TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice

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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 people 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.

Update: Response from Shane Dallas of TBEX

Rick Calvert, CEO of New Media Expo (which owns TBEX) responded to this post after publication. He wanted us to have a conversation face-to-face; when I insisted on having a conversation via email or chat so none of our quotes could possibly be misconstrued, he declined.

Rick has since told me that he’s tried to leave comments on this site but it hasn’t worked for him. I looked through the spam and pending filters and couldn’t find anything connected to him. Once he finds a way to leave a comment, I will include it here.

Since then, conference director Shane Dallas has left a comment of his own in the comments section. I will leave it there but paste it here as well:

Kate, after reading your post, I’m obligated to respond in my capacity as Conference Director of TBEX Africa.

I guess you have never been to Zimbabwe, because if you had, you could not have written a post like this.

Do you know what it is like for people who live in countries with a long-term negatively perceived governments (whether this perception is correct or not)? Let me recount some words people told me during my travels:
“Why does the world hate us so much” – man in Aleppo, Syria
“Please tell the world we are not terrorists” – man in Persepolis, Iran
“Why does the media treat us so unfairly? – woman in Moscow, Russia.

People of nations not given favourable media treatment try so hard to distance themselves from the government – whether they agree with the politics or not. They find it frustrating that they cannot get commentators to separate politics from the people – and you too have fallen into this trap.

So let me recount my one month experience in Zimbabwe in September 2014. Every person I met who I discussed tourism believe that Zimbabwe should receive more tourists. This was regardless of political affiliation. They want these tourists because it benefits family run businesses, it benefits our colleagues working in tourism and travel in Zimbabwe. It benefits the people of the nation.

During my speech in Huntsville after the announcement of Zimbabwe as a destination I stated in front of hundreds of people in the TBEX audience that “Africa does not need to be rescued, Africa needs to be understood”.

I’ve spent nearly 3 years in Africa and the practice of people from North America and Europe telling Africans how they should run their countries is treated with disdain – I’ve heard this in places such as Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and yes, also in Zimbabwe. If you spent enough time on the continent you would know this.

TBEX is about bringing people together, about sharing ideas that not only help families involved in the tourism industry in Zimbabwe and surrounding countries, but also helping our incorrect perceptions of the country and the continent.

You may respond by stating that there are other ways to benefit tourism in Zimbabwe and that we don’t need TBEX to achieve this aim. You fail to explicitly state how you could make such a significant and positive impact in such a short time that TBEX will do. It’s easy to criticize, but more difficult to provide an alternative. You provided no alternative.

I have visited Zimbabwe and have heard from many people for their desire to attract more people to their beautiful country. TBEX does this better than any other alternative.

In summary, what concerns me about your post is that its tone pronounces you as a definitive source of information on Zimbabwe, whereas the over simplification of the issues show that you have minimal practical understanding or experience of the country or its people.

Whereas you see to judge, I see to understand; and whereas you seek to build walls, I seek to build bridges.

You can see my full response to Shane in the comments below, but I’ll post an abbreviated response here.

That’s a lot of pretty rhetoric about Africa, but it still says nothing about 1) Why TBEX is working with the government of Robert Mugabe and 2) Why TBEX has conferences in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe where journalists are often in danger and bloggers could be put at risk.

It blows my mind that several days later, TBEX hasn’t even acknowledged the widespread criticism in the travel blogging community about TBEX taking money from Mugabe’s government in exchange for promotion. That, by far, is the biggest deal here — bigger than TBEX not paying its employees, bigger than TBEX holding conferences in countries where bloggers could be in danger for the work that they do.

We’re still waiting, TBEX. We weren’t born yesterday. Why are you working with Mugabe’s government?

Update 2: Response from Rick Calvert of TBEX

Rick Calvert responded in the comments here:

It appears to be a problem with the length of the comment. so breaking it up:

I will begin with saying, I really hate these kinds of posts and arguments online. Having entered the blogosphere as a political blogger well over a decade ago I am not afraid of an argument or debating with someone with a strongly differing view point. What I do not like is when people create strawmen and falsely characterize the opposing side. If you want to play in politics you get hammers thrown at you all day long. In travel, not so much.

Some of my points are probably going to come across as harsh but I don’t bare Kate any ill will other than this one factually inaccurate post full of baseless accusations and opinion where she tries to make the case that her opinion is moral and just and anyone holding a differing opinion is by default immoral and unjust. She posted it without ever talking to me or anyone else from TBEX.

Let me start with what TBEX is about.

TBEX is about helping travel bloggers succeed. That means developing their professional skills, creating opportunities for them to earn a living and educating the travel industry on why they should work with bloggers and how to get the most return out of those relationships. We offer more high quality content from beginner to advanced for independent travel creators than any other travel event. Period.

The assertion that TBEX is only interested in making money and we have no interest in bettering the travel blogging community is a flat out lie.

To make such a claim you have to know my mind and intentions and the same of everyone who works on TBEX. Which no one but the people involved in producing the TBEX can know.

Despite not having attended TBEX since 2012; where Kate admittedly had a “fantastic experience” she also states “most of their conferences are geared toward beginner bloggers. I call it “churning and burning newbies.””

I take a bit of an issue with that. Absolutely Jaume, Gemma (who happen to be dear friends) and the rest of the team in Costa Brava deserve tremendous credit for what they did to create an amazing experience for the TBEX community. However, our team also worked nine months to make that event happen and I think we deserve just a tiny bit of credit for it.
If you don’t attend TBEX you have no idea what the quality of speakers are, or the content of the sessions.

