Travel Writer Jeff Greenwald in Vietnam

On assignment on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam (Photo by Rosie Stenke)

Meet Jeff Greenwald

World’s 1st Travel Blogger & Founder of Ethical Traveler


I first knew of Jeff Greenwald as the founder of Ethical Traveler, which annually publishes a list of the World’s Top 10 Ethical Travel Destinations. Ideologically, his organization and ours are perfectly aligned, and we even enlisted his PR guru Mike McColl to work with us in EcoAdventure Media.


It wasn’t until fairly recently that we learned that Greenwald, a successful travel writer for outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Wired magazine, also happened to be the world’s first travel blogger. As documented in his 1996 book, The Size of the World, Greenwald was hired by Global Network Navigator to post travel stories to the World Wide Web during his 1993-1994 overland journey around the world. It was the first time the then-new Internet technology had been used for travel blogging.


Greenwald, who still blogs on occasion, has gone on to become a successful author (his sixth book, Snake Lake, was published in 2010) and performer, touring with his one-man show “Strange Travel Suggestions.” He was kind enough to spend more than an hour chatting with us about everything from that very first travel blog post in January of 1994 to his views on travel blogging today.


Travel Writer Jeff Greenwald, 1994

Blogging in the Mauritanian Sahara, 1994 (Photo by Brijbala Jahns) 


How did you get into travel writing, and what attracted you to the field?

I never set out to be a travel writer. In 1979, I was working as a sculptor. I went to Europe to sculpt marble for 3 months. Instead I met a beautiful young woman in Greece who was going to a place I’d never heard of– Nepal. I ended up living there with her for a few months. Then we went to Thailand, right when the Cambodian civil war started. We were hired as volunteers at the first refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, called Khao-I-Dang.

When I got back to the States, I wrote a story about my experience at the camps. The Santa Barbara News published the story, and called me the following week to ask if I would be their Cultural Features Editor. That’s how my career as a writer started.

In 1983, the Rotary Foundation gave me a fellowship to return to Katmandu to work on a book, because I’d been so completely smitten with the country. I lived there over a year and wrote my first book, Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood. While I was there, I began doing stories for other magazines. Four of my six books are set in Nepal, and it continues to have an enormous artistic, literary, and spiritual impact on my life and career.


Jeff Greenwald 1994

Returning from his ’round-the-world journey in 1994 (Photo by Dwayne Newton)


In 1993, you said that you didn’t feel like a real traveler. Can you explain?

I’d been to all of these exotic countries as a travel journalist, but there was this sense that I hadn’t really gone anywhere. I felt like I’d cheated. I’d arrive in a country like Morocco, Nepal or Peru, but why did I deserve to be there? I’d simply set foot on an airplane, sat down and had cocktails for six hours, and there I was. I became disgusted with myself, acting like I was this great world explorer when all I’d really done was to sit on an airplane.

So, for my 40th birthday, I resolved to do something that seemed really crazy– going around the world without taking any airplanes. I pitched it as a book proposal, and I set off in late December of 1993. It took 9 months, through 27 countries, covering more than 30,000 miles. It was a complete transformation in how I saw the world. If you don’t take an airplane from California to Tangiers, it takes weeks to get there. The characters, scenarios, and problems you encounter along the way, every one of them is a story.


Travel Writer Jeff Greenwald in Thailand

Enjoying a Thai jungle waterfall (Photo © Jock Montgomery)


How did you connect with Global Network Navigator, publisher of the world’s first travel blog?

GNN, which had one of the first websites ever posted on the Internet, approached me in 1993 and asked if I’d like to write stories from the road that would appear live on their “Travelers’ Center” site.

They had a map of the world, and every time I wrote a story they’d put a dot on the city where I wrote it: You could click on that dot and the story would come up. They contacted Hewlett Packard and got me a small portable computer called an Omni Book 300, taught me how to upload stories through modems I’d find at various places, and sent me on my way.

