The Futility of Travel Blogging

Last week we gave a quick email about a visit to King Power Mahanakhon, one of the newest tourist attractions in Bangkok, and the tallest building in Thailand. They kindly offered us complimentary tickets to the observatory and skywalk, cocktails at their rooftop bar, and a guided media tour (we only accepted the tickets). This week we gave a quick introduction email to Translink PR/Media about “simple video footage of the various train routes in Northern Ireland aimed at visitors/tourists/travellers” “to promote travel on the train lines as being an attraction in itself”.

And while we planned to be out sharing the fantastic tourist sights of Northern Ireland, we are instead grounded this weekend, waiting for a response from the Translink legal team to find whether or not a member of the general public can “photograph a sign at Sydenham station if I am not standing on the premises”. As, apparently, not just Northern Ireland Bloggers, but members of the public, are not allowed, and will not be given permission by Translink to photograph on their property. You better hide your smartphones kids.

Note, we are not professional media (as it just sounds really depressing) and it is more of a hobby for us as bloggers in Northern Ireland. At the same time, we do need to follow the same rules and regulations as everyone else.

Welcome to Northern Ireland

So I emailed a quick introduction to Translink on our plans in Northern Ireland. And, to be fair, there was a quick ” Hi Allan”. Before I am told about “insurances and risk assessment”, “Civil Aviation Authority permissions for your drone” along with an attached Indemnity Form that would need to be sent by literal snail mail because they require a hard copy. “Our legal team will check your paperwork when it is received and advise on whether it meets the criteria for filming to be able to go ahead”.

Screw that. And now I obviously regret going anywhere near them as I can’t even plead ignorance now. So I asked if this is necessary “for independent and non-commercial footage?” and “do these rules apply for general travellers” and apparently “these rules apply for anyone wishing to film on Translink property”. And my entire plans in Northern Ireland had been scuppered before they had even begun.

Drone Footage in Northern Ireland

“As your request involves drone filming, there is a requirement for further permissions” Okay, drone footage will always be a sticky subject, at the same time, I had no intention on using drones anywhere near trains or Translink property. I had only (unwisely) mentioned it as being part of coverage in our videos promoting tourism as “a mix of travel footage on the trains and drone footage”. So I ensured them that any coverage would be from afar and not on their property (although, as taxpayers, is it not our property?).

Anyway, 11 emails later, and they are still pushing the completely irrelevant issue “If you wish to use a drone, you will need clearance from the CAA. If you wish to use a drone on Translink property, you would have to seek permission from us (through myself) which would involve insurances etc.” And it just feels like an interrogation.

CAA Drone Registration?

First off, it is none of Translink’s business whether or not a private individual has clearance with CAA for a drone. And more so when they have not requested to use it on their property. But clearance is not even needed to use drones in Northern Ireland (U.K) given they are under 7kg in weight (the DJI Spark is 0.3kg) and it is not used for commercial purposes.

However, I did want to end this line of questioning, so I sent over my drone registration document for Thailand, which outlines the size and weight etc. of the drone. As I do follow rules and regulations when necessary. (Note, stricter laws are coming into effect at the end of November 2019). Anyway, I’m fairly sure this line of conversation/interrogation was to divert from the more important questions I was asking at the time.

European GDPR Regulations

GDPR is one of the most annoying issues when it comes to bloggers in Northern Ireland, as well as all media in Europe, as you more or less cannot use images in which people can be identified without first getting written consent. At the same time, it is a grey area, otherwise it would be pretty much impossible to photograph at events and conferences, and there are things like live coverage, and I guess any news or media channel would be off the air (just flick through the BBC News site).

But there is also a simple way around it, by not photographing or videoing people. However it is a serious sticking point with media coverage in Northern Ireland, so I ensured I would follow suit, as I only really wanted to take some pretty pictures/videos of scenery from inside the trains. But, again, this really isn’t their business, as it is a personal liability issue, and Translink is not responsible for anything published by others online.

No Photos on Public Transport?

The main query I was putting to Translink is “Can the general public take photos on trains and within the boundaries of Translink property without first receiving permission to do so from Translink?” As I really just wanted to get out to take some photos of the signage at halts, which I could then use to map nearby tourist interests along the train lines to Bangor (e.g. Sydenham: Belfast City Airport, Cultra: Ulster Folk Museum…). This query was then broken down into more specific points; such as use on online platforms, photos facing outside of the property, photographs of Translink property taken from public areas (like photographing a passing bus), and the liabilities of photographing/videoing as member of the public.

So far, after 3 replies, the only relevant information is that as a “non-commercial (private individual) venture, we do not grant permission”. So it seemed that private individuals are not allowed to take photographs on trains or busses and permission will not be granted to anyone that asks.