Our content and our conference is absolutely focused on delivering value for professional travel bloggers and by extension DMO’s, tour operators and other travel industry businesses. Yes, we offer beginner level content because it is our mission to raise the professional abilities and success of all travel bloggers. That makes our entire industry better. And very few of us are advanced level experts in all subjects. Modern content creators wear a lot of hats. We also offer lots of advanced content in a wide range of topics.

To address the charge “few long time professional bloggers attend any more”.

Again, if you don’t attend, you don’t know. We don’t publish an attendee list. We don’t sell or give email lists to anyone. I did a quick search of our 57 mutual Facebook friends. 39 of them have been to TBEX in the last year. Most of them have attended multiple TBEX events.

Now let’s talk about the newer very successful travel bloggers and content creators who attend TBEX. Kate’s doesn’t state it directly but implies if you haven’t been blogging as long as others, then you are somehow less worthy, important, or professional.

There are many newer bloggers who have built huge audiences and have had tremendous success. They also bring tremendous professional experience from their own lives. There are attorneys, accountants, social media professionals, journalists, doctors and other professionals who attend TBEX. Let’s face it calling yourself a blogger Is not hard.

Being a professional is. Attending events in your chosen profession and continuing your education is what professionals do.

I am not going to include names because it is unfair to bring anyone else into this debate but here is a quote sent to me today from a very successful professional travel blogger who attended TBEX Huntsville; “Everyone at TBEX is doing a great job and I can’t wait to see it continue to grow. After every conference, I always feel inspired and ready to take on the world. I truly wouldn’t be where I am today without TBEX.”

Here is a quote from a sponsor in Huntsville “’I’d like to thank you for an amazing conference not only on our behalf but also other participating tourism boards! We had a series of very productive meetings and overall, we had a great time!”.

we are proud of both of those testimonials and many, many others like them.

Beyond the elitist position, she is also implying we are somehow taking advantage of people. Again, this is a lie.

Take a look at our list of sponsors and tell us ones you think are or “watered down” or “poor quality.”

Every “fact” included here about the Dolphin Tours in Cancun is wrong. There were multiple tours offering Dolphin Experiences not one. 2,300 travel bloggers DID NOT sign a petition protesting the tours including any kind of Dolphin experience in Cancun. This is FALSE.

Most of the people signing the petition were consumers who had no idea what TBEX is and what the actual debate was about.
We never made a decision on including or not including these tours as part of the post event fams. This was always up to the tourist board. We gave them advice but they made the decisions to first include them and later remove them.

There was by no means unanimous consent in the travel blogging community. There were numerous advocates on both sides of the issue. We participated in the discussion when some travel bloggers complained.

I joined a podcast episode with some bloggers and dolphin protection advocates to discuss the issue. We hosted a keynote addressing what is and what isn’t responsible tourism at the event. We invited any attendee interested in doing so to observe any one of these tours and reporting honestly first-hand what they saw and experienced.

We explained numerous times what TBEX’s mission is and that we are not a political organization. It is our job to offer professional development, advancement and opportunity. It is not our job to advocate political causes. This obviously ties directly into the current discussion about Zimbabwe and I will come back to it in a bit.

No one is ever told what to say, or if they have to say anything at all. No pre or post tours are ever required of anyone.

Despite the called for “boycott” by a handful of travel bloggers, over 500 attended the conference.

What is left out completely is any context as to why those tours were offered in the first place. There were numerous companies in Cancun offering a wide range of tours featuring Dolphins. Some in the ocean, some in captivity, some swimming with them, some observing them. They employed hundreds of people in Cancun and all of these businesses belong to the tourist board. It was a difficult position for the tourist board and we explained this numerous times but the people with a political point to make didn’t care then and they don’t care now.

Rick also left a second comment:

Ok now, I have left about half of my reply and an unable to post the rest (.

Thanks, Rick. Since then I have made one change in this post: I changed “2,300 bloggers signed the petition” to “2,300 people signed the petition.” Because that is true — while many of the people who signed the petition were bloggers, it’s impossible to verify exactly how many were bloggers.

Beyond that, I completely understand why you’d defend your organization. And I did reach out to you before publication, Rick — it’s not my fault that you didn’t respond prior to press time, which was more than three days after the announcement was made, and I gave you the right of reply. I might be the most visible person blogging about it, but I’m far from the only person incredulous at TBEX for taking money from Robert Mugabe’s government.

Beyond that, I find it curious that even after these responses, TBEX *still* has not said a word about taking money from Mugabe’s government — nor have they not said a word about why they have conferences in countries with no freedom of the press, where journalists have often been murdered.

Because Rick has been unable to leave a full comment for some reason, I’ve reached out via email and have told him I’ll publish the rest of what he has to say if he wishes to email me.

Because at this point, bloggers deserve answers. How is it ethical for TBEX to take money from Mugabe’s government? And why are both Rick Calvert and Shane Dallas not even saying a word about it? Are they pretending that we won’t notice? We notice.

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

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147 thoughts on “TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice”

  1. Thank you for saying this. I have no experience with conferences and am not blogging to make money. However, I am a freelancer and I, too, am owed lots of money from big companies, which are months late in paying me. The risk in the economy is increasingly being shifted from corporations to individuals, who are much less able to withstand that risk. Not just monetarily–bloggers don’t have the same protections as journalists for big media companies that will hire lawyers to get them out of jail or give them security/anti-kidnapping training.
    You are right that tourism can help locals who are struggling in an economy being ruined by a dictatorship. Tourism also keeps pumping the outside world and its ideas in and keeps those countries from becoming like North Korea.

