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Oct. 18, 2021, 9:27 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Travel writer Sarah Khan’s next destination is a top editing job in Dubai — and making travel media more inclusive

“At the end of the day travel journalism is service journalism and so you need to do a service to your readers who are very diverse.”

October has been a good month for Sarah Khan.

Her essay “In the City of Saints” about Harar, Ethiopia was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2021. She also received an honorable mention from the Society of American Travel Writers for Travel Writer of the Year.

Khan, an Indian American travel writer, recently started her new job as the editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East (read her first editor’s note here). In a few weeks, she’ll relocate from New York to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Khan is no stranger to moving. The UAE will be the sixth country she has lived in. She was born in Canada, grew up in Saudi Arabia, lived in India for a few of her middle school years, and then moved to the United States as a teenager. In her 30s she moved to South Africa for three and a half years and started a full-time career as a freelance travel writer there.

I’ve been following Khan’s work for years, ever since I read her 2013 essay about South Africa. Even then, when I was in journalism school, it not only felt rare to see a byline belonging to a South Asian woman writer, but also to see a South Asian woman sharing her unique travel experiences through her dispatches.

I managed to catch up with Khan while she and I were in the same time zone, and we chatted about some of the flaws in the travel media industry, what a travel writer does during a global pandemic, and a joint venture she recently started with her friends to promote travel writers of color.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: I’ve been reading your work for a long time. I was in journalism school when I read your essay for Love, Inshallah about moving to South Africa. And I thought, “This is like what I want to do, too!” It’s been really fun to watch you make all the different moves that you made and do all the interesting things that you’re doing. It was especially cool because when I decided that I want to be a journalist, too, there really weren’t that many South Asian women [in the field] that I had access to.

Khan: I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was eight. And I’m 40 now. I graduated from j-school in 2004. You saw a few South Asian origin journalists doing breaking news and there were definitely some really talented hard news and financial reporters as well, but I always wanted to be in the lifestyle space in particular. Finding any people whose track I could follow and kind of emulate and look to as a mentor … there was nobody. So it’s been exciting seeing how much the landscape has changed in the last decade.

Tameez: I think it’s especially fascinating to see that you’re able to be yourself in the work that you do. I think there’s a generation of South Asian people across industries, not just in journalism, that felt like you really have to dilute yourself to be able to make it further than you might have if you showed your entire personality or your entire identity.

Khan: I think when I look at some of my early freelancing, it might not necessarily be identity-related, but I just think the tone and the approach I took was very much through this, kind of, Western, white-centric gaze, even if it wasn’t an identity-driven article. Even if I was writing about cool coffee shops in Cape Town or whatever, I just felt like I really approached everything through what was being done out of New York media, because it’s all I saw. It’s been such a challenge for a lot of people of my generation to really get to a point where we can do this. And that’s why it’s also really empowering and exciting to see younger journalists who are able to start their careers being a bit more authentic to who they are.

Tameez: How did you become the travel writer you are now?

Khan: My mom was a journalist. She studied journalism in India and she had a full scholarship to Columbia’s School of Journalism, but she couldn’t take it because she had to get married because it was the 70s [laughs]. But she freelanced while I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, so at least I had that as an idea that this is a career. I think a lot of people are surprised that I would say when I was eight that I wanted to be a journalist. They were like, “Why do you know what that is?”

After graduate school, I got a job at a lifestyle magazine in New York. My first jobs were at these luxury city magazines, Gotham Magazine and Hamptons Magazine. I did that for a couple years. And as is still the case, once you get experience doing something, then you can branch off and do things that you’re more interested in. So that’s when I started thinking, ‘What would I like to do? What would be more interesting to me?’

