“Just getting back in the saddle filled me with so much adventure, so much energy,” he said. “I can hardly wait.” The trip follows a long period of pandemic drought which has dampened press in the guide industry. U.S. travel book sales in 2020 were down about 40% from a year earlier, according to NPD BookScan. (The category includes, but does not distinguish, travel guides.)
Faced with stalled sales and the prospect of ongoing upheaval amid the pandemic, many guidebook prints have been postponed or cancelled. “We put all the guides on hiatus,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of the guide company her father, Arthur Frommer, founded in 1957. “It was very clear from the start of the pandemic that things were going to change. radically, and I didn’t want to print guides that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.
The reversal of the pandemic came after decades of uncertainty for the guide industry. After reaching 19,005,029 in 2006, sales of travel books in the United States halved over the next decade. In 2013, BBC Worldwide sold Lonely Planet, a move followed by massive layoffs. Then, after acquiring Frommer’s, Google quietly stopped all production of printed Frommer guides. (The Frommers bought out the rights and took over the printing of guidebooks.)
So 2013 became the year of the essays trumpeting the demise of travel guides, with each attributing the cause of death to a combination of apps, influencers, online searches and digital power. Tripadvisor. But catastrophism was nothing new. “All the time I’ve been working on guides people have said, ‘The end of guides is near,'” said author Zora O’Neill, who wrote her first travel guide in 2002 and wrote titles for Moon and Planet alone.
Although the end never came, O’Neill saw the industry change. Rates have fallen or stagnated over the past two decades, as in many cases cash-for-work agreements have replaced traditional royalty contracts. And the once-dominant role of guides in travel culture has also changed.
As a former millennial who began traveling in the so-called halcyon age of guides, I have watched this transformation with interest. Sometimes with nostalgia too: I miss exchanging annotated and dog-eared books with other travelers in bars or hostels. Now, you can reliably find those same places filled with people glued to their screens.
Twenty years ago, however, I would have said that guides were contributing to an information monoculture that I found aggravating. I noticed that people using the same brand of travel guides seemed to follow each other, slightly taken aback, from place to place.
On a month-long trip through Central America in 2002, the co-owners of Lonely Planet’s massive “Central America on a Budget” became familiar faces as we popped up in the same spots, city after city. . When new businesses opened, owners struggled to get the word out. Grim stories about the questionable ethics of the guides circulated. Outdated or incorrect entries in a book might leave you stuck, but few other sources existed.
“When I first started writing, the problem was that there wasn’t enough information,” Steves said, noting that at one time guidebooks were almost the only way to decide where to stay in a unknown city. As times have changed, this similarity has given way to the wild and exciting diversity of today’s digital nature.
“It got to the point where there was too much information,” he said, noting that the proliferation of sources made it harder to know what was reliable. Researching a trip online can be a Mad Max endless loop of unverified user-generated reviews and self-proclaimed experts. Trading free travel for sunny features is common practice in the world of travel influencers, with little transparency on who pays the bill for any given blog post or YouTube video.
Where previous travelers just needed basic information, Steves said, the main value proposition of guides now may be an escape from this digital swamp. “Part of my job is to organize all the options – the information overload – with a cohesive set of values,” he said. Additionally, a printed guide provides a chance to unplug, allowing travelers to put their phones down, Steves noted. With a screen at your fingertips, it’s all too easy to let your attention drift away from that chic Parisian bistro and sadly daily scroll.
It seems to be working, as Steves’ royalty checks in 2019 were the highest of his career. Despite the apocalyptic warnings, in fact, the guides are generally doing well. After turbulent industry news in 2013, travel book sales leveled off, then remained roughly flat until the pandemic hit.
However, most travelers who still purchase printed books now seem to read them in conjunction with, and not instead of, online resources. During the last Facebook and Twitter posts, veteran traveler and content creator Abigail King asked subscribers about how they use guides today, noticing some shopping for pre-trip research, returning to the internet for on-the-ground facts. Others turn books into a kind of memento stuffed with ticket stubs and handwritten notes.
“I also use them in a very different way now, mainly for reading about the country and planning an itinerary,” said King, who lives in the UK. She noted that when traveling to destinations in Europe with consistent cell coverage, she’s unlikely to bring a hard copy.
“Guides have become part of a suite of tools that people use,” said Grace Fujimoto, director of acquisitions at Avalon Tourist attractions, which oversees the Moon Travel Guides imprint which is the largest seller of guides in the United States. (Disclosure: I wrote several Moon guides.) Fujimoto said the pandemic has accelerated this transition to books and digital, in part because information has changed so rapidly over the past two years.
But that only underscores a broader trend of recent years, she said. “Guides are becoming more and more inspirational, in addition to just being repositories of information,” Fujimoto said, offering an upcoming guide to Spain. Way of Saint James pilgrimage route, for example. “It’s got a lot of good, practical information, but it combines it with ways to appreciate what you see and do at almost every step of the way,” she said.
planet alone is another publisher leaning towards change. “Guides are evolving into this experiential, curated collection,” Lonely Planet spokesperson Chris Zeiher said. This month, the company released a new line of photo-heavy “Experience” guides, which Zeiher says are designed to inspire.
The early titles in the series, guides to Italy, Portugal, Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Iceland, conspicuously lack comprehensive lists of old-fashioned hotels and restaurants. In their place are expert interviews and short magazine-style reports about the kinds of experiences travelers might create while on a trip.
Travel through them to get excited about hunting waterfalls in Iceland, for example, or to imagine an itinerary focused on visiting Japanese temples. And unlike early Lonely Planet guides, which were geared toward longer, more comprehensive trips, these are tailored to the shorter vacations increasingly common among travelers from the United States.
Zeiher has also heard predictions about the demise of printed guides since joining Lonely Planet nearly 17 years ago. But he is optimistic about the next decade. “One thing Lonely Planet has always done is we’ve always evolved,” he said. “I think we will continue to do that.”
As the pandemic recedes and travelers return to the world, he’s betting there’s room in their bags for a book.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.