    1. ToF, you’re certainly right that risk in the economy has swerved in the direction of individuals. I didn’t even realize I was part of a trend when I started doing that back in 2010. It’s scary, especially in the United States where we don’t have a strong social system. My health insurance is $483 per month and it’s pretty terrible insurance.

  2. Wow Kate, you really spilled the tea and it is HOT. Thank you for keeping it 100% real with me and the rest of your readers. I appreciate your honesty.

  3. Informative and very enlighting article Kate. If not because of this, I wouldnt know and understand. I attended TBEX when it was held here in our country, Philippines.

  4. To fellow travelers, a quick reminder: most travel bloggers have YOUR best interests at heart. We don’t write about places we didn’t enjoy, and we don’t whitewash bullsh!t. We may accept freebies, but they never change our opinion of a place. We may use affiliate links to stuff we use ourselves and recommend, since that’s a decent way to make money without costing you any extra…

    Most travel bloggers have your best interests at heart. The folks that end up going on this TBEX will not.

    If you’re reading a travel blogger who’s promoting a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to fit their style, stop reading them. There are THOUSANDS of us out there, after all.

    1. I think the word “most” is a bit optimistic but you’re certainly right that the upper echelon of travel bloggers are doing a lot of what’s right in tourism.

  5. I’ve attended several TBEX conferences over the years, as well as several of other conferences. The conferences have provided me with good learning opportunities and excellent travel experiences and I’m always keen to see where the next one will be. But I too am very hesitant about Zimbabwe.

    I do not know how the specifics of how the finances of TBEX work but obviously the host city/destination is a financial and organizational sponsor (with the organization duties of course costing them money as well). Zimbabwe is a country with limited financial resources (not the least of which is caused by “Uncle Bob’s” lavish lifestyle). As such I have ethical concerns about such a significant part of one ministry’s budget being spent on TBEX.

    There’s an argument to be made that they’re playing the long game – safari tourism is a massive industry and if more travel writing and exposure can convert travelers away from Kenya and South Africa and towards Zimbabwe, then TBEX was a good investment for them. But that investment strategy is a long term move at best and, even with the positive results of seeing more tourism investment in the country, there is no guarantee that the increased revenue will benefit the population at large.

    I am also concerned that tour operators partnering with TBEX will be offering up experiences based on what Western tourists are known to want (or are assumed to want). That includes poverty tourism, faux-volunteer tourism, and exploitative and appropriated uses of culture and religion. I imagine the competitive process of selecting the most adorable orphans to be presented as photo props as already begun. Exploitive imagery is used constantly in tourism campaigns (and in conferences too) – everything’s “exotic”, the wild natives, the white savior, “Africa time”, colonial-chic, “they’re so poor but they’re so happy!”. I’m worried that TBEX and its partners could easily fall into this very common pattern and that it would be repeated in the superficial blog posts that participants are encourage to produce.

    I think the greatest advantage that TBEX Zim has is that it’s a rare opportunity for an international blogging/SM conference to be held in Africa (esp outside the usual cities) and for local, regional, and international bloggers to come together for all the benefits a conference usually provides – friendship, networking, learning, inspiration. For that reason, this conference still has appeal to me – it’s a chance for me to learn from bloggers I love but who I rarely have the opportunity to meet up with elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a spectacular country with boundless stories waiting to be shared. But those wonderful benefits are negated if the participants have (extremely justified) concerns about their safety and if the frank debates that make a conference so beneficial are consciously or unconsciously diluted.

    Ultimately, my decision to attend will factor on the collective voice of our Zimbabwean colleagues (which may be hard to hear between government restrictions and the blogging community’s own longstanding habit of conveniently forgetting that there are bloggers from non-Western countries). They have the most to gain and the most to lose by TBEX and we should respect their conclusions.

    1. Vanessa, this is an incredibly thoughtful comment. Thank you for sharing. I hope everyone else reads it as well.

      I think in the coming weeks we will be hearing much more from Zimbabwean bloggers. I too am very curious about what they will have to say.

  6. jenifer divine

    i agree 1000%,
    and you are absolutely right regarding Thailand & Philippines
    (yes, i know i said otherwise the other day in your fb post);
    although none of us here thought things would get worse here in Thailand,
    they certainly have- and sentiment is that #10 is attempting to turn this back
    into an absolute monarchy backed by the murderous and completely corrupt
    (and in power) Army…
    we’re all scared to do much of anything; we were even threatened while protesting
    the coal-fired electricity plant they’re trying to force upon us in Krabi…
    (they actually took the leaders of the protest to “attitude adjustment”)
    things are rapidly getting beyond draconian here, and i have found myself
    contemplating the unthinkable in this last year (especially since my trip to Europe/UK last July)-
    moving away from this beloved island!!!

    1. This is the first I had heard about the plant, Jenifer — so sad. I would really be sad if you left Lanta as well. 🙁 Really, really hope that things begin to move in a positive direction for Thailand again.

