How has the pandemic affected travel guides?


“Just getting back in the saddle filled me with so much adventure and energy,” he said. “I can barely wait for it.” The trip follows a pandemic-long dry spell that has calmed the press in the travel guide industry. According to NPD BookScan, U.S. travel book sales in 2020 fell about 40 percent from a year earlier. (The category includes guidebooks, but does not highlight them.)

With sales at a standstill and the prospect of continued upheaval amid the pandemic, many editions of guidebooks have been postponed or cancelled. “We paused all guidebooks,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of the guidebook company founded by her father, Arthur Frommer, in 1957. “It was clear from the start of the pandemic that things were about to change drastically. and I didn’t want to print guidebooks that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.”

The books were re-researched in 2021. Some have already been published and more will appear in the coming months.

The pandemic fallout followed uncertain decades for the travel guide industry. After hitting 19,005,029 in 2006, US travel book sales halved over the next decade. In 2013, BBC Worldwide sold Lonely Planet, a move that was followed by massive layoffs. Then, after acquiring Frommer’s, Google quietly stopped producing Frommer’s printed travel guides. (The Frommers acquired rights and resumed printing.)

So 2013 became the year of the essays, trumpeting the decline of travel guides and attributing the cause of death to a combination of apps, influencers, online searches and the digital powerhouse Tripadvisor. But the end of the world was nothing new. “The whole time I’ve been working on guidebooks, people have been saying, ‘The end of guidebooks is near,'” said author Zora O’Neill, who wrote her first guidebook in 2002 and titles for both Moon and Moon wrote Lonely Planet.

Although the end never came, O’Neill saw the industry change. Rates have fallen or stagnated over the past two decades, while in many cases work-for-hire agreements have replaced traditional licensing agreements. And the once dominant role of travel guides in travel culture has also changed.

As an old millennial who started traveling in the supposedly happy age of travel guides, I watched this transformation with interest. Sometimes also with nostalgia: I miss exchanging commented dog-ear books with fellow travelers in bars or hostels. Now you can reliably find the same places filled with people glued to their screens.

Twenty years ago, however, I would have said that guidebooks contributed to an information monoculture, which I found annoying. I noticed that people using the same brand of guidebooks seemed to follow each other from place to place a bit awkwardly.

On a month-long tour of Central America in 2002, co-owners of Lonely Planet’s beefy “Central America Small Footed” became familiar faces as we popped into the same locations, city after city. As new stores opened, owners struggled to publicize this. Loud stories about questionable counselor ethics made the rounds. Outdated or incorrect entries in a book might stumble you, but other sources were few.

“The problem when I started writing was that there wasn’t enough information,” Steves says, noting that guidebooks used to be almost the only way to decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city. Over time, that uniformity gave way to the untamed, exciting diversity of today’s digital wilderness.

“It got to a point where there was too much information,” he said, noting that the proliferating 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 in the travel influencer world, with little transparency as to who is footing the bill for any given blog post or YouTube video.

While previous travelers only needed some basic information, guidebooks’ main value proposition could now be an escape hatch from this digital flood, Steves said. “Part of my job is to curate all the options – the information overload – with a consistent set of values,” he said. Additionally, a printed guide offers an unpluggable option, allowing travelers to put their phones away, Steves noted. With a screen nearby, it’s too easy to divert your attention from this chic Parisian bistro to the tedium of everyday scrolling.

It seems to be working, as Steves’ 2019 royalty checks were the highest of his career. Despite apocalyptic warnings, guides are generally doing well. After the bumpy industry news of 2013, travel book sales stabilized and then stayed about the same until the pandemic struck.

However, most travelers who still buy printed books now seem to read them in conjunction with rather than instead of online resources. In recent Facebook and Twitter Posts, veteran traveler and content creator Abigail King polled her followers on how they use travel guides today, noting that some were purchased for pre-trip research and turned to the internet for local facts. Others turn books into a kind of souvenir stuffed with ticket stubs and handwritten notes.

“I also use them in a completely different way now, mainly to read about the country and plan an itinerary,” said King, who lives in the UK. She noted that when traveling to destinations in Europe with constant cell phone coverage, she probably wouldn’t bring a printed copy with her.

“Travel guides are now part of a suite of tools that people use,” said Grace Fujimoto, director of acquisitions at Avalon Travel, who oversees imprint Moon Travel Guides, which is the leading provider of travel guides in the United States. (Disclosure: I’ve written several Moon travel guides.) Fujimoto said the pandemic has accelerated this shift toward book plus digital, in part because information has changed so rapidly over the past two years.

But it only underscores a broader trend of recent years, she said. “Travel guides are becoming more and more inspirational, in addition to being just information stores,” Fujimoto said, citing a forthcoming guidebook for Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route as an example. “It has a lot of good practical information, but it combines it with opportunities to appreciate what you see and do almost every step of the way,” she said.

Lonely Planet is another publisher leaning into the shift. “Travel guides are evolving into this experiential, curated collection,” said Chris Zeiher, spokesperson for Lonely Planet. This month, the company released a new series of photo-heavy “Experience” guides that Zeiher says are meant to inspire.

The first titles in the series, Travel Guides to Italy, Portugal, Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Iceland, are noticeably absent from the old-style comprehensive hotel and restaurant directories. In their place are expert interviews and short, magazine-style reports on the kind of experiences travelers can build on a trip.

Browse through them to get excited about chasing waterfalls in Iceland, for example, or to dream up an itinerary focused on visiting Japanese temples. And unlike the earliest Lonely Planet travel guides, which were geared towards longer, more comprehensive trips, these are tailored to the shorter vacations that are becoming more common among travelers from the United States.

Zeiher, too, has heard predictions about the demise of printed guidebooks since he joined Lonely Planet almost 17 years ago. But he is optimistic about the coming 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 health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.


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