Why Getaway will soon by gone

There's a brilliant scene in the Cairo episode of the British travel show, An Idiot Abroad. It's not the obvious one at the pyramids, nor is it the one at the Egyptian Museum.

The truly great scene is in an unremarkable spot in the centre of Cairo, where the host, confessed travel-phobe Karl Pilkington, is walking down a busy street lined with restaurants, each with its own menu-clutching tout out the front hustling for business.

Anyone who's been to Cairo knows that Western faces attract a lot of attention. Everyone wants to sell you something, or collect their pound of baksheesh. Pilkington, a newbie to the city, doesn't know this, so the moment he's approached by a tout, he stops to have a polite chat.

"Um, no thanks, not really hungry," he says to the first guy, before another runs up to proffer a menu.

"No, no, wasn't hungry before, so I'm still not hungry now," he says, attempting to move down the street while being accosted by one tout after another.

It's hilarious, because it's the exact same thing every traveller has done in a place like Cairo. To begin with, wanting to be friendly, you're polite to everyone who approaches you. After a while, however, you begin to realise that if you keep that up, that's the only thing you'll do for your entire stay: talk to touts.

And that, right there, is what makes An Idiot Abroad a great travel show, and what separates it from the traditional magazine-style travel shows that used to dominate the mainstream channels.

Pilkington and co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are at pains to point out that An Idiot Abroad is "not really a travel show", but it is. More so than any other, really.

And it has been a raging success at a time when the one-time Australian travel juggernaut, Getaway, has been reduced to a half-hour slot on Saturdays despite the fact its arch rival The Great Outdoors has long since become a test pattern.


So why are these type of shows on the nose? Look no further than An Idiot Abroad.

Pilkington's the antithesis of what a good travel host should be. He's average-looking, inexperienced, and a miserable git. In fact, it would be quite easy to get annoyed at someone who has been given the opportunity to see the Seven Wonders of the World for free but still hates every single minute of it if it wasn't so funny, and so recognisable as the real travel experience.

Because that's what it is: real. The Getaways and Things To Try Before You Dies of the world don't paint an honest picture of the world. They're not so much "travel" shows as "destination" shows. They're pitching a dream rather than portraying an experience. You see the sights, but you don't have any idea what it's like to travel there, or to stay there, or to get around there as a normal traveller.

An Idiot Abroad is refreshingly different, and instantly recognisable as the truth.

Everyone's stayed in a crappy hostel some time, the sort of place you can never get to sleep because everyone's partying in the common room next door. Pilkington does the same thing in Rio de Janeiro.

Everyone's tried some supposedly fantastic local food and just found themselves craving a packet of chips. Pilkington does that... Every meal.

Everyone's fronted up for a "local" experience and quickly realised that it's going to suck. Pilkington's camel ride through Jordan is a perfect example – camel rides are fun for about 10 minutes. After that? Hellish.

And everyone's had their low moments when they just want to go home. Pilkington has one at five-minute intervals.

Part of the reason An Idiot Abroad works so well is that Pilkington is hilarious, despite (or maybe because of) his constant misery. There's also something charmingly familiar about his experiences, because unfortunately there's a lot more of Karl Pilkington – the whingey, naïve first-time traveller – in most of us than there is the confident, happy Jules Lund and co.

But the most important reason is the show's honesty. When you travel, shit happens. And as a seasoned traveller it's nice to see that captured on screen for once.

What's your favourite travel show? Do you think the magazine-style shows like Getaway have had their day? How could they be improved?

Hope you're enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me at bengroundwater@gmail.com.