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Travel guidebooks aren’t dead, but they’ll never be the same. Maybe that’s a good thing

Jen Rose Smith

THE WASHINGTON POST – Rick Steves is hyped. That’s not so unusual: Infectious joy is surely one key to Steves’s success as America’s kindly vacation guru. Still, when he leaves soon on a 40-day trip to update his European guidebooks – a ritual he used to perform each spring – it will be the first such journey since COVID-19 erased his travel calendar, which explains his current level of euphoria.

“Just to get back in the saddle has got me so filled with adventure, with energy,” he said. “I can hardly wait.” The trip follows a pandemic-long dry spell that quieted presses across the guidebook industry. United States (US) travel book sales in 2020 were down about 40 per cent from the previous year, according to NPD BookScan. (The category includes, but doesn’t single out, travel guidebooks.)

Facing stalled sales and the prospect of ongoing upheaval amid the pandemic, many guidebook print runs were postponed or canceled. “We put all the guidebooks on pause,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of the guidebook company her father, Arthur Frommer, founded in 1957. “It was very clear from the beginning of the pandemic that things were going to change drastically, and I did not want to print guidebooks that were not worth the paper they were printed on.”

The pandemic knockdown came following uncertain decades for the guidebook industry. After reaching 19,005,029 in 2006, US travel book sales halved over the next decade. In 2013, BBC Worldwide sold Lonely Planet, a move followed by massive layoffs. Then, having acquiring Frommer’s, Google quietly stopped all production of Frommer’s print guidebooks. (The Frommers repurchased rights and resumed printing guidebooks.)

That’s how 2013 became the year of essays trumpeting the demise of travel guidebooks, each attributing cause of death to some combination of apps, influencers, online searches and digital powerhouse Tripadvisor. But the doomsaying was nothing new. “The whole time I’ve been working on guidebooks, people have been like, ‘The end of guidebooks is nigh’,” said author Zora O’Neill, who wrote her first travel guidebook in 2002 and has penned titles for both Moon and Lonely Planet.

Rick Steves guidebooks on the shelf. PHOTO: RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

Although the end never came, O’Neill saw the industry change. Rates have fallen or stagnated in the past two decades, while in many cases, work-for-hire arrangements replaced traditional royalty contracts. And the once-dominant role of guidebooks in travel culture changed, too.

As an old millennial who started travelling in guidebooks’ supposedly halcyon age, I’ve watched that transformation with interest. Sometimes with nostalgia, too: I miss swapping annotated, dog-eared books with fellow travellers in bars or hostels. Now, you can reliably find those same places filled with people glued to their screens.

Twenty years ago, however, I would have said guidebooks contributed to an informational monoculture I found aggravating. I noticed that people using the same brand of travel guides seemed to follow each other, slightly abashed, from place to place.

On one months-long trip through Central America in 2002, fellow owners of Lonely Planet’s hefty Central America on a Shoestring became familiar faces as we popped up at the same places in city after city. When new businesses opened, owners struggled to get the word out.

Lurid tales of questionable guidebook ethics circulated. Outdated or incorrect entries in a book could leave you stranded, but few other sources existed.

“When I started writing, the problem was that there was not enough information,” said Steves, noting that, at one time, guidebooks were almost the only way to decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city. As times changed, that sameness gave way to the untamed, thrilling diversity of today’s digital wilderness.

“It got to the point where there was too much information,” he said, noting that proliferating sources made it harder to know what was reliable. Researching a trip online can be a Mad Max infinity loop of unvetted user-generated reviews and self-appointed experts. Trading free trips for sunny features is common practice in the world of travel influencers, with little transparency about who is footing the bill for a given blog post or YouTube video.

While earlier travellers just needed some basic info, Steves said, guidebooks’ main value proposition might now be an escape hatch from that digital overwhelm. “Part of my job is to curate all the options – the glut of information – with a consistent set of values,” he said.

What’s more, a print guidebook offers a chance to unplug, allowing travellers to put down their phones, Steves noted. With a screen close at hand, it’s too easy to let your attention drift away from that chic Parisian bistro and into drearily quotidian scrolling.

It seems to be working out, because Steves’s 2019 royalty checks were the highest of his career. Despite apocalyptic warnings, in fact, guidebooks are generally doing okay. After the rocky industry news of 2013, travel book sales stabilised, then stayed roughly even until the pandemic hit.

Most travellers who still buy print books, though, now seem to read them in conjunction with, not instead of, online resources. In recent Facebook and Twitter posts, veteran traveller and content creator Abigail King queried followers about how they use guidebooks today, noticing some buy for pre-trip research, reverting to the Internet for facts on the ground.

Others turn books into a kind of souvenir stuffed with ticket stubs and handwritten notes.

“I use them in a really different way now, too, mainly for reading about the country and planning an itinerary,” said King, who lives in the United Kingdom. She noted that, when travelling to destinations in Europe with consistent cell coverage, she’s unlikely to bring a hard copy along.

“Guidebooks are now among a suite of tools people use,” said Grace Fujimoto, acquisitions director at Avalon Travel, which oversees the Moon Travel Guides imprint that is the United States’ top guidebook seller. (Disclosure: I’ve written several Moon guidebooks.) Fujimoto said the pandemic accelerated that shift toward book-plus-digital, partly because information has changed so quickly in the past two years.

But it just underscores a broader trend of recent years, she said. “Guidebooks are becoming more and more inspirational, in addition to just being repositories of information,” Fujimoto said, offering a forthcoming guidebook to Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail as an example. “It does have a lot of good practical information, but it combines it with ways of appreciating what you’re seeing and doing almost every step of the way,” she said.

Lonely Planet is another publisher leaning into the shift. “Guidebooks are evolving into this experiential, curated collection,” said Lonely Planet spokesman Chris Zeiher. This month, the company released a new line of photo-heavy “Experience” guides, which Zeiher said are designed to inspire.

The first titles in the series, guidebooks to Italy, Portugal, Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Iceland, are noticeably lacking in the old-style comprehensive listings of hotels and restaurants. In their place are expert interviews and short, magazine-style features on the kinds of experiences travellers might build a trip around.

Flip through these to get fired up for chasing waterfalls in Iceland, for instance, or to dream up an itinerary focused on visiting Japanese temples. And unlike the earliest Lonely Planet guides, which were oriented to longer, more comprehensive trips, these are tailored to the shorter vacations increasingly common among travellers from the United States.

Zeiher, too, heard predictions of print guidebooks’ demise since he joined Lonely Planet nearly 17 years ago. But he’s optimistic about the coming decade. “One thing that Lonely Planet’s always done, is we’ve always evolved,” he said. “I think we’ll continue to do that.”

As the pandemic recedes and travellers return to the world, he’s betting there’s room in their bags for a book.