Traveling the lonely planet: the end of guide book publishing
Most parents keep secrets from their young children. For some, it could be drugs, a period of alcohol-induced debauchery, the summer before college when Mom crammed all of her worldly possessions into a backpack and followed the Grateful Dead on tour. Or maybe Dad joined a cult or voted for Ross Perot. Twice.
Whatever it is, most parents live by the credo: Do what I say, not what I do (or have done). It's not that we strive to be dishonest. We're simply trying to protect our children from potential harm. Of course, how do you tell your kids not to do something you did yourself, and not be a complete hypocrite? It's something my wife and I have discussed, and we agree that at some point I'm going to have to tell my two young daughters the truth.
My big secret? There was a time of my life – throughout my 20s – that, often recklessly and with little regard for my own personal safety, I traveled for more than four years. I visited some 50 countries by all manner of transport: bicycle, hitch hiking, trains, planes, buses, boats and rickshaws, elephants and camels. For much of it I was on a bicycle, alone, pedaling more than 10,000 miles throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, accompanied only by my packs, tent, sleeping bag, cook stove and spare parts. A few snapshots: I cycled to Fez, Morocco, and in the Sinai I crossed from Egypt into Israel, to the top of Masada in Israel in 115 degree heat and through parts of the West Bank (not my smartest move, I grant you). I rode through Portugal, Spain, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and across Norway and Sweden, as well as Western Europe.
I also hitchhiked through eastern and southern Africa, all the way to Cape Town. In Kashmir, I dodged explosions, encountered rebel troops in the northern Philippines, got into a fistfight in Tangiers (He started it.) I overlanded China, Mongolia and Russia on the Transsiberian and banged around India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Bad weather stranded me at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, where I came down with a severe case of giardia, and when my guide got lost I accidentally crossed from northern Thailand into Burma and found myself wandering through fields of freshly harvested opium flowers. In Alaska, a giant moose chased after me, and in Guatemala I was bitten by a poisonous spider and almost died.
Back then there were no ATMs, no email, no Web, no MapQuest or Google Maps or GPS devices, no smart phones, Skype or texting, no Facebook or Twitter. I didn't own a credit card. I stashed away thousands of dollars in American Express Travelers checks in various currencies (dollar, Pound Sterling,Yen) and came upon a mail drop once every four months to collect my stash of letters from home and elsewhere. I phoned my parents only a few times a year because long distance calls cost a fortune. Naturally there were all those times I got lost.
I truly appreciate the ways technology has simplified traveling over the ensuing 25 years. It also makes it easier for me to share my adventures with my daughters — one is nine and the other seven – because neither will have to travel blind like I did. If they ever run short of money they can insert a bank card into an ATM and out will spit local currency. They can keep in touch with home through Facebook, email, texting or blogging about their experiences and tweet where they plan to be on Twitter so others who follow them can magically appear. There's Instagram, Snapchat, and millions of apps.
Stuffed into my bike panniers or backpack were travel guides published by the likes of Lonely Planet. But nowadays the Web means never needing to consult an out-of-date book or search far and wide for an International Herald Tribune or Time magazine to find out what's happening nearby. GPS and maps functions on their smartphones make it virtually impossible to be lost for long. It used to be, as the advertisement went, "Long-distance is the next best thing to being there," but it was expensive and inconvenient. Skype and Appel's Facetime has changed all that.
Some might say all of this technology has sissified traveling, adding barriers to a primal experience and wheedling its way between a traveler and her adventures. Of course, they said the same thing about cameras, with some travelers (you know the type) spending all their time snapping pictures and not actually living in the moment. But the benefits far outstrip any negatives. It's hard not to be jarred by the stories you hear. My neighbor's 21-year-old daughter was murdered when she traveled in Belize. I went to college with a woman who disappeared while hitch hiking across the U.S. Then there's Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on a high school trip to Aruba.
It's a parent's worst nightmare. But with all this new technology making the world far more interconnected, I will be able to stay in touch with my daughters in their future travels, know where they are at all times and ensure they have money when they need it. While I may not be able to protect them from everything, I can be there for them – no matter where they go – in ways that my parents could never be there for me.
But it doesn't bode well for travel book publishers like Lonely Planet (a former personal favorite), Fodors, and the rest. Like newspapers, magazines and trade book publishing, Lonely Planet, a classic among the backpacker set, has hit hard times. LP, which publishes some 500 titles covering almost 200 countries, has been unable to overcome the digitization of media. Recently the company announced it was laying off about 20 percent of its work force.
It's not surprising. Who wants to cram a thick book into your baggage when you're on an extended trip when you can look up information online? Content in books changes slowly. It can take years before recommendations for, say, a hotel make it into print. By then it may be out of business, changed names or ownership, or gone downhill. And why depend on the advice of a single author who traveled a region many months or even years before when you can find out what travelers who have just been there experienced?
Printed travel guides can't monopolize readers' attention anymore, because there are so many other options. When I was heavily into traveling, Lonely Planet was competing against other travel guide publishers. Now they compete against an almost endless stream of content. They can't make up revenue by charging a subscription because readers won't pay when they can get more up-to-date content free online.
On a bookshelf I have more than a dozen Lonely Planet Guides covering India, South East Asia, Africa, Japan, and elsewhere. They are beaten up with faded covers, pages dog eared and some smeared with dead mosquitos. Each tells a story.
But these travel guides are a relic of history. Like vinyl records they represent an earlier era. More to the point my daughters will never use one. They won't need to.