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Dominic Lawson

Dominc Lawson: Postcards from the edge of travel-writing

It's especially galling for Lonely Planet to be accused of corruption, even at this low level

The bosses of the Lonely Planet guides are shocked – shocked! – by the revelations of an ex-contributor called Thomas Kohnstamm. Mr Kohnstamm, a 32-year-old American, has claimed that in his time as a Lonely Planet guidebook writer he financed some of his trips by selling drugs, including ecstasy; and that following an after-hours sexual encounter with a waitress on a restaurant table in Brazil, he wrote up the joint in question as providing "good table service".

This particular episode has been denounced by the Lonely Planet's chief executive officer, Judy Slatyer, as infringing, "our stated policy of not accepting freebies, which compromised his recommendation".

It is a measure of how far the Lonely Planet guides have departed from their original hippyish spirit that Ms Slatyer should have come up with such a po-faced response. In its early days a number of its guidebooks would provide information on how to get hold of marijuana in various out-of-the way parts of the world; and Mr Kohnstamm's salacious comment on a table-top encounter with a Brazilian waitress would surely not have provoked corporate disapproval on the grounds that it had infringed company policy on the receipt of benefits in kind.

Now, however, the Lonely Planet is umbilically tied to respectability and corporate responsibility: last year its founders , Tony and Maureen Wheeler, sold a 75 per cent share to the BBC in a deal which is thought to have valued the company at £100m. (This figure, incidentally, is based on speculation: the BBC did not feel obliged to tell licence fee-payers how much we were paying for an acquisition which in effect nationalised the Lonely Planet guides.)

Given the BBC's recent travails over the issue of faked documentaries, it is almost exquisite that the main charge levelled by Mr Kohnstamm (in his forthcoming book called Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism) is that he didn't even visit some of the places he recommended.

Of his contribution to the Lonely Planet Guide to Colombia, Mr Kohnstamm writes: "I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from some chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian Consulate."

Mr Kohnstamm's sexual bragging is admittedly tiresome – but I can't see why his book on Colombia would be any the less reliable for having been entirely informed by conversations with his "chick" in the Colombian Consulate. She would probably know much more about what to see and what to avoid in her own country than any travelling freelance American out of his head on who knows what substance.

The Lonely Planet's furious bosses do have my sympathy in one respect, however. Mr Kohnstamm complains that they had it coming to them, because, "they don't pay enough for what they expect the authors to do".

It's true that Lonely Planet authors no longer receive royalties: all rights, including moral rights of authorship, are now retained by the publisher itself. It's also true that a Lonely Planet freelance writer is likely to be among those affected by Gordon Brown's removal of the 10 per cent tax band for the lowest paid.

Yet the publishers of these books could almost certainly pay even less and still have a very long queue of eager applicants pleading to join the business. What could be more attractive to an aspiring young writer without family obligations than to tour exotic destinations and be paid a small fee for telling the world about it?

Indeed, Mr Kohnstamm's more lurid Brazilian revelations probably guarantee that the queue of would-be Lonely Planet writers – well, male ones, at least – will only get longer. They might not be the best writers in the world, of course; but sheer enthusiasm has a way of communicating itself to readers.

It is, though, especially galling to the Lonely Planet to be accused of any form of corruption, even at this low level. Unlike almost every other such publisher, it has always refused to allow its writers to take free or subsidised accommodation. This, the Lonely Planet's business managers have argued, distinguishes them not just from many other travel guidebooks, but in particular from travel writing in newspapers and magazines – which is almost invariably subsidised by free or very heavily discounted flights and accommodation offered by the subjects of those very same articles.

Anthony Browne – the director of the Policy Exchange thinktank – wrote a few years ago in The New Statesman that of all journalism, "the most corrupt is travel journalism, which survives on the free holidays from those it reports on. Only The Independent has made serious attempts to avoid this. On a recent free holiday to Africa with my partner, a policeman (who had to pay for his holiday) asked how I could pretend to write objectively about a company that was showering such a gift on me. 'I would be sacked if I was doing what you were doing,' he said. The result is that travel sections all too often exaggerate the good points of holidays and play down the bad ones, and rarely contain strong criticism of individual tour operators or travel companies."

Browne went on to damn as hypocritical newspapers which attacked Tony Blair for taking "freebie holidays" while regularly assigning similar perks to their own senior writers and editors.

Anthony Browne's arguments have some force, but perhaps not quite as much as he thinks. I recall coming back from one such "freebie" journalistic holiday in the West Indies and writing that my hotel room had been burgled while I had been out at dinner. The travel editor of the newspaper which commissioned the piece had no hesitation in publishing these disobliging observations, which resulted in a large number of cancelled bookings at the hotel in question. He was also robust in dealing with the subsequent petulant outburst by the travel company involved.

There is also the argument that if the travel writer is not paying the full cost of his holiday then he is inclined to regard with genial indulgence minor inadequacies which he would be unlikely to tolerate if he were picking up the entire tab. Again, there is some truth in this; but on the other hand, it is noticeable that many paying customers are so concerned not to feel they have wasted their money that they won't criticise even that which merits a complaint.

It is one of the great paradoxes of economics that the more someone has paid for something, the happier he or she will tend to feel about the product.

It would be interesting to know if the BBC still feels like that about the £75m or so that it has spent buying the Lonely Planet guides. On the other hand, it isn't really their money anyway, is it?