What started out as alternative guidebooks revealing secret tourist destinations off the beaten track changed into multinational mass tourism corporations. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have lost their charm.
For a long time I could ignore the political, cultural and environmental bias that are so predominant in many a guide book these days, especially Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Mistaking poverty for authenticity or a rejection of globalization, equivocate totalitarian regimes, being environmentally aware while flying around the world etc.
After all these books are about finding hidden gems that ordinary tourist will never find, right?
Lonely Planet was sold in 2007 to the BBC, the worlds largest broadcaster with revenues exceeding five billion dollars per year. While the formula for LP books remains the same, quality control has gone down. It appears that anybody wearing a backpack and sandals can now apply to become a LP writer. Travellers used to be able to rely on LP to find the cool places to visit or stay at; now what is defined as ‘cool’ can be as shallow as a coldly calculated marketing formula like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. What we are left with is a mainstream, soulless, mass consumption guidebook for travelling
Rough Guides didn’t fair much better. Like Lonely Planet the Guides cater to low-budget backpackers, but the series never acquired the dedicated following of LP. Perhaps because it was already sold in 1996 to Pearson PLC (revenue 6+ billion dollars), prior to the age of internet. So far for alternative travelling.
Still I wouldn’t mind being in LP or RG, because they do bring in a lot of business. And I won’t write off these books (or their readers), they often contain plenty of useful information; some country editions are better than others. Only I haven’t seen a writer of either guide book in Santa Fe ever since we opened Tierra Libre in January of 2009.
There are some alternative guide books around such as Moon Guides or Petit Futé. But the best advice always comes from locals and fellow travellers. If you want to learn more about a country listen to the people living there. They know more about their own place than most travel book writers paid by a multinational corporation.