  7. I have mixed opinions about the whole thing. I’m not a huge TBEX fan or conference fan period. I enjoyed Israel this year and saw both Palestine and much of Israel for a balanced experience. I think that Huntsville was extremely well run and spoke well of my region. I don’t know what will happen from here for me in terms of conferences, but I want Africa to happen for me in 2018. Zimbabwe for a conference doesn’t really appeal, but visiting around that time does. Perhaps my Dirty 30 in South Africa!

    1. A lot of people complained that Huntsville wasn’t a cool enough destination, but I disagree with that — I think it’s awesome to bring light to an unknown small city with a smart, passionate team behind it!

  8. Very interesting to read. I love other peoples opinions. I booked my TBEX Ireland ticket. Lucky there I can write what I want in Europe. It is good to read also your view about TBEX and have a view from the other side. Nothing is positive only. People need to be able to ha dle critics too. I think when you sign up you need to have a travel blog. I think they not accept people without a blog. At least, that is what I understood. You had to give a lot of information before they accepted everything. I was an early booker so I had a good price too but prices went up after I booked. For me Tbex is the place to learn, get new contacts and share experience. I hope I learn a bit on advanced level blogging. Also it will be a week of fun. I was at an other travel exhibition a d all thry did was selling holidays packets. I think nowadays you can travel independent wirh your mobile as a guide. I also agree you not just book through you hotel only but that is why you check online first and use a lonely plannet. With your advices on independent travelling I think I will write soon about travelling in the digital age. Getting paid for blogging is fine. As long as I get paid for my opinion and not somebody else opinion for money or because of an crazy agreement. If travelling to any countey I am always able to see thr local life. You just walk 200 meters for a local restaurant. Specially in Spain I only have good experience with this. Don’t be afraid to go into a place were the menu is only in Mandarin. Also meetup with locals for a dinner or drinks. Only than you get to know the country and experience.

    1. I hope you have a great time at TBEX Ireland, Bianca. Killarney is a great little city. And for someone who is a newer blogger, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

  9. Oh, Kate, I would encourage you to delete this post and the subsequent tweet. It does not serve you or anyone else in a positive way. This is a partisan post and does not belong on a travel blog.

    I have been following you and have enjoyed your blog for some time…I mean no disrespect by the following.

    Your premise on many of these topics is simply flawed and your ignorance is utterly apparent.

    How are you able to talk about TBEX when you’ve only been to a single one? And, it was four years ago! I’ve been to eight and I am now a regular speaker. From my experience, nearly every point you made is inaccurate. For example, this conference is not just for newbies, at least 1/3 are veteran and top-tier travel bloggers. Every conference has new speakers. Every time I attend TBEX I come away with new relationships, foster existing ones, press trip offers and new business opportunities. TBEX has been invaluable to me as a travel blogger and business owner. Every time I attend I learn something new and am filled with inspiration.

    Pray tell, what is wrong with TEBX making a profit? They are a business like any other. And, if they were not providing value to travel bloggers, they would not be in business. I really took offense to that statement.

    If you were down to only $200 in the bank but people owed and stiffed you for $9000, I think your business acumen needs improving. You should not have such disdain for successful business owners. The world is not a utopia, it’s driven by self-interest and incentive. In seven years as a professional travel blogger, I’ve only had one entity unwilling to pay me, and we eventually came up with a compromise.

    Regarding your position on the countries you listed as being dictators and human rights violators. What is your point? Are you saying that a Government and its people are one in the same? What makes the U.S. different? I can assure you that other countries around the world don’t look so favorably at the U.S., so should we help boycott people to this nation as well just because some may disagree with the political leaders? From my experience, I am thankful that many people around the world can see the difference between the people of a nation, and their leaders.

    I could continue, but I don’t think I will change your mind, or that of those who will side with you, so I’ll leave it at that. You have created a polarizing post, which as I said in the beginning, serves no one. #JustSayin’

    You have formed your opinions on what is clearly very limited information. What was your motivation for this? When you’re going to call someone or something out, you really need to have all the facts, even then, it should only be done after thoughtful consideration. I don’t believe you thought this through very well.

    1. Kate’s welcome to reply to this on her own, but frankly, a lot of this garbage needs to get replied to, even if she doesn’t.

      “Oh, Kate, I would encourage you to delete this post and the subsequent tweet. It does not serve you or anyone else in a positive way.”

      It served me and also appears to have served a number of people who commented on this thread, along with other people that commented on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps it didn’t serve you, but mistaking yourself for the center of the universe… well, it does go with the rest of your comment.

      “This is a partisan post and does not belong on a travel blog.”

      (1) Partisan is generally used when talking in terms of partisan politics and frankly if that is what you mean, I have no idea what the hell you are talking about. What partisan political issue is in play when talking about a travel blogging conference location?

      (2) Does not belong on a travel blog? Who the fuck are you to tell her what to put on her own website?? Seriously, get a grip on yourself.

      “How are you able to talk about TBEX when you’ve only been to a single one?”

      I assume she’s able to track it the same way that I do and dozens of other people do… they talk to other people that went to them. It is nice that TBEX has been good to you, but that’s been less true for a number of other veteran travel bloggers I’ve talked to over the years, and it appears that it is likely the same is true for Kate.

      “If you were down to only $200 in the bank but people owed and stiffed you for $9000, I think your business acumen needs improving.”

      Again… who the fuck are you to tell someone else how to run their business?? First off, I’m about 500% certain that Kate is making a shit tonne more than you are travel blogging at this point. Her success compared to yours in the industry is like comparing an All-Star athlete verses someone holding down a spot as a bench warmer.

