging is ineffective and not worth it.

These are the reasons why I am no longer involved with TBEX, but it gets much worse.

TBEX has been under fire over the past few years.

The first major controversy was prior to the Cancun conference in 2014. One of the post-conference activities was swimming with dolphins kept in captivity, an activity that is cruel to the dolphins.

Many bloggers protested TBEX; 2,300 bloggers signed a petition asking them to remove the dolphin tours. And it worked. TBEX eventually removed the dolphin tours, but only after a major outcry.

The second major controversy was when TBEX selected Bangkok as their first Asian conference location in 2015. Almost every travel blogger has been to Thailand; plenty of travel bloggers have even lived there. I love it there, too.

But the hosting partner for this conference was the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a government organization, and Thai government has a long history of prosecuting journalists. While Thailand has never had free speech, the 2014 coup took a turn for the worst, when the constitution was suspended and any protections for freedom of expression were eliminated. By attending a government-sponsored event as media, the bloggers could have been putting themselves in danger.

The next uproar came when the 2016 Asian conference was hosted in Manila by Philippines Tourism, a government organization. President Rodrigo Duterte rode to the presidency on a promise to end drug crime by murdering all drug criminals, and these murders have been carried out at an alarming rate.

Additionally, the Philippines is also a dangerous country for journalists. 78 have been killed since 1992, most of the journalists focusing on crime or corruption. Duterte himself once said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”

And finally, the venue for TBEX International in 2017 was revealed: Jerusalem. A bit of a controversial destination, no matter how you look at it. And while it branded itself as an opportunity to explore both Israeli and Palestinian cultures, the main sponsor was the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which is an organization that condones the occupation of Palestine.

Shit hit the fan in late 2016 when it was revealed that TBEX wasn’t paying its employees and contractors.

Deborah Ng, former conference director of BlogWorld and New Media Expo, which acquired TBEX in 2012, posted a revealing account on Medium. In short, she and several other people were not paid for the work they did.

You can read the whole saga here. Here’s a taste:

“Around the time I left, I learned there was a long line of people waiting to be paid by BlogWorld/NMX/TBEX. I heard of tax liens, garnished bank accounts, bounced checks, and lawsuits…Since the owner didn’t respond to emails, Skypes, texts or calls, I sent an email around to the entire team letting them know I quit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later? — when he made a rare appearance on a team call — ?that the owner learned I was gone.”

The owner, Rick Calvert, later admitted to everything in Ng’s piece:

“It is true that we owed Deb money when she left NMX and it is true we still do.”

Ng received the last of money she was owed in January 2017, years after it was due:

“Management is telling TBEX sponsors and attendees that they’re all caught up with their debts. This isn’t true. I know people who are still waiting to get paid.”

As someone who has done a lot of freelancing over the years, I know this: freelancers time their work contracts and payments carefully so they’ll have money to cover their bills and expenses at all times. When you miss a payment to a freelancer, you throw the whole system off and force them to dip into their savings — if they have enough in their savings. Many freelancers don’t make much, especially if they’re starting out or in a creative field.

There was one time in 2013 when I was down to $200 in my bank account and was owed more than $9,000 from companies that hadn’t paid me on time for various reasons.

It’s bad enough not to pay someone on time, but it’s especially cruel to do so to someone who makes a non-salaried living.

Kennedy Vlei, Zimbabwe, by Jason Wharam

What’s wrong with the Zimbabwean government, anyway?

The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is often cited as one of the worst dictators of the past century. Zimbabwe has terrible human rights abuses and a dreadful record on free speech.

On human rights violations:

“The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s 2013 constitution. It has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. Police use excessive force to crush dissent, and violate the basic rights of civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and government opponents. Widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains. President Mugabe has undermined the independence of the judiciary and of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) through verbal assaults on the two institutions.” —Human Rights Watch

On Mugabe murdering his way to reelection in 2008:

“In May, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced the presidential vote results, confirming that Tsvangirai secured 47.9%, to Mugabe’s 43.2%. As neither candidate secured 50%, a run-off vote was scheduled. Mugabe saw his defeat as an unacceptable personal humiliation. He deemed it a victory for his Western, and in particular British, detractors, whom he believed were working with Tsvangirai to end his political career. ZANU-PF claimed that the MDC had rigged the election.

After the election, Mugabe’s government deployed its ‘war veterans’ in a violent campaign against Tsvangirai supporters. Between March and June 2008, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed. There were reports of women affiliated with the MDC being subjected to gang rape by Mugabe supporters. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were internally displaced by the violence. These actions brought international condemnation of Mugabe’s government. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about the violence, which was also unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council, which declared that a free and fair election was ‘impossible’. 40 senior African leaders — among them Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jerry Rawlings — signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence.

