I’ve just read a blog by travel writer David Whitley about the pros and cons of guide books.
I’ve used a number of the guidebooks that David mentions and go along with Lonely Planet as my first choice. I’d opt for it over the Rough Guide mainly because of my experience of something that the blog touches on; who is best placed to write travel guides; a local ‘expert’ or a visiting one?
David comments ‘it’s far better that someone goes in fresh and researches it meticulously than someone who knows it like the back of their hand gets lazy and assumes the reader does too.’
Seems a far point except for one thing – ‘unconscious incompetence’, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
When it comes to travel writing, the web is full of absolutely awful copy…and some of the biggest names in travel are the worst culprits for churning it out. Generally speaking a lot of travel companies are feeding readers the same old bland guff that any half decent copywriter could glue together after half an hour of research.
The question is this. When everybody has access to the same research material what do you do to ensure that your travel advice and guides stand out?
Chris Clarkson of Sunshine.co.uk had one answer – you use locally based experts to give you a warts and all (within reason) guide to holiday destinations. No amount of dipping in and out of a place can keep any ‘visiting’ travel writer up to date with the location no matter how good their research skills are.
That quaint little gem of a bar or restaurant just doesn’t have a website to tell you all about it…hell half the time it doesn’t even have a telephone. And if you don’t speak the language – forget it.
Travel advisory site Simonseeks has gone some way down the same road. Its guidelines for applying to be an expert states: ‘You will need to live in the destination that you are interested in covering, or at least visit regularly, and have got to know it over a significant period of time…’
Using specialist knowledge from a local insider can give travel guides a different voice.
Saying that, I agree with David’s suggestion that writers in situ can get lazy…on the other hand being a ‘visiting’ expert doesn’t exclude writers from the same malaise. I’ve read any number of rehashes of the same article, even on the same travel website, by visiting ‘expert’ travel writers.
And that’s where the unconscious incompetence comes in. You may be the most meticulous researcher on the planet with the gift of bringing holiday destinations vibrantly to life, but unless you know a place exceedingly well you simply just don’t know what you don’t know.
Maybe to the general public that doesn’t matter, but if we’re talking authenticity and accuracy it should. Of the last four articles I’ve read about Tenerife in the UK broadsheets for example, there have been quite basic mistakes in every one. Mistakes that an experienced ‘local’ writer wouldn’t have made.
For travel guides – online or in print – visiting writers just aren’t paid enough to be able to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.
And that brings me to why I ditched the Rough Guide in favour of Lonely Planet. My Rough Guide to Tenerife completely ignores the area that locals considers to be one of the best for restaurants (King Juan Carlos eats there when he visits) even though it is a route that every traveller followed before mass tourism turned the spotlight on the south. But that’s not its worst crime. The only two bars that its visiting ‘expert’ author recommends in Puerto de la Cruz don’t get going until after midnight and are frequented by ‘barely in their teens’ Canarios; Most Rough Guide readers are in for one hell of a shock when they enter one of those recommendations…unless Rough Guide readers are mainly sixteen year old binge drinkers with a taste for thumping Latino music and Spanish pop rock.
If the Rough Guide can get such a popular holiday resort like Puerto de la Cruz so wrong how can I trust them when it comes to China, Kenya and Thailand…unless I know they’re written by writers who actually know the place i.e. live there and therefore not make rookie errors.
In the end what I actually think is that the best person to write a travel guide is someone who not only knows a location thoroughly (whether they live there or not) but who is also as comfortable in a cheesy karaoke bar as at a classical concert; likes wandering around museums, churches and old buildings as much as theme parks and shopping centres; gets nearly as much of a buzz from being alone in the great outdoors as they do from being bumped and jostled in a fiesta crowd of thousands and relishes wolfing down a good home made burger at lunch before sitting down to art on a plate cuisine for dinner.
Convince me of that up front and I might trust your guide.