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The trouble with travel guides

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During a visit to New York City last summer, Lansing, Mich. native James Westbrook, 35, used a subway map and the lively reviews of local hotspots in a TimeOut travel guide to get him through three virtually unscathed days. (Photo by Erin Schultz)

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A photographer on assignment for the Ultimate Travel Writer's Program, based in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Lori Allen)

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Lori Allen, editor of the Ultimate Travel Writer's Program for the American Writers and Arts Institute based in Washington, D.C., at work. (Photo courtesy of Lori Allen)

Lukasz Kowolik, an active traveler, loves the Lonely Planet guidebook series. But he didn’t so much when he visited Liverpool, England last April, starry-eyed from what he read about the home of the Beatles.

“These days Liverpool is re-creating itself as a premier European city,” the book said, “riding on the back not only of its pop culture cred but of its glorious past as the mercantile hub of an empire.”

Kowolik, a native of Warsaw, Poland now living in New York City, wasn’t impressed.

“I was disappointed,” said Kowolik, 25. “Industrial city, nothing going on, really.”

The fact that travel writers tend to paint a prettier world than the average person’s reality is nothing new, but their techniques and the ethics of the industry itself are now under heavy fire--by travel writers themselves.

Thomas Kohnstamm, a freelancer who has written a dozen Lonely Planet books, caused a stir within the industry in mid-April with his tell-all book, “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” In it, he revealed (among other things) how he wrote whole sections of a guide to Colombia without actually going to the country.

“I got the information from a chick I was dating--an intern in the Colombian Consulate,” he told the New York Observer.

Lonely Planet responded with a statement on their Web site: “This behaviour is completely contrary to what Lonely Planet is all about. Because of the nature of Thomas' claims, we're carefully reviewing all the Lonely Planet content he has worked on. Where we find problems or discrepancies, we will tell you immediately and replace that content with accurate, up-to-date material.”

But Kohnstamm said he didn't really have a choice: his advance from Lonely Planet was less than the plane ticket down to Colombia. “There was no question as to whether (or not) I’d be going,” he said. He worked on the country’s history, culture, environment, food and drink sections--and felt perfectly fit to do so from his home in San Francisco.

So do a lot of writers, according seasoned travel journalists like Chuck Thompson, author of last fall’s gonzo-style “Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.” To him, the art of travel writing has become the art of rewriting old travelogues, and the adventurous spirit is now strapped to a desk job.

“It’s now like a game of telephone,” said Thompson, a former editor of Maxim and the short-lived print magazine version of Travelocity.com. “You crib off of previously published material, updating each year, and pretty soon your source information is now eight years old.”

Thompson said this game of telephone is not only watered-down--it’s boring.

“The style became advertorial,” he said. “Toward airlines, toward destinations. It was mind-numbingly dull. I wanted to break out of that format, to engage the audience.”

Lonely Planet, say industry sources, isn’t the only travel guide where the editors are unable to fund fresh expeditions and thus produce more accurate information. According to Lori Allen, the editor of the Ultimate Travel Writer's Program for the American Writers and Arts Institute in Washington, D.C., even the trusted old-standbys--Let’s Go, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler--have had to deal with shrinking budgets.

“People use the internet more,” she said.

Thompson sees the industry going the same way. If you’re going to one specific place, he said, “why carry around 30 pages when you could print out six” from the Internet?

Though she sees the industry changing, Allen isn't as defeatist as Thompson nor as bitter as Kohnstamm. After eight years in the business, she said she has seen several unethical travel writers come and go.

“That sentiment has been around for years,” she said. Her company's newsletters advise writers to never paint too rosy of a picture of whatever they write about, she added.

But to long-time travel writer Steenie Harvey, even niche and online guides aren’t immune from the travel game of telephone.

Neither are mainstream magazines and newspapers. And for them, she adds, a rosy picture is a means of survival.

“Few editors will take a story on the negative side of travel,” said Harvey. They “don't usually mention that impoverished locals use the 'sparkling azure sea’ as a toilet....or that your hotel bar is probably crawling with hookers... Obviously the advertisers won't be happy if the writer paints a less than delightful picture of the destination/resort/hotel.”

In a 2006 article in International Living magazine, Harvey traced one game of travel telephone regarding Montenegro. Travel & Leisure kicked things off by calling the small country on the Adriatic a “land of untouched white sands.”

“Beaches might be untouched in winter,” wrote Harvey. “But ‘white sands’ are a product of some lunatic’s delusions...rocks in the north, gritty shingle and pebbles in the center. Yes, there are sandy beaches in the far south, but they’re donkey brown, not white.”

The Irish Sunday Business Post echoed the inaccurate sentiments about the beaches, as did the Guardian and the Washington Post.

“It seems if one publication says Montenegro is undiscovered and abounds in sandy beach, then everyone has to sing from the same hymn-sheet,” she wrote. “Do writers no longer believe the evidence of their own eyes?”

Freelance writer Mike Sowden doesn’t think so. Based in York, England, Sowden just took up travel writing. He said that the old Western way of “prejudging” is more of a fundamental problem in today’s guidebooks than just fluff and inaccurate over-hype.

In an interactive world, he thinks that most people don’t want the guidebook to tell them how to feel about a certain place anymore.

“Most Western travel guides have a Western perspective, a kind of intellectual colonialism--ie, 'Here Are The Facts About Your Country,’” he said. “The best travel guides include the experience of the inhabitants, not just how the country appears to a visiting foreigner.”

Thompson thinks the idea of relying on locals is too idealistic. He said it’s easy for a guidebook company like TimeOut to hire locals in New York City or Chicago to write most of the copy, but it’s near impossible to apply that freelance concept to the rest of the world at this point.

“It’d be tough for an English-speaking company to find a good local writer in rural Indonesia,” said Thompson.

And besides, he said, new freelancers to the travel writing game just “aren’t that good. They miss deadlines, they don’t research.” Which is why “editors have their group of writers they trust,” even if most of them explore the world through the Internet, sitting at their desks, recycling other people’s words and real-life experiences.

Kowolik still swears by Lonely Planet. He said their guidebooks are a great place to start if you’ve never been to a particular foreign place, just to get a feel for language and cultures and mannerisms--or to at least have a map.

He said the guidebook to Guatemala did a fine job getting him ready for the spectacular Mayan ruins last August. But once he was there, he let the locals be his guide.

Kowolik hopes that local flavor will translate into the traditional guidebook industry, help to clarify a rocky brown beach from a white sandy one, and get the average traveler a little closer to the truth.

“Who writes the guidebooks?” asked Kowolik. “Americans who don’t know the reasons for things like inscriptions, ancient symbols. The locals know.”

E-mail: ees2139@columbia.edu