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Travel guides lead the way

Travel guides lead the way

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Holiday firms report record sales. Fares are soaring. And airports are packed even in the murk of early February. Such are the signs that travel is back to its optimistic and adventurous self.

The crowds at Olympia in London this weekend, venue for the first Destinations Holidays & Travel Show in three years, demonstrate the pent-up demand to make up for journeys lost during the Covid years. The event hosts the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival, and it was especially heartening to see the packed audiences for talks from writers – including one discussion on Friday in which the wonders and welcome of Russia in normal times were set against the tragedy of Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine.

Stanfords, as you know, is a venerable institution based in London’s Covent Garden that has been providing maps and travel guides for centuries. Trade collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic: while armchair travel is all very well, when the UK government bans any kind of leisure journey abroad the demand for guidebooks to France, Florida and far-flung territories dries up.

The whole travel industry was devastated by Covid and the clampdown on exploration. But unlike other businesses that were simply waiting for demand to return as the pandemic subsided – the guidebook business has a huge problem with supply.

Many new editions were researched in 2019 for publication the following year. But very few were published; spending tens of thousands of pounds printing guides to places that were off-limits would be unlikely to be an outstanding commercial success.

Travel guide writers, too, were hugely constrained by Covid. Some nations slammed frontiers shut, others imposed expensive and complex testing rules. Transport options shrank. And if the researcher jumped all the hurdles, they would find hotels reserved for essential workers, restaurants boarded up and tourist attractions closed indefinitely.

One valiant exception was the Bradt Guide to Estonia. The author, Neil Taylor, managed to navigate through all the barriers to research, rewrite and publish the sixth edition of his book in September 2021.

But everywhere else, fresh research is essential for the post-pandemic world – as I heard from Adrian Phillips, managing director of Bradt Travel Guides.

“We had a whole suite of books lining up like grounded airplanes on a runway during the pandemic,” he says.

For authors who had spent months racing to meet a deadline, there was worse to come.

“What we had to do, unfortunately, was ask them to then revisit the work that they had already done,” Adrian says.

“We literally had authors who had written their manuscripts, submitted them, they were going through the editing stage and we had to say to them, look, listen guys, you’ve got to go back and do a little bit more research.”

During the pandemic, he says, travellers’ dreams have changed. “People are looking for longer-form, longer-haul travel – to go for a longer period of time and do more immersive travel.

“A great many tour operators are seeing people looking for more immersive experiences, more experiential trips – feeling that they are travelling in a more sustainable and engaging way and giving something back to the local communities.”

With online information and reviews on every corner of the planet readily available, is there still a place for the guidebook? Declaration of interest: I have researched and written a few in my time. Guidebook researchers, editors and publishers are focused on providing accurate and impartial information.

“January just gone, we’ve seen our best sales for the best part of two years,” reports Adrian. And what is doing well?

“Albania, which consistently has sold incredibly well and continues to do so. And then an entirely different type of book. Our best seller of last year was Dog Friendly Weekends. And that’s done phenomenally.”

For something completely different, though, the Bradt Guide to Karakalpakstan will be out in June. So put off your impending visit to that autonomous region of Uzbekistan – an area the size of Sweden which includes Resurrection Island in the much-depleted Aral Sea – until then.

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