I grew up in four countries because my dad worked for an airline in Saudi Arabia, so travel has always been a big part of my life. So, I was like, “I’d like to get into a travel magazine.” And then I just sort of stalked Travel + Leisure until they hired me and I worked there for four and a half years. When I moved to South Africa, that’s when I went freelance. It was this progression where first I narrowed down that I wanted to be in lifestyle, then after I had a bit of experience in the general space, I furthered my niche to travel as an editor. When I had the opportunity to move to a really exciting travel destination, then I went freelance and focused on writing as opposed to editing.

Tameez: What originally appealed to you when you started, and has that changed?

Khan: In some of those early years, I was emulating what I thought travel writing was, because we’ve been seeing it the way that it’s been for centuries. That’s when I realized that it’s not just about going and telling the same stories that have been told before. It needs to be about different perspectives on the world because, essentially, travel writing is a colonial construct that comes from centuries of colonizers going out to their domains and writing back what they’re finding. That’s just what it’s always been and that tone, I think, still pervades today, unfortunately.

But travelers are so much more diverse now in the places we’re going and the things we’re seeing. It’s unfortunate that travel writing remains such a homogenous thing and is generally a white-centered field, which means the stories we’re seeing about the world are told through that lens. As a brown woman, a Muslim woman, my experiences are automatically going to be very different. Most people who are any one of those things will have terrible experiences at some point just given the way the world is. I’m fortunate I personally haven’t really had any terrible experiences based on race or religion or gender.

In the last five to eight years, I think I’ve started seeing the value of having different perspectives, because it then broadens how I see a place. How a white traveler might experience a place like Morocco or India is very different from how someone like me might, because a lot of [white people’s] experiences stem from being othered. [Street vendors, for example] will be like “Oh, come to me! Come to me!” [White travel writers] might be “harassed” a bit more. That’s why a lot of representations you’ll see of a place like Morocco or India, they’re very loud, they’re chaotic.

But for someone like me, I grew up going to India. India is like a second home to me. I’m definitely overwhelmed because it’s like loud and everything. But my [takeaway isn’t] “Oh my god, there’s so many colors here, and there’s so many different smells here,” which I think is the general narrative you see about India in travel writing.

At the end of the day, travel journalism is service journalism and so you need to do a service to your readers who are very diverse.

Tameez: How to you bring this perspective to your work as the editor-in-chief of Traveler Middle East now?

Khan: I’m very excited about this, because what I’m trying to do is essentially what I’ve been trying to do as a freelancer. My readership in America is very different from my readership in the Middle East. In recent years, I’ve brought in a bit more of my cultural background into stories I’ve been reporting for The New York Times, or other outlets in the States. They’ve been well received, but they’re still fairly niche. Now, with the Middle East market, that is, essentially, much more aligned.

I already looked at the world as a Muslim traveler, so now I have a much bigger platform to do that. I can dig deeper into some of the stories that I’ve wanted to tell. I can empower other writers to go and tell some of the stories that I’ve always found intriguing, but that might not have worked for some of my editors over here [in the United States].

[For example] in the October/November issue, I did a story on Malta. Malta is a great, summery destination, it’s a beautiful island and everything, but what I find fascinating about it is that the Maltese language is basically 50% Arabic, 40% Italian, and 10% English. It’s very much a hybrid. [The island] is still very European, and a lot of the physical, tangible Arabic influences were wiped out, so there’s no architecture or other real obvious remnants of that time, except the language is pretty huge. I’m sure it would have been of interest to an editor over here. But it’s definitely more relevant to the Middle Eastern market.

Tameez: How do you balance travel stories with the day-to-day news in the countries or cities you’re writing about?

Khan: That’s very tricky. Any travel publication or travel editor is constantly pulling stories because of things that are happening. It’s tough because some of the stuff in travel journalism is more evergreen and we’re not telling people to go right this minute. But you still need to be sensitive to what’s going on, what the reality is, especially during Covid.

It’s a very delicate balance, because tourism is obviously a huge economic factor in these countries. But sometimes you shouldn’t be sending people there at a particular moment in time. Sometimes it even means pulling a story when you’re about ready to go to print because of some major political upheaval that might have just happened. It’s just a reality. So you’re constantly trying to stay plugged into what’s going on and what the most sensitive way is to be covering these places.