Over the next nine months, I sent back 19 dispatches ranging from 150 to 2,000 words. I posted stories from Tibet, Morocco, Istanbul, the middle of the Atlantic Ocean…  I didn’t know at the time that no one had ever done this before. I wasn’t trying to pioneer anything, or break any records. I was just writing stories and sending them back, with a tremendous amount of energy and time spent waiting for the stories to upload.


Jeff Greenwald in Thailand

Goofing Around in Thailand (Photo © Jock Montgomery)


Was there any difference in the way you approached those early blogs as a writer from the work you’d done for books and magazines?

Yes, they were much closer to conversational journal entries than they were to formal articles. Really, they were a conversation between me and my best friend– my Omni Book, which became my therapist and my companion. I had it with me everywhere. It weighed only 2.9 lbs, and every day I would write for an hour or two. Those dispatches were my most personal, unguarded thoughts about the experiences I was having.


Did you ever imagine that Travel Blogging would get as big as it has today?

No, it never occurred to me that people would take so much time off from the experience of being in the moment in their travels unless they had to. I did it because I was working on a book, because I had a contract, because writing was what I’d done my whole life. It still mystifies me when I go to a place like Cusco in Peru, or Katmandu, or Fez, and see people sitting in Internet cafes checking their email and Facebook Pages. They’re engaging online when they could be out engaging with the people, sights, and byways of the cities they’re visiting.


Travel Writer Jeff Greenwald in Laos

Rappelling in Laos


Do you think that, in trying to document every moment of our travels, we’re losing something?

I don’t want to judge anyone else’s behavior. But when I travel, I prefer being disengaged  from everything except my present circumstances. Nowadays it’s not just travelers who are behind their computers and smart phones, but people in the country you’re visiting. When I last trekked to Nepal in 2008, the Sherpas and porters were on their iPhones and iPads. It was nothing like the experience I had many years ago, when I was having conversations with these people about their lives, sports ,and culture. It is really a polarizing technology: It gives the illusion of creating community but, in fact, it limits us. To me, it is the antithesis of what travel is all about.


What inspired you to start Ethical Traveler? 

There’s a certain point in people’s careers where they get a sense that they’ve taken a great deal from the world and have an urge to start giving back. The seed of Ethical Traveler came from an announcement made by Aung San Suu Kyi around 10 years ago, when she was still under house arrest. She asked travelers not to visit Burma until there was regime change, because the money was supporting a murderous junta.

Her words turned on a light bulb for me. I thought, “Wow, travelers really are a huge untapped political action group! What if there was some way to combine their voices in order to promote human rights and social change?” A lot of countries rely on tourism dollars. especially in the developing world. We can and should exert pressure on those countries to do the right thing with the environment, social welfare, and how they use the resources we, as travelers, are bringing in.


Travel Writer Jeff Greenwald Books

Two of Jeff’s Books: The Size of the World (1995) & Snake Lake (2010)


Can you talk about the future of sustainable travel, and how you’d like to see travel bloggers contributing to it?

I think there are some interesting points of connection– not just through bloggers, but through all travelers. As Arthur C. Clarke once told me, it’s much easier to predict the future 500 years from now than 10 years from now. With technology advancing so quickly, and the advent of wearable devices like Google Glass, it’s hard to know how we will document our experiences in the future.

I can envision a dystopian future, where everyone is wearing their Google Glass, and it’s this tremendous festival of narcissism with everyone documenting their own life instead of really living it. But I can also see a future in which bloggers and other travelers– anyone with a smart device– can be part of the conversation about what’s working and what’s not in the developing world. Where is the school that was supposed to be built, which is just a pile of bricks because local officials have taken the money?

Let’s document that via a social network. Let’s be the eyes and the ears of the world, to keep things honest and make sure that the money travelers bring to countries is actually used to improve the lives of the people we’re visiting. I think that would be an immensely valuable direction for bloggers to take.

While I think vacations are wonderful, nobody deserves a vacation from the realities of the world. If you’re going to travel to a place, you should always have an awareness of the problems people in those communities face, so– at the very least– you’re not making things worse.


