surinenglish

THE BOTTOM LINE

The future of the guidebook

I was on the metro in Mexico City, my eventual destination the Frieda Kahlo museum, when a dishevelled looking guy entered my near-empty carriage. I inadvertently caught his eye, then looked down, and intently studied the hem of my skirt. Next moment he was towering over me "dame unos pesos por una cerveza"; the tone was aggressive, the voice, slurred. I noticed an elderly woman sitting opposite get up and discreetly move away. "Ok," I mumbled and tossed a few coins into the grubby plastic mug that was close to brushing my chin. He didn't move. Fortunately, we were drawing into a station and I rushed past him and off the train. I soon calmed down and continued my journey, eventually arriving at wonderful Coyoacán and Frieda's famous cobalt-blue former house.

For guidebook writers, precarious situations are commonplace. Ironically, mine generally arose from merely getting lost, ensuring maps were marked up correctly was always a major challenge for someone with little sense of direction.

Lonely Planet was founded in 1973 and during my 20-plus years with the company, I witnessed countless changes: new owners; new editorial directions; new digital demands and increasingly complex technology. But nothing came close to the effect of Covid-19. Early in April, authors were told that there were to be mass layoffs, office closures and LP's myriad travel publications, including inspirational titles, a magazine and themed books, were to get the axe.

Destination guidebooks were possibly going to continue, however there was no assurance as to how, if, and when, and all commissioning (and communication) abruptly stopped. Authors contacted each other in panic-stricken desperation as the entire travel industry collapsed around them with a depressing domino effect.

Will Lonely Planet return? Although I am now retired, of course I sincerely hope so. Pre-corona and against all digital odds, guidebook sales were slowly on the rise, despite the increased competition from such user-generated platforms as Trip Advisor. It seems there is nothing to replace that battered LP guide, researched by writers on the ground, and which tends to stay on the bookshelf as a dog-eared memento, long after your trip.

When travel starts again - which it will - hopefully people will travel less and more simply, with reduced tech and more environmental conscience.

And just maybe there will, once again, be a place for that faithful Lonely Planet guidebook.

I certainly hope so.