Recently my soon to be wife turned me on to this story of a travel writer who was commissioned by Lonely Planet to write on Columbia, but did not provide him with the funds to go to the country. LP states that he was contracted to just write sections on history, food and drink, and environment and culture, and it was understood that he would not be traveling to the country to write, but because he holds a Masters degree in Latin American studies they did not think it necessary for him to actually go to Columbia. The writer, Thomas Kohnstamm, states,
“They didn’t pay me enough to go to Colombia.” I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”
Through my own travel experience I have been disturbed by the power travel guides possess. Making it into the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide can make or break small business holders in many countries. For this reason, many businesses will take the same name as one that made it into the guide. This brings up the nature of tourism and makes us think about the darker side of this leisure activity invented by the West. I love to travel. I believe the cultural exchange is mutually valuable. However, the power of money, the extreme differential, can often taint the experience. Kohnstamm also states:
“even on a good day, a fair amount of what ends up in a guidebook is arbitrary, and therefore people shouldn’t necessarily treat them as gospel”
This “arbitrary” entry often has life and death ramifications for many small business owners and their families. These guides have a tremendous responsibility but, can there really be an objective way to decide weather to put one restaurant in book verses another. Sure, sometimes it is obvious, but often it is just a random lucky act.
These publication companies are making billions of dollars, because the guide becomes outdated after just a few years they have a constant market for their new guides. Is this ethical? What kind of responsibilities do the publishers have to the places they write about? When I first decided to spend a year traveling in South Asia I asked a friend some good places to visit and he replied, “Get the Lonely Planet and go everywhere that’s not in there.” I can definitely say that I had the best experiences when I diverged from the guidebook map.
Kohnstamm is coming out with a book titled, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? I’m looking forward to seeing what it has to say.
I should add that during my travels in India I did meet a writer for Lonely Planet and he was one of the most unpleasant people I met the whole time I was there.