      Secondly… seriously take your mansplaining judgement down a couple fucking notches. Idiotic comments like this are exactly why there actually is a justifiable argument made by a number of women that us white males are condescending or patronizing. Because… this is about the most condescending or patronizing comment I’ve read in a while. Stop making the rest of us look as stupid as you.

      “Regarding your position on the countries you listed as being dictators and human rights violators. What is your point? Are you saying that a Government and its people are one in the same?”

      For someone perfectly willing to put themselves in someone else’s place and tell them what they should or shouldn’t do, you apparently can’t read very well. Her argument is pretty simple — those governments are paying TBEX directly for positive coverage by travel bloggers. Payments from the governments of countries like the Philippines, and most clearly by Zimbabwe, to a travel blogging entity for positive coverage is troubling. Well, it is at least troubling to a fair number of us that have a conscience.

      “You have created a polarizing post, which as I said in the beginning, serves no one. #JustSayin’”

      Honestly, I think your uninformed and condescending comment serves less people than Kate’s post, which is attempting to address, in a well informed and researched manner, a topic that should interest any travel blogger thinking about attending the conference, no matter which way they fall on it.

      “I don’t believe you thought this through very well.”

      Pot, meet Kettle.

      1. Thank you for sharing, Michael. You’re correct — I do follow TBEX closely, see who’s speaking and on what topics, and I talk to attendees after to hear how it went. Most of the bloggers with whom I socialize have been at it for 5, 6, 7, 8 years. A conference is a very different experience from when you’re a new or less prominent blogger.

      2. Thank you so much Michael, reading the awful comment from Mike made my skin crawl… Yours on the other hand made my day;-). Glad to know not all white males look down on how us women run their blog/business/live their life!

        1. ‘Glad to know not all white males look down on how us women run their blog/business/live their life!’

          What have sex and race got to do with this?

    2. Making a profit from a corrupt government benefiting from a population that it suppresses through force and fear is not something any one should condone. It is not something a business should be proud of and they should be called out (thanks Kate!).

      Life expectancy has plummeted in Zimbabwe, and continues to fall. Government policies have caused many deaths, high unemployment, and overall depression of industry. Billions have been spent on the military, despite health crises and food shortages – and they aren’t at war or threatened by any neighbors. The recovery time from the catastrophe of Mugabe will take decades. How many? Who knows… he keeps fixing the elections to make sure the process can’t begin.

      How do we help Zimbabwe? I don’t have all the answers. But being shills for one of the worst dictators in this century is not one of them. The money coming to pay for the promotion is coming directly from a people being squeezed daily in what should be one of the most prosperous nations in Africa. I’d say the same thing if there was about to be a huge promotion of North Korea. There’s a whole lot of parallel between the two countries.

      As far as the USA is concerned, the data isn’t here yet, but I believe the current administration’s policies are going to cause/are causing a dip in the international tourism numbers. I really don’t want that to be the case – it is our livelihood. But I can’t blame people for “voting with their pocketbooks.” I also can find a lot of parallels in suppression of the media with the USA lately and our president has all the markings of a fascist. However, comparing a 37 year life expectancy and living in mud houses while our leaders are starving us to where we currently are in the USA is not valid. It attempts to make a very clear issue murky.

      1. I agree with you completely, Amy. At this point I wouldn’t put it past TBEX to partner with a North Korea tour company. Plenty of bloggers have shown they don’t care about the ethics of visiting a dangerous dictatorship where it’s impossible to travel sustainably or independently.

        The US has its share of problems, but it’s nothing on the level of Zimbabwe. Obama wore a tan suit once. Mugabe murdered his opponent’s supporters until he withdrew his candidacy. There’s no comparison.

    3. Hello, Mike. You and I had never spoken before today when you tweeted me, “Why would you say that??? Probably a point you could keep to yourself”. You admitted that you hadn’t even read the post; this was just a response to the title.

      Oh, Mike. I don’t keep things to myself. Especially not when men like you try to intimidate me into staying silent. My readers know that. And if you actually WERE a reader of mine, you would know that.

      But you know something, Mike? I had no idea who you were when you tweeted me today; I’ve seen your face around, but I’m not familiar with your blog or the work you do. (Actually, no. I did know one thing about you — you were on the list of travel bloggers who voted for Donald Trump. And we will get to that in due time, don’t you worry.)

      But since you sent that first tweet, five separate travel bloggers have privately messaged me, unsolicited, to tell me that you treated them rudely and with arrogance when you met them in person. Four out of five of them called you a dick, Mike. (The fifth called you a douche canoe.) And that does not include when Matt said you were being a dick to me on Twitter today.

      That’s not normal.

      When five different people message me over the span of a few hours to tell me you’re an awful person, that says something significant about the way you treat people. What compels you to be so unkind to people you meet at TBEX? I don’t understand it.

      So it’s not surprising that the person with a reputation for arrogance ends up leaving me an incredibly condescending comment on this post.

      I’m glad you finally read the post, by the way, and didn’t continue judging it solely on the title. That’s certainly more than Trump would do.

      Now, to respond to your specific comments:

      “It does not serve you or anyone else in a positive way.”

      It seems to have served quite a few people who have commented on here and social media. You saw how few people knew about Mugabe before reading this post. People who don’t want to travel on the dime of a bloodthirsty government now realize that TBEX does not align with their values.

      “This is a partisan post and does not belong on a travel blog.”

      Like Michael said, I don’t think the word partisan means what you think it means. If you mean partisan as in an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, then I suppose I am a partisan for believing in human rights.

