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News & Advice

Travel: Welcome to Wiki-holidays

The online encyclopaedia has launched a user-edited travel guide. So does that spell curtains for Lonely Planet and Co? Will Coldwell finds out

This week the Wikimedia Foundation launched its latest open source enterprise; Wiki-voyage, "a free web-based travel guide written by volunteer authors". In case you're wondering, yes, that definition comes from its Wikipedia page. Shoot me.

Formed somewhat controversially by disgruntled members of the independent Wikitravel community, the site already looks poised for rapid growth. But what the new site will add to the travelling experience is yet to be garnered. Indeed, the bland yet reliable Wikipedia is not known for its colourful anecdotes involving Tuk Tuks and Delhi belly.

A case in point is this line from the page dedicated to our capital: "If you ask a Londoner where the centre of London is, you are likely to get a wry smile. This is because historically London was two cities: a commercial city and a separate government capital." With that kind of content a wry smile seems optimistic. "For the average traveller, it's probably not going to replace printed guides," says Tom Morris, a software developer and Wikipedia administrator who has been involved with Wikivoyage since the launch. "But it will be good for niche projects.

"There's a community looking into writing travel guides specifically for people with children, so there's now a New York Children's guide. Just today they set up a new project for LGBT travellers.

"At the moment people are throwing ideas around and it's a bit anarchic, but you only need one group of niche obsessive people to get together and they can do something really interesting. The internet is very good at bringing obsessive people together."

Those already working in the travel industry will be watching the progress of the Wikivoyage project closely.

"It's a development we're interested in watching play out as we're also taking the path of encouraging user generated interaction," says Joanna Kirby, publisher of Rough Guides. For travel writer David Whitley, who runs the Grumpy Traveller blog, crowdsourced travel sites are a mixed blessing for tourists.

"They have thousands of people contributing, so you'll find things which aren't in the guide books because the guidebook writers never heard of it. They're also very up to date.

"But they lack editorial judgement – you just get a thousand people saying: 'This is great'."

Whatever the quality of the content, there are still some technical hurdles to overcome before digital guides take over, not least the extortionate cost of 3G roaming charges.

"I wouldn't want to leave an iPad in my bag on the beach," says Whitley, "and I certainly wouldn't want to be reliant on my phone in the middle of the Australian outback."

And with Wikipedia's propensity to be tweaked at by unscrupulous users, would you really risk asking a foreign barman for a pint with a Wikiphrasebook?