For many well-educated, affluent Chinese travelers, buying a copy of Lonely Planet is the first task before taking a vacation abroad. Founded in 1973, Lonely Planet is the biggest guidebook series in the US, UK and Australia. It’s published in 11 languages including Chinese.
But when the BBC confirmed on March 19 that it had sold the entire Lonely Planet series to a US billionaire at a significant financial loss, many commented that the deal signified the swan song for the printed guidebook.
The rise of the Internet and the prevalence of smartphones and tablets has become a burden on the print media. Why would travelers bring a heavy guidebook when they can download its digital content to their smartphone in an instant? Furthermore, alternative and free travel content is readily available on the Internet, from Wikivoyage to TripAdvisor to blogs written by amateur travel writers.
“If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the first place you’re going to go for travel information is a social network,” said Howard Blumenthal, who writes the Digital Insider blog. “With so many people contributing content, you don’t have to go to Fodor’s to get hotel information because there’s TripAdvisor and its competitors.”
Even for those who still want a guidebook in their hand, once they download an app to their electronic device, they’re more than likely to kiss goodbye to their physical guidebooks.
But the Internet is not the only reason that guidebooks are in decline. Kevin Rushby, author of four acclaimed travel books and travel writer for The Guardian, said that the problem with the guidebook is that “it has a comprehensiveness that can kill any sense of personal exploration.”
Several times on recent trips Rushby found he hadn’t opened his guidebook at all. The maps in the guidebooks have been bettered by Google Maps. And the top sights are often lists of overcrowded, overpriced attractions besieged by tour groups, he said.
He also pointed out that the guidebook is not exactly good for tourism. Often the locals who thrived on a recommendation in the guidebook relaxed, lost their edge and discovered that it doesn’t matter: the legions of eager travelers keep on coming anyway.
“All those backpacker feet ended up creating modern trade routes, and in those routes was little room for innovation and initiative,” Rushby said.
And yet, despite the rise of new media, some experts believe there is still a place for printed books.
“Books still offer a different experience, more of a compelling, thoughtful experience,” Mark Henshall, a former editor of the guidebook series Frommer’s told NBC News.
Or, as Blumenthal puts it: “Books are great for context and history ― that’s a book you might take with you when you travel. The walking tour book? That one you’ll probably have on your device.”