Photos ARE Allowed on Public Property

So 4 days later and finally we have some idea of what’s going on. And while I never did get answers to any of my pointed questions, they weren’t really necessary in the end, as I was told: “in relation to the photography on the trains or stations – it is not illegal to take photographs in a public place”. So when they said as a “non-commercial (private individual) venture, we do not grant permission” I guess what they really meant say was that permission was not there’s to grant.

Otherwise every photo or video taken in a public area of Northern Ireland, and shared on Facebook, Instagram, and just anywhere online, would be illegal. However, as for pretty all public areas of council control, permission is necessary for commercial use (e.g. TV stations, film crews etc) which is more to do with safety issues given the equipment and crew and potential disruption and whatnot. And you’re fine with a simple smartphone or point and shoot (as we use).

A Hostile Media Environment

I admit I was stupid for even reaching out in the first place. At the same time it is the norm in travel blogging to give a heads-up to local travel/tourism PR in case of opportunities for collaboration or just handy info and advice along the way. And these are public relations after all. They are there to give advice to the public. Not to harass and interrogate them. And even on the last email, instead of answering my pointed questions, they were still harping on about “In relation to Data Protection” which was something I ensured them through near every email I was well aware of. And had advised them it was none of their business.

So they were condescending and belittling from start to finish, they literally lied about needing permission for drones and for photography as private individuals, and, as far as press relations go, it is just completely baffling. I really don’t know what to think. And I really don’t care tbh. I now have more constructive things to do with my time. Next stop: Sid-in-ham. Choo-Choo.

A Blogger’s Perspective

I did complain to Translink about this misinformation I was given but received no reply. And while I do not want to be drawn into some bizarre negativity of Northern Ireland travel media, I am still happy to highlight it. In the past I have worked with companies all over the world, through 3 continents, and around 15 different countries, where travel and tourism agencies always have programs to help facilitate bloggers and independent media.

Because bloggers are generally a cheap and nuisance-free way to help promote local tourism, where it only really costs to facilitate, which tends to be no more than simple administration. But Translink instead prefer to waste these resources through 3 days of emails, involving a legal team, and they were literally whinging from the start, “Please understand, we receive hundreds of filming requests annually”. Which is hardly a hard quota to deal with.

Titanic Quarter Train Station East Belfast Northern Ireland

It’s Not all Doom and Gloom

But what annoys me most about all this, is that these are literal government employees, paid to promote Northern Ireland out of taxpayer money, who are more or less doing the complete opposite. They are going out of their way to stop positive promotion to a small, formerly war-torn island, pretty much desperate to bring in any tourism. And I otherwise think of media, press and PR services as being there to help accommodate and facilitate media, press and PR (obviously). Rather than to antagonize, interrogate and disrupt them.

So they should really respect media of all sizes and influence, given it’s their duty as public representatives to do so in their public service jobs. But, as they say in Northern Ireland, they seem more to be “up their own arses”, as the U.K. is unfortunately cynical, and Northern Ireland is pretty much backwards. So nothing’s ever going be easy. On the upside, Discover Northern Ireland, the tourist authority in Northern Ireland, does facilitate bloggers through FAM trips etc. And I know successful bloggers who have done similar who have done great work. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

A Land of Opportunity

I see their failures more as opportunities for bloggers, and I have shown similarly in this website where after 8-months (of next to no work) this site was already ranking for search terms like ‘Bangor Northern Ireland’ above ‘DiscoverNorthernIreland’ and ‘VisitNorthDownandArds’. Which are long-standing government agencies literally paid to promote these places.

Anyway, just a quick look at the Translink, and I found their HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) (HTTPS), which is an essential encryption for security in websites, was only added recently (very late). Meaning the website was deemed “not secure” by Google and this would be seen as negligent when it comes to companies dealing with sensitive information systems and transactions. But it’s also just odd, given it really only takes 10-minutes to convert to HTTPS, where it’s often offered as a free service with many hosting services with free SSL Certificates.

But their entire sitemap seems to be a bit of a disaster, where simple search indexing with Google found so many old links that just redirect back to the homepage at best. Which is an annoying issue for those who actually try to facilitate travellers, as I was already finding broken links (404) when forwarding to timetables and advice for travellers in Northern Ireland. Otherwise it is general practice to create redirects (301) to revised URLs on a website, and they are just failing at even the most basic of tasks in website development.

One Year On

Translink Update

What annoys me is that I arrived in Northern Ireland hoping to promote local travel and tourism in the country. A year on and it’s the complete opposite. At least when it comes to Translink and its services. But it’s completely unintentional as well. I only offered options and an honest approach to travel and…, while I have tens of links to Translink for bus/train routes in Northern Ireland, the most clicked links on my NI promoting website are to Aircoach and Buseirann. Both from Ireland. And it’s all because of the one post I published when I last arrived to Northern Ireland from Dublin airport. In short, they have lost thousands of potential customers in the past year and this is going to grow.


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