In response to the violence, Tsangirai pulled out of the run-off. In the second round, Mugabe was pronounced victor with 85.5% of the vote, and immediately re-inaugurated as President. —Wikipedia

Zimbabwe has a bad record on freedom of speech. This is how they deal with it on the digital end:

“In April [2016], President Mugabe threatened to introduce laws to restrict access to the internet.

In August, in response to the rising discontent expressed on social media, the authorities introduced a draft bill on Computer and Cyber Crimes to curb anti-government criticism. The bill had not become law by the end of the year.

During a national stay-away on 6 July in protest against corruption, fronted by the social media movement #ThisFlag, social media apps such as WhatsApp were shut down by the government.” —Amnesty International

And let’s throw in some LGBT rights violations, too:

“Laws passed in 2006 criminalize any actions perceived as homosexual. The Zimbabwean government has made it a criminal offense for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss. The ‘sexual deviancy’ law is one of 15 additions to Zimbabwe’s Criminal Code quietly passed in Parliament. The sections involving gays and lesbians are part of an overhaul of the country’s sodomy laws. Before then, laws against sodomy were limited to sexual activity, and the revised law now states that sodomy is any ‘act involving contact between two males that would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act.’” —Wikipedia

In short, TBEX has chosen to partner with the government of a brutal dictator.

Bravo, TBEX. You’ve really outdone yourself here.

It’s not safe to host travel blogging conferences in countries that are hostile to journalists.

I never identify myself as a blogger, journalist, or member of the media when entering a country that is hostile to journalists. The reason is that I value my life and I’m not going to give them any reason to watch me.

But TBEX goes further — these conferences openly identify bloggers to the government as members of the media.

I’ll be honest: I worried during the entire TBEX in Bangkok that one of my friends would be reported to the police for saying something negative about the king. That’s what Thailand is like nowadays. When you’re living in a military dictatorship and you’re already identified as media, you never know who’s watching.

This goes back to my point that TBEX does not care about the travel blogging industry. If they actually cared about the industry and bloggers themselves, they would not host conferences in Thailand, Philippines, and Zimbabwe, where journalists are routinely murdered for writing negatively about the government.

That’s kind of a basic requirement, don’t you think?

But doesn’t tourism help locals?

Yes. When done the right way, tourism helps locals a lot, especially in countries with corrupt governments. Tourism strengthens economies, allows financial independence, and educates locals about the outside world. And that includes Zimbabwe. I want people to travel independently to Zimbabwe.

That said, when you attend a travel blogging conference, you’re not an independent traveler — you’re essentially a marketing consultant hired to promote their destination. And when you’re being hosted by the government, they are only allowing you to see what they want to see. When it’s a corrupt government in charge of your trip, they will likely only show you places that give them the most financial kickbacks.

The reason why travel blogging conference tickets are much cheaper than in other industries — tickets to TBEX Africa are literally only $97 right now — is because you’re expected to promote the host organization. Nobody is holding a gun to your head, but the host expects you to do so.

Professional bloggers generally provide accurate, truthful coverage of a host destination that isn’t too whitewashed. But newer, less experienced bloggers tend to write glowing accounts, thinking that it’s their duty because they got a “free” trip.

Also, a tidbit: the one time an organization ever asked me for more coverage was after my one and only TBEX trip in Spain. One hotel in Costa Brava felt insulted that I hadn’t written a fawning post exclusively about their property. It doesn’t work that way.

“As a tourist, you have a certain amount of control over where your money goes, using your own judgment calls. That’s theory, and practice may be tricky, but there’s more freedom there to do the right thing — partly because you’re a consumer, too, not a state-funded temporary consultant for the country’s marketing team. That’s supposed to be one of the great things about travel blogging — the freedom to sneak in, make your own mind up and write what you think and feel — and act according to your values as a traveler. Two kinds of freedom: one about strategic spending power, one about bias. Both are personal calls.” –Mike Sowden, Fevered Mutterings

In short, at TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe, participants will only be seeing what Mugabe wants them to see.

Would I visit Zimbabwe as an independent traveler? Yes, I would. (Though writing this post has probably put me on a list somewhere. Ugh.) I would spend my travel dollars close to the ground and learn as much as possible so I could have a well-rounded experience.

I wouldn’t dream of working for Mugabe and the Zimbabwean government.

