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Is it becoming a lonelier planet?

in Travel

Switch from guidebooks to smart phones may be causing headaches for smaller destinations

Turn the clock back a decade or two, and every backpacker would be clutching a copy of a Lonely Planet travel guide.

From Delhi to Budapest, from Prague to Bangkok, and from Rio de Janeiro to Copenhagen, they were the bibles for independent travelers.

Not anymore, though.

Where guidebooks were once vital for finding out about the main attractions in a city, and the location of the best hotels or backpacker hostels, that information can now be accessed within seconds on a laptop, tablet or smart phone.

This trend partly explains why the BBC, which had bought Lonely Planet in stages in 2007 and 2011, made a $121 million loss when it offloaded the struggling publisher last year. Reports indicate the company’s sales dropped from $25 million to $18 million between 2006 and 2012, while other travel guide publishers have also found life difficult.

Last year, owner Google announced that Frommer’s would no longer be publishing guidebooks after sales nearly halved (the Frommer family has since relaunched a series of guides).

It is not just the publishers who are affected by the move toward electronic travel research; destinations could also be feeling an impact.

World-famous cities such as Prague or internationally known spa destinations like Karlovy Vary are unlikely to face problems, but the less well-known locations could be affected.

At the Poets’ Corner Hostel in Olomouc, for example, a notice implores travelers to spread the word about the hostel because “each year, fewer people buy guidebooks, and more plan their travel just using the Internet.”

“That’s bad for us, because Olomouc is not famous, and people who don’t know it, or can’t spell it, can’t Google it and will never find out about it,” it continues.

A Czech Republic or Central Europe guidebook is likely to feature Olomouc and its main attractions, but people researching online may never hear about the city, or other similar smaller destinations.

While the notice was put up by his predecessor, the Poets’ Corner’s current owner, Ian Martin, a 43-year-old Australian, also said the move toward electronic travel research is a concern.

“There’s definitely a backpacker trail going from Prague to Krakow to Budapest. They’re missing out on small places like Olomouc. … People looking at travel options online will often be steered to one place,” he said.

Martin, who took over the hostel two years ago, said, however, he was happy with the number of guests the venue was attracting, and that Olomouc was developing a reputation online among travelers, which could help increase visitor numbers.

And not everyone believes the changeover to electronic is impacting smaller places. Jaromír Beránek, a tourism analyst with MAG consulting in Prague, said smaller places still attract a “decent amount of visitors.”

“With the Internet, if all the tourists are searching [for information online], it doesn’t mean the smaller destinations have fewer visitors. It doesn’t have any effect,” he said.

Similarly, Jan Zachariáš, a former representative for the Plzeň 2015 European Capital of Culture initiative, said the city he used to work for attracted a healthy number of tourists, most brought by tour operators.

“There are many tour operators, those with one or two day trips for German people, especially retired people who live in [Bavaria] — it’s close, 45 minutes,” he said.

He conceded Plzeň attracted few backpackers, although he said this was more a result of the city lacking nightlife.

Yet, despite the arguments of many that smaller destinations are still drawing visitors, certain hostels or other destinations that were once praised heavily in the most popular travel guides may have seen an effect on business from the move away from guidebooks.

Certainly in Prague, plenty of visitors are now managing to enjoy visits without ever picking up Rough Guide or Lonely Planet books, or a Baedeker guide. And most seem not to be considering the smaller towns and cities in the Czech Republic.

Sveta Barsukova, a 20-year-old student from Ukraine, is visiting Prague with her iPhone-wielding boyfriend, Aleksander Anisimov. Most of the organization for their three-day visit was done through a travel agency, but Barsukova and her boyfriend have downloaded smart phone applications to find out about the main tourist attractions.

“It’s like a map that you can download; it’s a little [electronic] help book,” she said.

Vietnamese tourist Aary Le, 27, who lives in Italy, had just a map he had picked up at the airport to show him what to see during his two days in Prague.

“It’s just not convenient [to use a guidebook],” he said while heading toward Old Town Square.

Some, however, such as Brazilian bank manager Livia Conti prefer the guidebook.

“The first thing, before I came here, when I was in Brazil, I read a lot of information from the Internet, but I bought a guide too because it’s easier when you are here to remember where you want to go,” said the 42-year-old, traveling with her partner and their young child.

Yet despite being a “traditional girl who prefers a guidebook,” Conti said she would not be traveling elsewhere in the Czech Republic, and will instead head directly to Vienna before taking in Budapest. The delights of Olomouc, with its town hall, UNESCO-listed Holy Trinity Column, multiple fountains and stunning neo-Gothic cathedral, are not on her itinerary, at least not this time around.

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