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Travel guide fraud? No, just Flawed

In a new book, a former Lonely Planet writer has outed himself as a rogue researcher. But travel guides inevitably contain errors, says Simon Calder. Get over it – and get on the road

Regrets? I've had a few. But mistakes? I've made a million. And some of them have occurred when I have been writing guidebooks. Take the Travellers' Survival Kit: Cuba, published in 1990. It was the first independent guidebook to the last outpost of communism in the Americas.

As I stumbled around a strictly controlled republic that had almost no resources, I tried as best I could to research and write. But the resulting book contained inaccuracies – enough, in fact, to win a subsequent plagiarism dispute. From a legal perspective, it is much easier to prove another writer has copied your homework when he emulates your errors than when he repeats your truths.

At the risk of repeating someone else's mistakes, let me outline the outrage that some travellers have expressed this week. "Lonely Planet rocked by author fraud," read one headline. An American writer named Thomas Kohnstamm worked on 13 titles for the Melbourne-based guidebook publisher.

Now he has written a book of his own, entitled Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. The publicity depicts a world in which the guidebook writer is more concerned with drugs, sex and money (or lack thereof) than with dreary diligence of trudging from scruffy hotel to downbeat restaurant.

Take Mr Kohnstamm's work on Lonely Planet's guide 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."

It is a shame that Mr Kohnstamm never made it to the seductive beaches and defiant mountain ranges of South America's northernmost nation. But Mr Kohnstamm was contracted only to edit and enhance a few introductory sections of the book, such as history and culture. Ideally, he would have explored Bogota, Buenaventura and beyond. But as he told me this week, Lonely Planet's brief – and pay of £500 – did not extend to a trip to Colombia:

"They knew I would not be visiting the country. The 'desk update' exists throughout the industry. It's not some scam that I pulled on my employer and on the reading public."

In terms of his own image, though, Mr Kohnstamm makes an error: apparently not realising that the publisher of his "tell-all" tale would hype it to the heavens, elevating an appetite for sex and dealing drugs above the daily drudge of checking bus stations and internet cafés. (Equally regrettable is his use of the phrase "a chick I was dating", rather than the lady's name.)

Evidently, Mr Kohnstamm does not want for female assistance when on the road. In Brazil, he received rather more than one menu promised. "The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight," he writes of a piece of in-depth research. "We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner."

Goodness: I have plodded purposefully around a thousand restaurants from Amsterdam to the Azores and received not so much as a peck on the cheek in return for my custom, let alone the Brazilian interpretation of table d'hôte. Neither have I had cause to dabble in the distribution of drugs to feed my travel habit, as Mr Kohnstamm did. But I have always kept up a day job: the economics of guidebook publishing make it difficult to earn a living from researching and writing. Because pacing the streets of Paris or Panama is preferable to a proper job, there is an oversupply of would-be researchers (likely to grow still more after Mr Kohnstamm's new book, the subtitle of which is "A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism".

Lonely Planet, now part of BBC Worldwide, has made a mistake, too. Not in what it pays its freelancers, who after all are at liberty to work for other guidebook publishers; the steady stream (50 per week) of applicants to Lonely Planet suggests there is no shortage of supply. Nor was the firm wrong to employ Thomas Kohnstamm, who appears to have delivered competent work despite his extra-curricular activities. (The co-ordinating author on Colombia, Michael Kohn, evidently concurs: he pays a personal tribute in the book to Mr Kohnstamm's work.)

Lonely Planet's error, I contend, is to assert that its researchers check "every listing in person, every time, every edition". That is an colossal claim, which its arch-rival, Rough Guides, does not seek to emulate.

"If you asked any Rough Guide writer if they went absolutely everywhere that they wrote about – no, they wouldn't go absolutely everywhere," says Martin Dunford, editorial director for Rough Guides. "But they are certainly dedicated."

Lonely Planet is "carefully reviewing" the books Mr Kohnstamm worked on.

"So far we haven't found any errors," a spokeswoman told me on Thursday.

Perhaps I can help. Besides being a writer of flawed guidebooks, I am also an avid consumer of other people's. I find them helpful, quirky and, at times, wrong. But travellers are by nature open-minded.

Page 216 of the Colombia guide covers the complicated tripartite town of Leticia-Tabatinga-Santa Rosa, where Colombia, Brazil and Peru all meet in a muddy Amazonian splodge. When I was there earlier this year, I was glad to have a book containing a decent map and a pretty good approximation to the truth. The Lonely Planet guide warns travellers that they need to register at both the Colombian and Brazilian immigration offices, which they don't; and there was no sign of the twice-weekly seaplane service upriver to Iquitos in Peru.

So what? In this unpredictable part of the world, truth can change quicker than the murky meanderings of the Amazon. Probably both assertions were once true, and anyway no fair-minded traveller will contend that life should emulate guidebooks.

Ultimately the market will decide whether, as it says in the Colombia guide, "the authors and Lonely Planet have taken all reasonable care in preparing this book". On that score, the publisher can relax: when I went to Daunt's travel bookshop in Marylebone, London, to buy my copy of Colombia, it was sold from a supply under the counter. The reason: in order to give customers pristine copies. Lonely Planet gets the accolade of being the brand of choice among people who thumb through travel guides (and, from my observations, copy out crucial sections). Praise indeed – unless, of course, I've got my facts wrong.

Simon Calder is author/co-author of nine travel guides, each of which contains errors

Don't try this at home: six dubious tips from guidebooks

"If you're about to go through the barrier and you realise your passport is out-of-date, keep cool and say nothing. It's amazing how often immigration officials fail to notice." – Traveller's Survival Kit Europe, 1976

"A cholera-typhoid jab is a wise precaution." – Rough Guide to Portugal, 1983

"If you are discreet with small amounts you are probably OK, small busts can be bribed out of." – Advice on marijuana in Afghanistan, Across Asia on the Cheap, 1978

"Anything you want to gamble on the [Soviet bloc] black market should not be declared." – Europe: a Manual for Hitch-hikers, 1980

"2p pieces work in French Space Invaders machines." – Alternative London, 1982

"The grassy slopes of motorway junctions can be cosy, but you roll into ditches" – Hitch-hikers' Manual: UK, 1983