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The final chapter for guidebooks?

Lonely Planet Vietnam I have seen the end of travel guidebooks, and I saw it in Vietnam.  Travelling in Asia for over three weeks with a stack of paperback guidebooks, a Mac and an iPhone with Apps such as Trip Advisor’s Local Picks and Wikipanion for Wikitravel information, the end of the guidebook was affirmed.

Guidebooks have always been the stuff of fantasy, feeding our wonder-lust with descriptions of far-away places.  Since the modern guidebook was developed in the 19th century they have combined travelogues and reviews of places visited by the writer.  But there lay the problem, guidebooks today are still written by the few, intrepid travellers whose words feed give us reassurance about the places that we want to visit.

Travelling today is different to what it was like decades back, when the world was slower and further away.  People then travelled short haul for leisure and tourism and long haul for business.  Distant locations were left to the few.

In today’s era of globalisation, the world has truly become our playground.  More people want adventure and more people want a guidebook that will walk them through their playground.

But here lay the problem.  Guidebooks are out of date as soon as they are published.  And while the reviews that make it into guides such as The Lonely Planet can help a business – a hotel, guesthouse or restaurant – it can make them lazy as owners just sit back and watch the hoards of travellers descend in search of their bit of paradise.  And this is what happened to us when we visited Kerala in Southern India in November 2007.  Armed with only a guidebook and having done little online research we booked our stay at the impressive looking Lagoona Davina.  This place was featured in The Hip Hotels guide, so we thought that it must be good.  And it received a fair number of reviews by UK national media titles.  On our arrival though, we discovered how further from the truth this place was.  Filthy, distant from anywhere and with a very rude owner.  We left after a few nights and then checked the reviews of this place online.  Not surprisingly quite a number of fellow travellers had experienced the same con that we were the victim of.

So this time, armed with a Mac, an iPhone and a 50Mb roaming package (just in case) we set off, also with a handful of guidebooks, to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Tokyo.  We had one hotel reservation, for our stay in Hong Kong.  Every other part of our trip was open, with nothing booked.  In fact we decided to book the next leg of our trip, flights, accommodation and everything else, from where we ended up.  And the results were a total surprise.

Our stay in Hanoi was booked from Hong Kong.  A great hotel that wasn’t in any guidebook we had, but had received great reviews on Trip Advisor.  The place was perfect.  It was central, clean, friendly and with very helpful staff.

Everywhere else we stayed had free wi-fi, and not just places we stayed, but places were we ate.  Wi-fi was everywhere, and where it wasn’t, we had the local network to help us plan the next leg of our trip in Vietnam.

Local Picks for iPhone

The Japan leg of our trip was made without any planning.  We even picked up a guidebook at the airport – a Time Out guide to Tokyo.  But we were disappointed with it and relied on Trip Advisor’s Local Picks iPhone App to tell us places to eat and so on.

Guidebooks aren’t dead just yet.  But they are dying, and while people do like the feel of a book in their hand some are growing unhappy with how out of date the reviews are.

People follow people, they follow the many, not the few.  If many people say a place is great then you’ll have more people visiting.  If it is few and out of date then it isn’t keeping in touch with today.

Travelling today has changed and in Asia, with free wi-fi and advanced telecoms networks you are starting to see the beginning of the end for old ways of connecting with people.

Guidebooks need to change, because the world is changing faster than it can be reviewed.

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