Sunday, July 17, 2005

Ditch the Guidebook?

Some Cats Need Guidebooks

The Australian recently published a somewhat interesting and thought provoking article about the merits of taking a guidebook along with you on your next vacation. One author argues that your journey will be far more rewarding and adventurous without a guidebook, while publisher Tony Wheeler counters that guidebooks are, in most cases, an essential tool for all travelers.

I'd split this argument down the middle. Very few travelers would even consider a long journey across Indonesia or even a more accessible country such as Thailand without the aid of a guidebook. The countries are just too damn complicated for first-time travelers. However, if you've previously made an extended trip around Southeast Asia, and are in a more adventurous mood, then travel with a guidebook will almost certainly provide more adventure and unique experiences than yet again relying on the advice from guidebook writers.

Readers of the pack

Franz Wisner says guidebooks are no longer necessary. Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler begs to differ

The Australian
July 09, 2005

GO ahead. Do it. I know the thought has crossed your mind ... probably the last time you walked into a tourist trap packed with fellow travellers holding the same copy of Fodor's or Lonely Planet.

Throw the guidebooks away. Or burn them in protest. Either way, your trips will improve dramatically. Think about it. When tourists come to Orange County, California, the guidebooks point them in the direction of Disneyland or the Newport Peninsula. Is this the best they have to offer? Do those places truly reflect Orange County today?

On the other hand, if the tourists spent a couple of minutes talking to Orange County residents, they'd learn about, say, a desolate beach in Laguna, a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana or a pristine wilderness trail.

Still not convinced? Here are some more reasons. The whole concept of an up-to-date guidebook is impossible. Look at the date on yours. If you're lucky, it is only a year or two old. Or is it? Find a 10-year-old copy and you'll probably conclude the book hasn't been rewritten, just edited, tweaked and spruced up with fancy new photos.

How many people work for a guidebook? One hundred? Two hundred? Even if the number were 100,000, it wouldn't be adequate to scour every neighbourhood for the latest and greatest information. For example, I went to Rio and heard about a nightclub jammed with dance-crazy Brazilians. I saw no tourists the entire night. On a return trip, I saw no people the entire night. The Rio revellers had moved to another venue after declaring that one passe.

Of course none of this information was in the guidebooks. The only restaurants, clubs and bars they promote are the ones that have been around for years, the same types of establishments we avoid at home.

How about basic information concerning an area's main sights? The books do better here, I'll admit. The best ones throw in a decent history lesson or two along with detailed maps.

Still, they often miss things such as holiday schedules, hours that have been adjusted, discount days or the best times to view the must-see spots. Besides, all this information can be easily obtained with a quick stop at an information centre or through a chat with a concierge.

Another reason to ditch the guidebooks is the practice of paying for print. Though the reputable publishers prohibit payola practices, hotel, tour and restaurant owners across the world brag about buying favourable mentions.

In Vietnam, a cafe owner told me he sent money every year to a writer so his establishment would remain in a guidebook. He was angry with his cheap neighbour for refusing the bribe yet tacking up a sign that trumpeted a recommendation.

Think about having to get all your news from books, everything from weather reports to stock prices to headlines to sports scores. Impossible, right? Yet this is precisely the rationale of travellers who cling to guidebooks as their sole source of information.

Are you wavering yet? Here's what will happen if you do leave the guidebooks at home.

You'll talk to more people, many of them offering rides, meals or personal escorts in addition to recommendations. You'll feel as if you're experiencing something authentic as opposed to being led through another tourist trap. You'll travel far more spontaneously, taking advantage of gifts and opportunities when they arise. You'll realise you don't need to see everything on a trip. The churches and museums will still be there the next time. You'll probably make more friends with whom you'll stay in contact long after the journey is over. You'll feel like you know a location far better than you did with guidebook-dominated travel.

There are whole industries that exist solely by convincing travellers they cannot leave their homes without certain essential services: travel clothes, travel insurance, even travel agents in the age of the internet. The truth is you don't need any of them.

"I ALWAYS use your books," the letter said. "I take your list of hotels and when I arrive in town those are the places where I definitely don't stay. I don't want to bed down in a place where the only people I meet are fellow travellers. I never eat in a restaurant you recommend either. I certainly don't want to eat in a place where there's not a local in sight."

Well, that's an imaginative use of our Lonely Planet guidebooks, I thought. I could approve of that.

The cold reality is that many guidebook users rely on them far too much. For a spell we even put a warning in the front of our books: "This is not an instruction manual. Your warranty will not be voided if you decide to find your own restaurant; this is a guidebook, not a blueprint."

I'm in complete agreement with Franz Wisner that talking to the locals, putting an ear to the ground and wetting a finger to feel the breeze will all improve your trip. The best experiences on any visit are always the unexpected ones, the surprises that underline what travel is all about.

Many of those experiences are strictly ephemeral. Today's hot club is precisely that: hot today, gone tomorrow, and there's no way we're going to pretend that our guidebook can predict what will be the placewith the longest line-up at midnight this weekend.

But would I leave my guidebook behind when I'm travelling? Absolutely not. This week's cutting-edge nightclub may be worth chasing but there's usually a good reason a particular restaurant or bar has been around for years. It has become a long-term survivor because it does the job, it keeps the customers satisfied, it's reliable and honest. If we really avoided those places at home, they wouldn't stay in business. When we're in the mood for familiarity we'll go to the solid, time-worn place in our home town just as readily as on our travels.

Ditto for 10-year-old (or 1000-year-old) tourist attractions. We don't need to rewrite the history of the Taj Mahal with every edition of our India guidebook; we may worry a bit more about what pollution is doing to the marble, but essentially it's the same marvel it's always been and I'll still go back there every time I'm in Agra.

I'm happy to make repeat pilgrimages to the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and a hundred other famous landmarks as well. I certainly don't want to miss the local tourist draw just because it's such a familiar part of the scenery that the locals don't even notice it any more.

As for places paying to get into our books, if we find a writer has been bribed, you can immediately add "ex" before the words "Lonely Planet writer". On the other hand, I'm not at all surprised that it was in Vietnam where Wisner encountered a cafe owner who had paid for a favourable mention. A few years ago in Vietnam, we discovered a cunning local had been following our writer around and dropping off an invoice at every establishment our researcher visited.

I don't like to point fingers but such sneaky deals are par for the course in the Vietnam tourist business.

Even the Government can't be trusted. A couple of editions earlier the Vietnamese Government had deported our writer, then set the presses rolling to print a pirated version of our guidebook, so this new variety of local enterprise is hardly surprising.

So experiment, go beyond your guidebook's limitations, but remember you can get bum advice from almost anywhere. The next time you arrive at a strange airport and that friendly taxi driver says, "Oh, I'm a local. Nobody uses the meter here. That's what everybody pays to get into town," don't complain to me if you've left your guidebook behind.

Franz Wisner's essay is an edited extract from his new book, Honeymoon with my Brother (Random House Australia, $32.95;

The Australian

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