Jeff Greenwald solo show, "Strange Travel Suggestions"

Jeff’s solo show, “Strange Travel Suggestions”


 Can you talk about your ambitions for 2014, recreating your first travel blogging trip?

At 60 years old, I don’t feel like I can carry a 60-lb backpack around the world for 9 months. What I hope to do is a two-faceted journey. First, I’d recreate the trip virtually, using social media to reconnect with some of the extraordinary people I wrote about in my book, The Size Of The World. Secondly, I’d physically go back to three or four places I went on that trip and meet some of those people, to see how their lives have changed during the past 20 years of evolution, both globally and technologically. I think it could be a really interesting project. –Bret Love; all photos provided by Jeff Greenwald


If you enjoyed our interview with Ethical Traveler founder Jeff Greenwald, you might also like: 

The World’s Top 10 Ethical Travel Destinations for 2014

INTERVIEW: TIES Founder Megan Epler Wood on the Evolution & Future of Ecotourism

INTERVIEW: CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg on the Travel Business, Budget Travel & Blogging

29 Responses to INTERVIEW: Jeff Greenwald, World’s 1st Travel Blogger & Founder of Ethical Traveler

  • Lindsey says:

    The comments about blogging as time willingly spent away from what we’re travelling for were really interesting. It’s certainly something I struggle with as a traveller, because I do wish to travel to become immersed, but with the universality of some technologies, it’s increasingly harder to do.

    • I agree, Lindsey, technology has become too seductive. For me, at least, it’s leeched away a lot of the pleasure of travel. So many people I’d like to talk to in cafés and on trains, but when they’re in the cone of their devices it feels like they’ve set up a no-fly-zone.

  • Technology is evil. I always have my iPhone in hand looking at my different feeds. It’s a sickness that isn’t going away, and it’s very unfortunate that when people travel we are sitting in a cafe looking at our phones instead of the people around us.

  • Technology… the demon among us that we can’t live without! We recently returned to Thailand (last time was 20 years ago) and also visited other less developed Southeast Asian countries. Our biggest surprise was how so many people in even the most remote areas are glued to their gadgets. For us, being connected all the time really takes away from the travel experience – it’s not as easy to engage with locals when they have their heads glued to an iPad screen or are endlessly texting on their smartphone. But, it has made the world much smaller and we are now easily connected on a daily basis with these very same people.

  • I love that Jeff went on his true traveler journey at the age of 40, maybe I’ll follow his lead in 5 years, hehe. Seriously though really inspiring interview.

  • Sophie says:

    I travelled around in Georgia and Armenia last summer, bringing only my iPhone, but leaving even that in a safe at the hostel most of the time, as an experiment of sorts. As you say, most everyone else – travellers and locals – had their noses buried in their devices, even groups of friends around a cafe table. Interesting to observe. I think it will balance out by itself eventually.

  • Mette says:

    Interesting read. I hadn’t heard about Jeff Greenwald before, so I appreciate the introduction.

  • Jo says:

    While I am not one for spending all day in cafés on my phone or tablet, I do struggle with being in the moment. I find I have an almost obsessive urge to wander round photographing endlessly, and I really need to be very conscious of putting the camera away and just being in the moment. I know I am guilty of it, and it’s something I work to overcome daily. I’m old enough to have been a traveler before smartphones and wifi, and I think digital cameras, for all their virtues, have a lot to answer for. When you had to buy a 24 or 36 exposure film, then pay to have it developed, documenting every moment of everything was not only expensive, it was impractical, and therefore unheard of.

    • One thing that’s important to remember — and often talked about by techno-visionary Jaron Lanier but not given enough currency by us travelers — is that the only people really benefiting from all this endless pseudo-engagement are the people who mediate our information: the executives at Instagram, Twitter, Google, Facebook, etc. All we get out of it is — well — a mediated experience.

  • I believe Gary Arndt posted a story about Jeff Greenwald on his Facebook page several days ago, and that was the first I’d heard of him. When I first went to Europe in 2001 and studied abroad in 2005, I had a pen and a notebook. It’s amazing to think about how much reach bloggers have these days, and how their work with travel brands is changing the face of travel. Great, engaging interview, as always!

