In the past 10 years I’ve lived in four countries and visited a dozen more, and along the way I’ve picked up my fair share of travel guides. In France I took my cues from Rick Steves; Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring helped me navigate from Argentina to Ecuador; in Kyrgyzstan I used an old Odyssey Illustrated Guide until my neighbors’ young children ripped the pages out to decorate their walls. I’ve never set foot outside the U.S. without a trusty guidebook in hand: The regional histories are brief but intriguing, the recommendations are honest, and the detailed downtown maps have proven invaluable each time I try to get my bearings in a new city.
Lately, though, it seems like that’s not enough. Guidebook makers, like every other sector of the publishing industry, have been hit hard by the proliferation of free digital alternatives—in their case by recommendation services like Yelp and Urbanspoon. Since 2007, sales for the top five travel publishers—Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, DK and Moon—have dropped more than 40 percent.
It’s easy to see why. When I moved to Mexico last year, I brought not one but three guidebooks. At first I carried them with me, just as I had as a wide-eyed undergrad in Buenos Aires, but within a few weeks those books came to rest more or less permanently on my bookcase under a growing layer of dust. In the year since my most current guide had been published, several of the restaurants it recommended had moved or closed, and one whose doors were still open offered such poor food and service that I began to question the judgment of my guidebook’s author. Having grown accustomed to the hundreds of reviews and aggregate scores available for many businesses in the U.S., I found it difficult to give much weight to the opinions of one or two wandering souls who passed through town a year ago. There is, of course, a distinct pleasure in finding new venues by trial and error, but in every situation in which we might have used a guidebook, sooner or later my girlfriend and I would turn to each other and ask, “Why don’t they have Yelp here?”