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The Ethics of Travel Writing

A seasoned travel writer makes sense of the Lonely Planet scandal.

In the spring of 1942, Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm announced that the German military was to embark upon a bombing campaign targeting every building in England marked with three stars in Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain. For the next six weeks, the so-called Baedeker Raids deployed bombs across the cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, and Canterbury, destroying 50,000 homes and killing nearly 2,000 people. But the Luftwaffe didn't go after anything of strategic significance. It only bombed the buildings that the guidebook's author had rated as particularly fetching.We've been traveling for hundreds of thousands of years, but we've only been buying books that tell us where to go for about two. Pausanias' Description of Greece, published around A.D. 160, is the world's oldest surviving guidebook, a 10-volume treatise on where to stay, what to eat, and which gods and goddesses to check out when you're in that neck of the woods.But it was only when a scruffy, wiry young man barely out of his teens set off in 1972 to explore Southwest Asia that travel really began to change. Along with his wife Maureen, Tony Wheeler wrote and stapled together his Across Asia on the Cheap in a Queensland youth hostel. His company, which he cheekily named Lonely Planet (the planet wouldn't be lonely for long), soon began to pave what was once an unbeaten path, changing the very definition of travel.These days, travelers can buy a guidebook to every single country recognized by the U.N.-192 at last count-and the shelves of are chock-full of thousands of titles marketed toward independent travelers. But how "independent" can we be when we're buying someone else's opinions on where to go?Thomas Kohnstamm's memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, asks just that question. Released in April, the book is a chronicle of Kohnstamm's time spent as a writer for Lonely Planet. In it, he narrates a number of personal traveling shenanigans, including a sexual encounter with a waitress (allegedly resulting in a good review for her restaurant) and an episode of impromptu drug dealing to supplement his meager author advance. It also includes less titillating complaints against the company's unrealistic deadlines, low fees, and lack of support when he was on the road.\n\n\n
"How independent are we really as travelers when we buy someone else's opinions on where to go?"
Once the Web's travel bloggers got wind of the book's imminent release, the paltry prepublication buzz became a furor. Within a matter of hours, the blogosphere was ablaze with vitriolic indictments against Kohnstamm for plagiarism, fraud, and "He made it up! He made it up!" And for a few days it seemed that hell hath no fury as a desk-bound blogger railing against a writer paid to be away from his desk. While the ado was mainly over a few hyperbolized blurbs from the book's press release-most notably a misstated claim that Kohnstamm had never visited one of the countries he was paid to write about-the affair was a wake-up call for travelers around the world.In his book Kohnstamm rails against employment practices that he found constrictive at Lonely Planet, arguing that the reality of work and life on the road as a travel writer is misaligned with the image the company presents to readers. He is weary of the biblical status that guidebooks have attained among independent-minded travelers-books that have become authoritative voices on the how-tos and where-not-tos of travel.Kohnstamm's argument is not that guidebooks are useless, of course-just that they are flawed. What purpose, then, should these books serve? Kohnstamm wants us to remember to use them as helpful tools and not as a "paint-by-the-numbers approach to following the rutted backpacker trail through x developing country." Perhaps guidebooks should be used less to guide us around than to prod or nudge us along, providing just enough ammunition to get there, get settled, and then get out to explore the world on our own. Traveling with a book in your hand means you might miss out on the simple, enlightening experience of discovering something for yourself-which is the whole reason many of us board a plane, ship, or bus in the first place.Much of what makes it into guidebooks is completely arbitrary anyway: A single writer with a single dog-eared notebook decides whether a museum is "worth visiting" or a bar is "über cool"-not entirely objective platitudes. Even online guidebook site, which relies exclusively on the public to post reviews, wants visitors to heed its mantra, "Get the truth. Then go." The last time I checked, truth was something taught in philosophy or math classes, not something read in travel guides. Enter any hotel or restaurant on and you're bound to find negative reviews ("I'd rather suffocate myself than stay here again!") juxtaposed with positive ones ("I've already booked the place out for our honeymoon!") for the very same establishment.The Kohnstamm affair also lays bare the harsh economic realities of the guidebook publishing industry. Market saturation, devaluation of original content, and the bottom line of media conglomerates may soon make the dog-eared guidebook and the dogged guidebook writer obsolete anyway.At the moment, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is selling well and has garnered some very good reviews. While the surrounding controversy has died down, its reverberations have resonated far beyond Lonely Planet's offices. If anything, the Kohnstamm affair is one more poignant reminder that we should not believe everything we read in print-be it in a Reuters news feed, a Rough Guide, or any old roman à clef. As one poster to Lonely Planet's online forum put it during the eruption of the whole affair, "Am absolutely shattered by this revelation. We all trust what is in LP, now we will never be sure of anything again." Which, if you think about it, may not be such a bad thing. GPS devices and that way cool triangulating map program on my iPhone be damned: Sometimes feeling lost, confused, mistaken, and defamiliarized can be a whole lot of fun. It would behoove all of us to keep in mind Kurt Vonnegut's wise words: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."

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