      What I think you intended to say was that this was a political post at odds with your personal beliefs and you thus think that it should not have been published. Mike, travel and politics are inextricably linked and always will be. To deny that is irresponsible.

      Oh, and just in case travel and politics were NOT linked, guess what — this is my blog. I write whatever I want and my readers love it. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head, Mike. You’re free to leave anytime. And I sure as hell am not deleting my post because you, a stranger, doesn’t like it.

      “I mean no disrespect by the following.”

      Sure you don’t.

      “Your premise on many of these topics is simply flawed and your ignorance is utterly apparent.”

      *Snort* Okay.

      “How are you able to talk about TBEX when you’ve only been to a single one? And, it was four years ago! I’ve been to eight and I am now a regular speaker.”

      I follow TBEX, Mike. I always have. I see who’s speaking, I read up on the talks, I follow the social media streams during the conference, and afterward, I read the TBEX recaps on different blogs. But most of all, I talk to my friends about the conferences. Lots of my friends attend them, and the growing consensus among professional bloggers is that while TBEX has some positive elements, it’s overall a conference that concentrates on the needs of newer and less experienced bloggers, which are very different from the needs of professionals.

      TBEX is obviously a good experience for you. And that’s good for you! You should clearly keep going if you’re getting benefits out of it. But don’t assume that most professional bloggers share your experience.

      But the next time you’re at TBEX, check how many professional travel bloggers are there solely as attendees — not speakers, not staff.

      “Pray tell, what is wrong with TEBX making a profit?”

      …Did you just seriously say “Pray tell”? Are you on Downton Abbey? Just…no.

      Nothing’s wrong with TBEX making a profit. I never said that, Mike. You might want to reread my post. My issue, which I clearly stated previously, is that TBEX cares *only* about making money and *not* about the betterment of the industry. If they cared about protecting bloggers, at bare minimum they wouldn’t hold conferences in countries where journalists are regularly intimidated, incarcerated, and murdered by the government.

      “If you were down to only $200 in the bank but people owed and stiffed you for $9000, I think your business acumen needs improving. You should not have such disdain for successful business owners.”

      First off, that is really fucking rude. I can see why everyone messaged me to tell me what a dick you are.

      Let’s break this down into two parts. First of all, your implication here is that if a company didn’t pay its employees, it’s the employee’s fault. Well, I can certainly see why you voted for Donald Trump! Do you also think that healthy people don’t get pre-existing conditions? I’m sure your relatives living with cancer would LOVE to hear that one, Mike.

      Secondly, you don’t think I have good business acumen? Have you SEEN where I live? Have you seen my enormous Manhattan apartment with its full-size dining table and washing machine? I do just fine, Mike. Quite well, most would say. And most of the income is passive so I don’t really need to do anything at all.

      But like many entrepreneurs, including phenomenally successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, the early years involved a lot of flying by the seat of my pants and my accounts sometimes got dangerously low. But it always worked out. Those precarious early years were a long term investment in a career that now pays well.

      That $9000 I was owed? I got it all, eventually. One of those payments was from a campaign run by a government tourism board who couldn’t free up the money for bureaucratic reasons. The money arrived four months late. Eight professional bloggers and the team that organized the trip were each owed thousands until then. So no, this is not just about me.

      “In seven years as a professional travel blogger, I’ve only had one entity unwilling to pay me, and we eventually came up with a compromise.”

      If you’ve never had a delayed payment in seven years, your experience is atypical.

      “Regarding your position on the countries you listed as being dictators and human rights violators. What is your point? Are you saying that a Government and its people are one in the same? What makes the U.S. different?”

      Assuming that you meant one *and* the same, Mike, if you can’t see the difference between the United States and Zimbabwe, or Barack Obama and Robert Mugabe, or hell — even Donald Trump and Robert Mugabe, you are being willfully obtuse. If Donald Trump had murdered Hillary Clinton’s supporters until she dropped out of the race, or if Barack Obama had displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes, or if George W. Bush had imprisoned journalists, I’d agree with you that there should be no conferences in the United States.

      And I would totally support any company that chose not to do business in the United States for the sake of protecting their black employees and their children from being murdered by the American police.

      “You have created a polarizing post, which as I said in the beginning, serves no one.”

      What’s wrong with polarizing posts, anyway? And as I responded previously, it’s already served a hell of a lot of people.

      “You have formed your opinions on what is clearly very limited information.”

      Clearly! Mah feminine brain is so tiny, it can only handle a lil bit of learnin’ at a time!

      “What was your motivation for this?”

      Speaking seriously, to make bloggers aware of the atrocities of Robert Mugabe. To show through evidence that TBEX is taking money from a murderous dictatorship and using it to hire bloggers to promote their country. To point out that bloggers attending a conference in a country without free speech could be tantamount to incarceration or worse.

      All right. We now appear to be done with going through your response. Now — I find it very interesting that you didn’t mention TBEX’s collusion with Mugabe anywhere in your post, nor did you mention anything about TBEX endangering bloggers by holding conferences in countries without free speech. I’m going to assume that you didn’t because these issues don’t concern you, and that, Mike, is really sad.

      I offered TBEX the right of reply; they hadn’t contacted me as of press time. Rick Calvert has since contacted me via email, but he has yet to provide a formal response. I told him that whatever his response is, I will happily include it in the post.

