A guidebook to the world or an airline meal of travel information?

Lonely Planet brings out the first travel guide to the entire globe today. Simon Calder was thrilled at the prospect - until he read it. Plus, the publisher justifies what they left out

One summer in the early 1970s, my mother gave me a copy of a new book: the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe. If the gift was intended to get me out a bit more, it seemed to do the trick. The book was the first of a wave of budget travel guides that liberated a generation by providing priceless information as well as travel inspiration.

The fundamental message: the world is full of wonders, and you can reach them even if you have only the meagre resources of a typical British student carrying a currency that seemed at the time to devalue by the day.

Since then I have been an avid consumer of guidebooks, and have researched a few myself. I will always defend a professionally written guidebook over an internet forum: a good travel-guide writer will evaluate more wisely and critically than a self-selecting bunch of strangers, however well-intentioned they may be.

Because Lonely Planet has a wider and deeper range of guides than any other publisher, over the years it has guided me further than the rest. So far this year, LP authors have escorted me reliably around Baja California, unlocking great experiences in the far west of Mexico and guiding me to top-value hotels and restaurants; helped me to track down Bob’s Big Boy Diner in Los Angeles, possibly the best breakfast location on the planet; and kept me safe in Namibia’s sometimes tricky capital, Windhoek.

Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the travel guide empire, have personally done more to improve international understanding than any number of government initiatives. Lonely Planet’s repertoire is finely tuned, with the writers and editors adroit at providing the appropriate information for the book.

Take Sicily, which is now on its sixth edition. The guide to the Mediterranean’s largest island will take you from Palermo airport (“named after two assassinated anti-Mafia judges”) into the capital (the train from the airport is slower but cheaper than the bus) and the “atmospherically faded” Hotel Orientale at just €30 a night. Among the many sights described and evaluated are 13 churches, of which the most glorious is the Oratorio del Rosario in Santo Domenico, with an Anthony Van Dyck altarpiece. Twenty-three pages are devoted to Palermo in the Sicily guide; fewer in the Italy book; and in the all-embracing Mediterranean Europe, just four. But the soul of the city, and the essentials for enjoying it, remain intact.

Terrific, I thought, when I heard that a guidebook to the world was in production. Surely the editors would show their skills in distilling the best from the planet. Less-captivating locations (Gulf oil states, African nations shattered by colonialism and corruption, and Belarus) would be dismissed in a few well-chosen phrases, while the remainder were bolstered with essential information on coping with the London Underground and altitude sickness on  the Inca Trail. It would complement the deftly curated compendium published by Lonely Planet last month: The Best Place to Be Today: 365 things to Do and the Perfect Day to Do Them. No doubt The World would be the summit of everything the company has done since it was born 40 years ago – and the perfect riposte to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which summed up Earth as “mostly harmless”.

 

The World is published today. Within a few pages, it becomes apparent that the compilers have opted out of providing shrewdly selected information and surrendered expertise in favour of glib generalisations.

The Italian chapter begins well: “Italy is the ultimate dream date: impossibly good looking, impeccably cultured and obscenely good in the kitchen.” Yet it quickly degenerates into cliché and obscurity. “Make like Julius Caesar. Come and see – you’re sure to be conquered,” it urges. And the Italian Dolomites region “takes seductiveness to dizzying heights”. Pardon?

How to get around? “Italy has an extensive network of internal flights, many run by the national airline, Alitalia.” What’s missing is the essential qualification that for low fares and reliable service you would be better opting for no-frills easyJet, Ryanair or Volotea instead.

Actual travel information is woefully thin, because The World is hamstrung by an absurd policy for allocating pages. Instead of calibrating space according to the worth of a nation to the typical traveller, the compilers have chosen to award two, four, six or eight pages to each nation. The minimum applies even to countries of little interest, while vast and diverse nations such as India, the US and China get only eight (though the last is surreptitiously expanded with extra chapters on Hong Kong and Macau). But even within these blunt limitations, the assignment of space looks wildly disproportionate.

Plucky Liechtenstein, where almost no one goes on holiday, is deemed worthy of four pages – the same given to the Dominican Republic, where millions vacation each year. Botswana gets the top eight pages. The next chapter is about Brazil, which has 35 times the area, 100 times the population and far more of interest, from wildlife to city life. It also has some impressive beaches. But Brazil gets only six pages.

So, too, does Peru, even more of a draw for travellers to South America. One of the main attractions is the Inca Trail, which is summed up as “a true pilgrimage”. Well, it would be if  you adhere to Inca religious beliefs, but for the rest of us, it’s just a tough, rewarding hike. Practical information for Peru is interesting. Under the heading “Air”, the visitor is told: “New airlines open every year, as those with poor safety records close” – a statement for which I can find not a shred of evidence. But at least it stays on the subject. China is cheap and easy to fly around, thanks to the thriving network of low-cost airlines. But all The World has to say about aviation in the planet’s most populous country is that you’re better off on the ground. “Despite being a land of vast distances, it’s quite straightforward to navigate your way terrestrially around China by rail and bus if you have time.”