How to Travel Ethically and Independently

Some people will argue whether it’s ethical to visit Zimbabwe. Yes, money from visas and taxes goes to the government no matter what, but it’s a small amount compared to what you can give to locals. I think that it can be done, and almost anywhere can be, if you make an effort to travel as sustainably as possible. Here are some ways to do so:

Research extensively in advance. Read up on the country’s history, politics, and environmental issues and use that information to illuminate your trip. Don’t show up clueless and unaware.

Visit on your own dime. Pay your own way. If you’re a blogger, don’t ask for comps at small family-owned places.

Spend your money, at small, locally owned businesses. Avoid major chains and international properties.

Buy from the source when possible. If local jewelry is popular in a place you’re visiting, buy from a local artist rather than a gift shop. (That necklace I’m wearing above was purchased directly from a Xhosa artist on the Eastern Cape of South Africa who took my hands and thanked me for buying directly from her instead of from a shop.)

Spread your money among as many businesses as possible. Don’t book tours through your hotel; book direct through the tour operator. Don’t buy all your souvenirs from one vendor; buy from several vendors.

Be kind to animals and the environment. Never ride an elephant. Never take part in activities with animals in captivity. Produce the least amount of waste possible and don’t waste water or energy.

Engage with the locals you meet. Don’t just talk to your waiter when you need another drink — have a full conversation. Rather than just taking, taking, taking, use conversations as an opportunity to exchange.

If you’re a blogger, write comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched posts. Be especially sensitive in developing countries, countries where the locals are of a different race than you, and countries with a corrupt government.

“This is one of the main criticisms about travel bloggers and I agree with it. As many don’t have professional journalism training or something equivalent, they run around the world publishing stories that lack cultural/political context and understanding. In some destinations that matters more than others. I don’t trust that a lot of bloggers will have the sophistication to write about a place like Zimbabwe.” –Mariellen Ward, Breathe Dream Go

And finally, if your destination has a corrupt government, absolutely do not go on a trip sponsored by the government!!!!

Sunset over the Zambezi, Zimbabwe, by Stephen Mawby

Should you go to TBEX Africa in Zimbabwe?

Since the Zimbabwe announcement was made, I’ve seen lots of starry-eyed travel bloggers excited to go to Africa. Some genuinely had no idea who Mugabe was and changed their minds once they learned about him. But others won’t let that stand in their way because, well, they really want some free trips in Africa.

The choice is yours, but I hope you choose not to attend. I urge you to do your research on Mugabe’s regime before deciding whether or not to attend. These are the people who are funding this event.

And if you’re thinking of speaking at TBEX Africa, I would reconsider. Apply for a different conference instead. I think the people who choose to participate in this conference are going to have a spotlight on them in a bad way.

The problem, just so it’s clear, is not the country of Zimbabwe itself, which could use the tourism. The problem is that this conference is being hosted and controlled by the government.

Outside Harare, Zimbabwe, by Romain

Should you go to Zimbabwe otherwise?

YES. Go to Zimbabwe independently! Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with warm people and some truly wonderful travel experiences. The wildlife in Zimbabwe is outstanding; Victoria Falls is an icon. And they could really use your tourism dollars.

“I’ve written extensively about Zimbabwe, its people and social programs where tourist dollars directly help the local communities and wildlife conservation and will continue to. I love the place, warts and all. The people are amazing, but I choose to travel independently or with companies that benefit the people/wildlife etc.

I don’t think for a minute that a travel blogging conference in Harare will have the same effect. It’s always going to be a personal choice, but not everyone against this is sitting back and not visiting Zim.” –Andy Higgs, Grown Up Travel Guide

You can cruise down the Zambezi, track lions in Hwange National Park, check out caves in Chivero National Park, or party the night away in Harare. Zimbabwe is huge and there’s a lot to see.

Are there good alternatives to TBEX?

TBEX is the big conference, but it’s far from the best. There are four small travel blogging conference that I recommend attending:

  1. Women in Travel Summit (WITS). A smart conference geared toward women covering thoughtful issues most others ignore. Men are welcome. The next one is in Québec City, Canada, in 2018.
  2. Social Travel Summit (STS). A small, Europe-centric conference for professional bloggers with great networking opportunities. The next one is in Kitzbühel, Austria, in September 2017.
  3. Travel Bloggers Conference (TBC). An invitation-only conference for professional bloggers that has been based in Sri Lanka so far.
  4. Traverse. I haven’t attended, but it’s made by bloggers and I’ve heard they do an excellent job. The next one is in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018.

TBEX, you are welcome to respond to this.

I reached out to TBEX for comment; requests for comments were not returned. If that changes, I’ll share their response here.

What do you think? Is this conference a good idea?