No matter where you go in the world, chances are, there will be someone there ready to sell you their country’s edition of the Lonely Planet. Make no mistake, in today’s world where information can be shared quickly, efficiently, and effortlessly, knowledge is power. It has never been easier for even the most casual of travelers to take a trip abroad without many horror stories to follow. However, the method of gaining knowledge, probably shouldn’t have a big LP logo on it.
A Little History on the Famous Book
The roots of the Lonely Planet are actually quite fascinating and should be a book on their own (if it isn’t already). A couple, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, went on a trip in the early 1970s crossing Europe and Asia before making it to Australia. Given that this was before the internet, information on destinations and the mere “how do you do that?” was difficult to come by without spending a fortune. They took notes, made booklets, and after giving them to their friends, decided to sell it. They sold out very quickly, so a few years later, they returned and took more extensive notes making what is now considered one of the first guide books in the region focusing on budget travel. A lot has changed since then.
The World Then and the World Now
When the books were first written, there was no internet, and that changes everything. In a world where fewer people traveled, places changed slowly, and you really had no other option. Today, the internet provides, if anything, TOO much information on any place you can dream off. The only ‘off the beaten paths’ are those people are unwilling to go through the trouble of reaching. As an example, I recently visited Kayah State, a place where only a few hundred non-Burmese have ventured in recent years. Even there, it took digging, but I found the information I needed online that was even MORE accurate than what a lot of locals in the region were telling me.
Do Travel Writers Ruin The Places They Talk Up?
Like anything, the key is scale, and no book sells more guides than the Lonely Planet, leading to a huge problem. The case is crystal clear when it comes to the places it recommends you eat. Many of these restaurants often go from a hole in the wall with amazing food, to overpriced and overrated as there is no longer a need to make fantastic food with such a constant inflow of rich foreign customers. Such is the case in central Ho Chi Minh City where restaurant owners blatantly print and display huge banners if their restaurant was featured in the book. Ask any local (including Christine’s cousin who guided us there) and you will see how these places go from alright to crap within months.
The Case of Colombia
So, you can’t trust the food, but what about the destinations? After all, these books are written by experts right? Would you believe that the Colombia book was partly written by the guy mentioned above, who HAS NEVER EVEN BEEN THERE? You can read the whole scandal here, but in short, LP does not pay its writers enough to make it profitable to go out there and do actual legitimate travel writing. In fact, they openly admit that some hotels and places they review are not personally visited because of the ‘scope’ or ‘danger.’ Look, I get it that some places are not easy to write about right now. How about you DON’T make a book on them?
The End of an Era
Whatever your thoughts were of these books, it is important to note that any fuzzy feelings should have died in 2007. This is when founder Tony Wheeler sold most of the company to BBC Worldwide and turned it into a business that cares far more about its bottom line than actually putting out a good product. By 2012, the founders had sold the entire company which has since changed hands again to NC2 Media. Why is this important? Like any business, they are desperately trying to make this sinking ship profitable and make money by any means necessary. While that is not inheritable a bad thing (after all, who doesn’t like money?), it does mean that they will push products, including guides on countries they simply aren’t qualified to do.
The Case of Myanmar
One recent experience that comes to mind came in Mandalay, Myanmar where one of the most recommended activities is the show by the Moustache Brothers. Many people came out feeling it was a money grab and one particular girl was shocked it was so popular, despite having read it herself on the Lonely Planet. How can you really expect a unique experience following a guide millions of others are following as well?
Another guy I met in Bagan said it best. He looked at his LP book and exclaimed, “one thing I’ve learned here… this book is complete crap,” after his frustrations with inaccuracies and dated information on this quickly changing country.
Old System Needs an Upgrade
The Lonely Planet in principle is actually not a bad idea. Give people a general guide and update it when information changes. For the LP though, that means yearly and I strongly doubt they have the man power to re-do every single thing they recommended in every single country every single year to make sure it still applies. What they should do, is switch strictly to digital and have constant updates and comments integrated directly into the updates. Think of it sort of like a hybrid between the books, Trip Advisor, and the LP forum. But then again, this is actually kind of what we already have with ‘Wikitravel.’ At the very least, offer it as an option when you buy the book with a unique code to prevent fake copies (much like online games) and provide a service relevant in today’s world.
So What is the Alternative?
One might think this is the perfect opportunity to talk up travel blogs (like this one) and the like as an alternative form of information. I won’t. Many travel blogs suffer from even more punishing fall-backs from taking freebies to being completely out of touch with most of its reader base that I would only recommend a select few as worth a read. That is the sad truth, and one I give with much reluctance given this itself, is a travel blog.
The best resource, is EVERYTHING ELSE. You have a lot of options, and no single resource should be the only factor in deciding how you spend those hard earned vacation days (and dollars). I wrote a while back my own sources of inspiration, but you can expand that to blogs, less known guide books, and of course, word of mouth. Using a combination of everything at your disposal, you get to narrow down the things that interest you most.
We live in an era where you don’t NEED a guidebook, but most of us don’t have the time to seek alternatives. You can really do as you want, but if you do it with one of these little blue books, the Planet will be anything but Lonely wherever you go.