      Finally: Since I started writing this comment a sixth blogger messaged me and said that you were, and I quote, a “douche turd.” I know how unlikely that sounds, but I swear on all my beloved dead grandparents’ graves that this literally just happened.

      You’ve really got to work on that personality thing, dude.

      1. Love your response to Douchecanoe as well as the whole measured post itself. I heard your keynote at WITS in Boston a couple of years ago, and your observations are as sharp as ever.

      2. *slow clap*

        Your post was both interesting & informative, and you’ve been handling the resulting commentary wonderfully! And that includes “commentary” (loosely used term here) from the douche canoe.

    4. Well it’s always nice to know which bloggers should never be recommended to clients.

      Kate, beautiful response. Michael Hodson as well.

  10. Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful post. This is definitely food for thought. I feel like you are giving us a bigger picture view. Thanks. I know this is a travel blog, but social issues are very important to me, too. In recent times, political issues have become way more important to me as well. Ughhh.

    1. Thank you, Deb. Travel issues and social issues, as well as political, economic, and environmental issues, are very closely tied together. I think it’s irresponsible to cover travel from a “This is fun!” angle while ignoring the tough realities in many destinations.

  11. Great piece Kate. I wasn’t planning to attend this conference, but it was great to learn about how the Government works there. I’m also glad to see your insight of TBEX, I didn’t ever think about how they’re partnering with Governments that are against journalism! That’s really surprising. I’ll be thinking twice before ever attending one of their conferences no matter the location now. (I haven’t tried one yet, but it has been on my mind to experience it, but I don’t think I’d go out of my way for it now!)

    1. I appreciate that, Amber. That’s why I wrote this post — to educate more people. It’s easy to forget about TBEX’s past scandals when they’re not all kept in the same place.

  12. I think each and every point you brought up here is valid and thought provoking. And I had completely forgotten about the Manila conference until you connected the dots here. I agree with you that the issue is not about travel to Zimbabwe, rather it is working with a corrupt government that draws a pretty hard line. I think most people are unaware of Mugabe’s history, and hopefully this post will influence them to want to learn more.

    As far as conferences go, personally, I feel like they reach a limit as to what they can offer professional bloggers. Conferences can be a lot of fun, but I definitely learn more and make greater advances in my business through smaller retreats and mastermind groups.

    1. I’ve been a bit surprised at how many travel bloggers didn’t know who Mugabe was. Hopefully this will continue to open their eyes.

      And I agree with you that smaller gatherings are infinitely more valuable than giant conferences geared toward beginners like TBEX.

  13. More than the substance of this article, I appreciate you providing a well-researched, fully thought-out exploration of the various issues TBEX’s dictator fetish brings up. Insight and nuance are rare birds in the aviary of travel blogging.

  14. Really interesting perspective about TBEX, Kate! I’d also like to add that there are already some dynamic annual conferences we can attend and support as travel media in Southern and East Africa. I used to be based in South Africa and made some great and lasting connections by attending regional and international events. INDABA, We Are Africa, and World Travel Market Africa are good events to start with.

    1. That is a very good point, Marie. I went to INDABA in 2013 (I even got to speak there!) and I was impressed. The technology was the best of any travel show I had been to and the entertainment was a lot of fun, too!

  15. Thank you for bringing light to this issue, Kate. I was not familiar with the dictator situation in ZImbabwe so I appreciate all of the time you took to collect the information and facts for the rest of us. It is extremely disappointing to learn that TBEX will be held there. I was hoping that 2018 would be the year that I finally made it to TBEX and to Africa so these things would have combined perfectly if TBEX were held in a different African country. Honestly, though, I’m not sure if I can ever justify a TBEX conference at this point – they just seem to support too many shady governments.

    I DO want to visit Zimbabwe, though. If anything, this has made me more curious to learn more about the culture and the people. I would love to spend a few weeks independently traveling through the country and making an effort to connect with locals.

    1. Thank you Sky. You do so well at traveling sustainably and making communities better as you travel through them. I know you’ll travel ethically when you make it to Africa! And you WILL get the opportunity to finally visit there. I hope you make it in 2018.

  16. Thanks for this important and interesting post. Ignore the trolls; this info needed to be shared.

    I went to two Tbexes right when they began, one in Copenhagen and one in Spain. I will not be going to any others because of all the issues you are describing, but also because I agree, they are really geared to people just starting out and there’s not a lot of new information to learn. Honestly, when the conference was sold to the current owner it changed, and not for the good.

  17. When I saw this location announced, my jaw dropped. This post sums up every single reason why. Thanks for taking the time to shed light on the situation there. I have never been to TBEX and don’t plan to ever attend, but I really hope that people do their research before pouring their money and efforts into something that directly funds this regime in such a manner. (Take mind, I’d LOVE to go to Zimbabwe on my own terms- just not this way!)

    1. Thank you for sharing, Megan. I’m glad you were aware of the issues as well. A friend who was at TBEX Huntsville told me a hush came over the room when they announced it.

  18. Thank you for putting together such an informative post. I’ve only attended a WITS and Women’s Travel Fest in NYC and Boston–it’s so awful how an organization dedicated to travel bloggers would jeopardize lives abroad 🙁 I have this post bookmarked and ready to share on my channels

  19. Hi Kate,
    I’m really glad I found your post. I’m a newbie travel and food blogger, and I can’t believe they are hosting conventions in countries where they are openly hostile to journalists, it makes zero sense. I was thinking of attending TBEX in Killarney this year, but if they are the type of company that won’t pay people for work they have done, I wouldn’t give them the ticket price. Great to see a list of alternatives here also.