Tameez: How has the pandemic impacted your work?

Khan: It’s tough. That’s actually part of why I ended up taking this role. A year like last year, it makes you really reconsider what you’re doing, where you’re going in your life, and this opportunity came up at the perfect time where I was like, “Should I be looking to do something else?” It wasn’t that I was actively job hunting to leave freelance travel journalism. It was just that, for the first time, I was open to the right opportunity, should it present itself. Last year was tough, but I still managed to do very well for myself. There was a lot of pivoting. I did a lot more entertainment writing … and then the travel writing I did do was actually a good opportunity for me.

[One thing] I was actually doing a lot of during the pandemic [was] going through my archives, and seeing what are the angles that I’ve always thought will make a good story, but never had the time to really pitch and try to place them.

Tameez: Tell me about how you started Travel is Better in Color.

Khan: There’s a bunch of us [people of color] in the [travel] industry in different ways. We were brought together by a friend, [Paula Franklin], and these are kind of conversations we’ve had for a while about the lack of diversity in travel media from all different angles of it. During the summer [of 2020], there’s obviously a really big racial reckoning happening [in the media] after George Floyd. It started with food media, but then that automatically goes to travel media and how [it’s] covering the world. We saw an opportunity to formalize some of the conversations we were already having, but also take advantage of the fact that editors, for the first time, were waking up to their shortcomings and their shortsightedness and looking for help.

We wanted to build this platform to celebrate the diverse people who are in the industry. There’s already people from all different backgrounds across the industry writing, photographing, [or] working in PR, so we started consolidating them on our Instagram, where we feature different travelers of color in the industry. With our newsletter, we identify some of the best travel writing happening by diverse writers. Now we have a huge number of top-tier editors who follow us both through the newsletter and on Instagram. For them, it’s an easy way to see who’s out there, or to help them start their search. It’s bringing more visibility to some of the talents out there, but also showing that there’s amazing writing happening already that you’re just not aware of.

Tameez: What are the barriers to entering travel journalism in particular?

Khan: Travel journalism is no better than any other [journalism], and probably no worse than some, but media has always been this insular, nepotistic enterprise. In the last year with Travel is Better in Color, we’ve seen some of the changes as far as the writers who are appearing in these magazines — which is great — but I think the real changes need to happen on the masthead. Because once you have more diverse editors, then the conversations happening in pitch meetings are just immediately very different because you have so many different perspectives in that first stage of the ideation process, and then who they’re commissioning, and they’re tapping into their network. So I think until we have more diverse editors, it’s going to be really hard to really bring in a broad range of voices.

One thing that’s been really interesting to observe in the last year both through this [racial] reckoning that opened up a lot of editors’ eyes, and also through Covid, is that historically, travel writing has often been New York-based writers being helicoptered into Indonesia or South Africa or wherever to just go spend a week there and write this amazing story. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of writing, but because we weren’t able to send people around the world and because of all the lockdowns, I think editors were forced to scramble to find writers on the ground in different destinations. That opened up a lot of opportunities that some of these writers would never have had access to before.

Tameez: Do you have tips for journalists of color who want to get into travel writing?

Khan: If either you live somewhere cool or if you have the opportunity — which I know is a privilege — to move somewhere, whether it’s overseas or to just a lesser covered part of the country, I think that is a huge way to break in. I was already in New York media for a bit before, but my career is very different because of my four years in South Africa than if I’d stayed in New York. In New York, I don’t think I would have gone freelance because it’s so competitive and so expensive. In South Africa, I had the world as my oyster. I had access to so many stories the editors were interested in but weren’t getting on their desks because it’s the kind of stuff that you only really see by living in the place. So, if you have the possibility of living in an interesting destination for a year or two, that is a great way to jumpstart your career.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Oct. 18, 2021, 9:27 a.m.
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