  • Interesting read! I find travelling quite different now that I’m blogging about it.

  • Karisa says:

    Very inspirational interview 🙂 I love how Jeff was blazing a trail without even knowing it!

  • This is a fascinating interview and I really appreciate the comments about how we are becoming more disconnected as we travel when we are focussed on documenting our travels rather than truly experiencing them.

  • Alfredo Begazo says:

    Take technology for what it is. Embrace it and use it to your benefit, the sky is the limit…really.

  • Cassie says:

    This is such a great quote and an important idea: “While I think vacations are wonderful, nobody deserves a vacation from the realities of the world. If you’re going to travel to a place, you should always have an awareness of the problems people in those communities face, so– at the very least– you’re not making things worse.” I’ve had trouble elaborating that divide between responsible/ethical “travel” and the concept of a “vacation” that often includes some detachment from the reality of the communities you are visiting. Thank you Jeff for the intereview and Bret for sharing this. I wasn’t aware of Ethical Travler, I’m eager to follow them and find out how travel media (including bloggers) can encourage responsible travel and awareness of local social, political, and environmental issues.

  • There’s reason to unplug and experience life! Great interview – thank you!

  • Jennifer says:

    VERY cool interview! I feel like I’ve admired Jeff Greenwald since I’ve first heard of him…seems like ages ago. I especially love learning that he set out at the age of 40. Being somewhat around that age (okay! ABOVE that age. Jeez) myself,I’d just assumed that it was a game for the young and untethered. Today I learned, huh.

    Also appreciate the thoughts about technology. My teenager takes photos of, and Instagrams, every plate of food when we dine out. It’s as if she can’t really enjoy what she’s doing until she shares it with her hundreds of virtual friends. This is the next generation, folks.

  • This is such a very good interview of an inspiring man. His approach reminds me of a quote that my father told me “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

  • We’ve very old school on Gran Canaria Local. We still travel the island with a notebook, pen, and camera. However, we have got a laptop, albeit a malfunctioning one. We explore the island and then come back to our desktop and write it up. This is a fascinating interview and really sums up the travel blogging we aspire to produce. Although, we’ve got some way to go before we come near to approaching the quality of Jeff Greenwald.

  • I really want to thank everyone who posted comments for their interesting, reflective and often very kind words about the interview. If anyone’s interested in seeing what I look like these days (with no prep, as I had no idea going in that it was going to be on video!), here’s a podcast that was recorded today (1/28/14) for Amateur Traveler. It covers similar ground, but goes in few different directions.

    I’d also like to let you know that I’m on Twitter @strangetravel

  • Another interesting read Bret – thank you!
    Jeff sounds like a very rounded individual… very aware of his surroundings and the people there too. Most of us could learn a thing or two from him I think.
    Elle x

  • So nice to meet travel blogging’s patient zero. And a fascinating observation on the sherpas on their iphones and ipads instead in the moment. I wonder if the tech pendulum will ever swing back.

  • I love his story. I read, The Size Of The World, and loved it. And, I do find it hard when blogging takes away from travel, too. I think I am just going to continue to make my way around the world very slowly, so I can do both!

  • Fascinating interview! Way to go to the source…

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  • Amit Sengupta says:

    Awesome interview. Enjoyed reading every bit of it.

  • Kay Hampton says:

    Fantastic interview. You made me daydream! I have always wanted to travel the world. I am afraid I am not brave enough. Keep posting!

  • Barbara Wurfbain says:

    I read shopping for buddhas 2 times, and loved it !!! I have been 9 times to Nepal, fell in love with the people and culture from the first time. !!! Traveling alone, I loved to talk with Nepali and tourists . However, last time ( 2007 ) everybody was constantly looking on their phones/computers etc. etc. I felt lonely and a dummy, because i do not have all these things. It simply is not “my thing”., and I can not work with it.
    Last year I was in Roemenia. There was a nice cafe/terrace. They placed a sign : we have no wifi, ni internet . PLease start talking with each other.

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