The enduring journey of the travel guidebook
When Aditya Gupta, a Gurugram-based IT professional, left for Istanbul last week on a business-cum-vacation trip, among the essentials he put in his bag was a brand new copy of Lonely Planet travel guide. It was the twelfth travel guidebook he had bought in the last four years, and all of them, now dog-eared with yellow notes popping out of them, are stacked on a bookshelf at his house. “These guidebooks are a record of my journeys, my ultimate advisors,” says Gupta. “I never felt lost in an unfamiliar place, whether I was in Peru or Prague.”
In fact, there are many like Gupta who still turn to travel guidebooks — Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides — to plan trips of their lifetime. No wonder then the printed travel guidebook, whose obituary was written a few years ago, is alive and continues to thrive, overcoming the growing challenge from a host of digital platforms such as TripAdvisor, Expedia, Google Trips, and Instagram, which, with its 80 million photo uploads every day, threatens to take the mystique out of travel.
“There has been a double-digit rise in sales; in fact, 80% of our revenue comes from our print business. Unlike many online travel platforms, what our travel guides offer is curated, validated and practical information covering all aspects of travel,” says Sesh Seshadri, director, Lonely Planet India.
René Frey, CEO of London-based APA Publications, which publishes both Rough Guides and Insight Guides, too testified to the enduring popularity of travel guidebooks. “The rise of online platforms such as TripAdvisor created a wave and many people thought the guidebook is dead. It isn’t,” he says. “30-40% of all reviews online are alternative facts. The function of the physical travel guide is to give the consumer reliable, trustworthy and curated information on how to plan a trip. Simply speaking, consumers buy our Rough Guides or Insight Guides because they feel somebody they can trust has done the groundwork for them.”
The history of the modern travel guidebook dates to the early 19th century when guides by publishers and writers such as John Murray-III, Karl Baedeker and Mariana Starke, became quite popular among travellers — the newly rich on their grand tours of Europe. Eugene Fodor, Arthur Frommer and Tony Wheeler dominated the travel guidebook market in the 20th century, and their guides continue to be popular. In fact, many of the early editions by Murray and Baedeker have become popular collectables.
The Lonely Planet brought out its first India guide in the 1980s, and in the words of its founder Tony Wheeler on the Lonely Planet India website, it was a turning point in the company’s history: “Our first India guide in 1981 was a big breakthrough, a bigger and more audacious title than anything we’d done previously and a book which was both a critical and commercial success. That one title changed Lonely Planet from a small struggling company to a much more firmly based operation.” In 2015, the company launched Lonely Planet Kids, the richly illustrated books aimed at young travellers.
Today, despite the increasing challenge from the online, most guidebook publishers are scaling up their operations, adding new titles every year. DK Travel re-launched its Eyewitness Travel Guides series with a new design, photographs, and its trademark illustrations in 2018 to mark its 25th anniversary. “There has been a steady demand for compact travel guides that focus on the top 10 highlights of a particular destination. Indian destinations such as Bengaluru and Goa have done very well for us. Delhi also has been a steady seller,” says Aparna Sharma, managing director, DK India. “People are starting to distrust digital, especially in this age of fake news. There has been a resurgence of all things physical—the renewed popularity of vinyl records, the increase in print book sales as a whole”.
Every travel guidebook has its own area of specialisation. While Lonely Planet is known for comprehensive, no-nonsense facts, listings and on-ground travel tips, Rough Guides are known for in-depth sightseeing information. The Blue Guides, which started publishing in 1918, are famous for offering a scholarly history of places you are visiting. Most guidebooks are updated every two years.
“Every update is like a new edition but the writing style, the tone and voice, a unique part of our guides, remain the same. We have 250 authors around the world who visit, revisit, discover new places and offer updated and insightful knowledge,” says Seshadri.
Many professional travel writers such as Archana Singh, who travels solo and runs a popular blog ‘Travel, See, Write’, says she stores most of her travel information -- the boarding pass, trip itinerary, offline and online navigation apps, hotel booking — on her mobile phone, but prefers to carry a physical travel guidebook when she visits an offbeat or newer place. “At times, when consistent internet access is an issue, travel guidebooks come very handy.
Plus, the ease and simplicity of page-turning experience associated with guidebooks can’t be compared with digital guidebooks where navigation could be a pain at times.”
But then there are others who feel when there are countless recommendations at your fingertips and a map of the entire planet in your mobile, there is no point in carrying a bulky travel book that goes out of date in a couple of years. “Recently, I was in the Philippines and went looking for a cafe listed in a travel guide but I found it was closed,” says Regev Aloni, 24, who hails from Israel and is in Delhi. “I am a great fan of Google Trips.”
But his friend from Turkey, Humeyra Gundogan, who is also on a trip to Delhi, says she likes to travel without any guide books, either digital or print. “I just love to hit the streets when I am in a new city, talking to locals, asking them where I can go; I think this is the best way to explore a new place.”
Ajay Jain, a travel writer and founder of the Kunzum Travel Café in Delhi, feels travel guides need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant. “Instead of trying to pack too much information about the things to do, they should find a better way of combing facts and storytelling,” says Jain, who has written several books, including ‘Kunzum Delhi 101’. In fact, some travel writer-publishers have taken the idea of a good travel guide beyond curated content, also focusing on the look and feel of the books.
Take, for example, Fiona Caulfield, the founder of Love Travel India, a firm that brings out a range of handcrafted travel guides — Love Delhi Guide, Love Mumbai Guide, Love Goa Guide, among others — whose brand equity, according to Caulfield, is a combination of ‘authenticity, intimacy, and sensuality,’ the last referring to their design. “They are printed on delicately textured handmade paper; they boast khadi cotton covers, and all the books are hand-bound,” says Caulfield, who hails from Australia and is based in Bengaluru. “Our guides are aimed at time-poor luxury vagabonds.”
Aditya Gupta says a good travel guide is also a chronicle of culture, food, and way of life at a particular place during a particular period in history. “Maybe someday, I will pick out a travel guide from my shelf and go back to these old haunts to see what became of them.