  20. Woah, Kate, thank you for this eye-opening post, both about Zimbabwe and TBEX.
    I’m planning on visiting Zimbabwe next month and I’m so glad I read this post! I’m curious about how it’ll be and how Mugabe’s government influences daily lives of people.
    THANK YOU FOR KEEPING IT REAL!!!!!!! We need more people like you.

  21. I love everyone one’s praise of how great your article is. BUT wonder why you didn’t publish an article when TBEX announced the conference for Israel, Thailand, Philippines?? Suddenly the first conference in Africa is announced and everyone is in an uproar about it. Are you there for Mugabe or showcasing tourism opportunities for businesses as well as travelers that may not have considered Zimbabwe? You need to be more honest with yourself about why you made such an effort to produce such a post when an African country is hosting verse you’re producing such a disparaging post when all the other countries you mentioned were hosting. Look at the USA and their current dictator in the white house and tell me you would have produced this post if TBEX was being hosted in the USA. Tell me which country these days doesn’t have issues. Does that stop you from traveling to half of these countries? I bet not! You mentioned Thailand’s history with freedom of speech but probably still went to the conference OR still travel there as you clearly stated you love it there. The last time I checked theses conference are to promote tourism and not which government the is sponsoring the conference. Your post is so onesided!

    1. Bianca, I think you missed the second half of the post where she literally encouraged travel to Zimbabwe. (“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.”) At no point in this post did she encourage people to NOT travel to Zimbabwe. In fact, she encouraged it with a guide on how to do so in a way that will benefit locals. What she’s AGAINST is bloggers attending a conference *sponsored* by (one of) the worst dictators of this century. Those attending TBEX will literally be WORKING FOR Mugabe. THAT is the problem.

      She also clearly stated that she did not attend TBEX in Thailand and, again, this post is NOT about not traveling to these countries – whether that’s Zimbabwe, Thailand, the Philippines, etc. It’s about not working for these governments, which is what TBEX has done (is doing). There is a VERY significant difference between traveling independently, supporting small businesses, and connecting with locals and working for a government that only shows you the parts of the country they want you to see.

    2. Hi Bianca, you and I have been talking back and forth in Facebook groups about this issue, so I’ll repeat for everyone here what I’ve said to you elsewhere.

      What I said repeatedly is that the ethical thing to do is visit Zimbabwe independently. This way, small family-owned businesses get their money, and you’re not only going to the businesses handpicked by Mugabe’s government.

      There’s a difference between going to Thailand as a tourist and going to Thailand as an official, documented member of the media, which could get you targeted, jailed, and/or killed. Visiting Thailand independently (which I’ve always done) is the former; attending an official TBEX sponsored by the Thai government is the latter.

    3. Thank you Bianca, finally lol. These folks seem so keen on “helping Zimbabwe” when the point is to “see Zimbabwe” and draw their own conclusions and share it with others through their work.
      Where did they get the expectation that what I’m sure they think is a brave act of defiance is actually doing any good?

      Kate, if you feel so well informed about this country, then what alternative do you suggest? Oh right, “just do it yourself!” because the assumption there is that everyone can easily just go ahead and do that, right? If you’re so concerned with having the moral high ground, don’t you think it would be important to go and shine a light on whatever you find which needs to be reported on? Gain the cursory knowledge of the place so that you can tell others how best to then make it happen for themselves independently if they are inherently in your same position and have the means.

      But what you’re suggesting is: Sit the Zim conference out… and then what? I don’t mean that to be rude, I just didn’t catch what the benefit to Zim would be if bloggers refused. Because then inevitably not all those who would have been able to make it thanks to the financial incentive would then be able to swing it themselves, so telling people to go forth independently like many bloggers have suggested would still result in lost opportunities to give Zim a voice on the part of those who cant make it. Are the coordinators and tour operators local guides? Because if so then the bloggers who sit out are essentially putting self-righteousness above seizing an opportunity to engage with those local guides. I’m not sure anyone in Zim will thank you. I’m not saying I condone playing into the pocket of dictators, but what it seems like you’re proposing is effectively shutting out those you mean to include. If you go and even if you write a glowingly positive review of your experience, you wouldn’t be promoting the dictator, but rather bringing Zim into the conversation in a way that gives it a platform, even to air their grievances.

      I mean I guess I appreciate the thought, but…I just can’t get right with the sanctimonious tone and all the assumptions it necessarily relies on. You can say you’re encouraging travel there all you want, but look how many people have commented saying you “opened their eyes,” meaning you turned them off of it by planting the seed to be leery of the country.

  22. Excellent post. Found it through the FTB group on Facebook! It’s a shame big companies like this can’t think about ethics rather than profit for a few minutes. Aside from getting cosy with a dictator, they’re also putting people (who may be unaware) at serious risk.

  23. Wow so much respect for putting this article together, 100% honest and no holding back! I’m curious to see if TBEX replies… Anyway, wasn’t planning on visiting any TBEX conferences since reading the piece from Ng a couple months back.

    Again, amazing work! Thank you!!!

  24. Insightful post Kate. I’m glad it’s striking a nerve with many. This is not an easy topic to address.
    TBEX used to be about community, support and education. We attended most of the events before they were bought out by BlogWorld, who turned it into a sponsorship/advertising spectacle.
    We see no value in attending these events anymore.