The World is bafflingly incomplete. Either those funny pink bits, British Overseas Territories, are real countries, or they are not. Yet while Gibraltar and St Helena are omitted, space is found for the Pitcairn Islands. (Presumably because there is so little to say about this speck in the Pacific, the first sentence is repeated in full as the third sentence.) Also difficult to understand: why, within a single title, is spelling allowed to veer between British (traveller/centre) and American (traveler/center)?

Despite the many flaws in The World, there is merit in providing an easy-to-read summary of global highlights. As an assessment of what the planet has to offer, The World is a more reliable source than the world wide web. For your £23, you get a chunky, colourful guide. Presumably, LP hopes that readers who are inspired to find out more will buy the right regional, national or city guide. I fear that this could backfire – the shaky editorial judgement may persuade people to reach for the nearest Rough Guide.

The most unashamed retreat from critical evaluation is shown in the chapter on Ukraine. Lonely Planet’s latest excellent guide to the nation, published in May, has a useful and entertaining panel on “Surviving Ukraine’s Buses”:

“Don’t sit on a seat that has something on it. This means someone else has ‘reserved’ it while they go shopping/visit the toilet/call on relatives across town. Yes, that bleary-eyed guy stumbling towards the bus – one dose of salo (raw pig fat) away from a coronary – is your driver. His job is to drive, not answer questions.”

Yet, by the time the compilers of The World have done with Ukraine, all you learn about buses is that they are “small, old and overcrowded”. Much worse, though, the entire Crimea – with far more scenery, history and gastronomy than the rest of Ukraine – is airbrushed out.

You can imagine the meeting at Lonely Planet’s  HQ in Melbourne.  “It’s all kicking off in Ukraine, what are we going to do – add a new chapter on Russia-controlled Crimea?”

“No, that would wreck the pagination. Let’s ignore the fact that the greatest glories of Ukraine are to be found in the Crimea, and find some inoffensive alternatives in the west of the country.”

No offence, either, is aimed at the authorities in Saudi Arabia. The World fails to observe that women under 45 are allowed in as tourists only if they are travelling with their husband, father or brother. And no space is found to mention the kingdom’s uncompromising attitude to sex and religion, summed up thus by the Foreign Office: “Sexual behaviour like adultery or homosexual acts carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. So does apostasy (renunciation of the Muslim faith). The death penalty is carried out in public, usually by beheading.” Public executions are presumably not what The World has in mind when it describes Saudi Arabia as “rich in attractions”.

Maps, always one of the great strengths of Lonely Planet, have not all been carefully compiled. Germany’s Black Forest has shifted from its traditional location in the south-west of the country, abutting France and Switzerland, to a position north of Austria. And while it is natural to include neighbouring countries in a map, The World takes it to extremes. The map of France inexplicably highlights Belfast, and also shows the British seaside resorts of Aberystwyth and Eastbourne more prominently than Nice, the glorious capital of  the Cote d’Azur.

“We’ve distilled 40 years of travel know-how into the first guidebook to our entire planet,” boasts the back-page blurb. No, you haven’t. You’ve come up with the airline meal of travel information: designed to offend no one, and as a consequence unsatisfying to everyone. Lonely Planet may have conquered The World, but in doing so it has lost the plot.

The world in your pocket by Piers Pickard

How do you fit the world, if not in your pocket, then at least into a fat but handy-sized paperback of fewer than 1,000 pages? So far as we can tell, no one’s done this before. There’s Douglas Adams’ fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but that’s about it.

But then, who other than Lonely Planet could write this book? We produce more guidebooks to more places than any other publisher,  with content to virtually  every destination. Our network of more than 200 authors are constantly out scouring the globe for the most amazing experiences, the best-value hotels and the most authentic experiences.

Distilling The World has been a lot of fun, but it hasn’t been easy. The challenge, as Simon rightly points out, is selection. How do you decide which places to cover, and which you will therefore have to omit? Within each country, what will you use your limited page space to showcase? How do you distill the best that the planet has to offer into a single book?

Our first decision was to be egalitarian and cover every country in the world. After all, the job of this book is to start your journey, not to come with you on it. With this in mind, what information should we give that aspiring traveller? We should let them know the best each country has to offer so that they can decide if they might want to go. We should give them the few practical details that they need.

The World doesn’t enter into the often complex issues around politics and human rights; that’s not the role of this book. We don’t mention that Saudi Arabia is a difficult destination for women travellers or that homosexuality is punishable by death in the UAE (nor, we notice, does The Independent). Though both these statements are important and true, they are for the next stage of planning.

The book we’ve created is subjective. Wonderfully subjective, just like travel. Simon wants Brazil to have a longer entry than Botswana. That’s fine. We don’t. We think Botswana’s wildlife is among the best on the planet. Likewise, we’re fascinated by Liechtenstein. Why? Because it’s  a tiny European country that no one knows much about. It’s an interesting curiosity and the job of this book is to give you an idea of whether  or not you might enjoy a holiday there.

If we were to allocate pages based on visitor numbers, the book would be focused on a handful of countries. We give readers six to 12 reasons for visiting each country, then let them make up their own minds.

Simon mentions The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think this is the book he wants – a small, friendly compendium of travel information about every place known. As it happens, something pretty similar exists: buy yourself a tablet and download our guidebook series. And there you have it, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Earth. Failing that, we think The World is a pretty good place to start.

Piers Pickard is publishing director of trade, reference and language at Lonely Planet

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