The sickening power of the guidebook author

Guidebook authors can’t brag about much.  When you’re on the road, it’s a solitary, sub-budget, exhausting existence.  When you’re not on the road it’s a solitary, sub-budget, tedious existence.

Broadly, the main perks of this career path can be narrowed down to three categories;

1) The freedom and giddying uniqueness of the job
2) Being the standout novelty at parties (when Marilyn Manson doesn’t show up)
3) Having the power to appropriately make or break the livelihoods of people in the tourism industry, accompanied by frequent crazed, evil god laughing seizures during write-up

This last detail is actually a serious and semi-constant point of debate, at least in Lonely Planet circles.  Appearing (or not appearing) in LP can potential have a huge impact on an individual, business or even an entire town.  But, hey!, no pressure!

The primary concern is the ‘Lonely Planet Trail’ effect, where travelers dangerously loyal to their LP books move from featured hostel, to restaurant, to Internet café, forming a veritable conga line, piously following every word of the book’s recommendations and never venturing out on their own.

From what I understand, LP has tried a number of good intentioned, but often ineffective ways to damped the phenomenon of the LP Trail over the years, not only to spread the wealth to other establishments that are equally deserving of tourism business, but for whatever reason (*cough* word count! *cough*) could not be included in the book, but also to keep the ones featured in the book honest. 

It’s not uncommon that a stellar hostel, deservingly featured in the book, will go rogue once they have a guaranteed customer base of LP readers streaming in the door, greedily raising prices, going lax on things like cleaning, customer service and even hot water while they lay out construction plans on their retirement homes in Bermuda. 

The ugly side of tourism doesn’t end there.  In some less respectable places, one hostel getting an LP mention, sets off a string of activity in the neighborhood, where a handful of hostels immediately change their names to shameless variations of the LP-featured hostel, tricking weary, just-off-the-bus travelers into giving them custom.  The lovely ‘Family Friendly Hostel’ will suddenly be joined by ‘Friendly Family Hostel’ with no locks on the doors, or “Family Friends Hostel’ with cockroaches and mattresses from the condemned brothel or ‘Family Friendly Hostal’ with spy cams in the women’s showers. 

Keeping the book updated and accurate, featuring quality listings, while battling the LP Trail effect and eradicating businesses-gone-bad is a balancing act not unlike steering the economy of a First World nation. 

If one chooses to dwell on it, there’s undeniably a certain amount of monarch-like power in being a popular guidebook writer in some parts of the world (“Dance pension owners!  Dance, I say!!!  Now kiss that donkey with mange on the butt!!!!”).  Indeed, this concept is large in the minds of certain authors – usually the younger, first-timers from less respectable guidebooks, who have developed deluded ideas about the job – who will walk into an establishment, dramatically announce themselves and await with a regale air for the proprietors to scamper about, preparing the presidential suite, throwing out rose petals, pouring champagne and producing the crown, cape and scepter. 

I’ve heard tell of the rude awakening that happens when this tactic is attempted in my territory, the obscure regions of Romania and Moldova where most people wouldn’t even hold the door open for the Pope.  Outside of Bucharest and Transylvania, where tourism is as cut throat as anywhere, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s heard of Lonely Planet and even more at odds to find anyone who gives a rip. 

This goes double when dealing with Ceausescu-era people, who routinely reply to a simple question with two paranoid, suspicious questions of their own, meaning that something as routine as securing room prices and whether or not breakfast is included can turn into a 15 minute cross-examination.  Once I was thrown out of a pension by the possibly insane dowager for just trying to verify their phone number.

Others, completely oblivious or indifferent to the power of being mentioned in a guidebook, never even cracked a smile, throwing rooms keys at me without a word so I could inspect hotels on my own, or making me wait for 10 minutes while they gravely discussed with a colleague whether to get coffee with or without milk. 

On the rare occasions where unending interrogations resulted in me divulging the name ‘Lonely Planet’ so that I might have a chance at seeing a room in my lifetime, I was almost unanimously met with a stone-faced response and yet further questioning;

(roughly paraphrased) “So, this ‘Homely Planet,’ that you speak of” they would say, eyeing me with unconcealed wariness, “what exactly is this?  An organization of sleepless tramps who go around and harass innocent people like me from chain-smoking and watching my Spanish soap operas while at work?” 

I was too panicked, frost-bitten and stressed to let thoughts of my potentially limitless power bother me during research and write-up, but as the dust settles, I’m starting to get a feel for how something like a powerful adjective, an extra sentence, or the ultimate, an ‘Author’s Choice’ box can make and ruin people. 

This feeling was driven home when I received a phone call recently from a someone working in the one and only mildly competitive tourism area in my region (I gave him my mobile number in a weak moment, which has been followed by one or two probing calls per week to get insider info on the book), grilling me about an Author’s Choice box in the current edition of ‘Romania and Moldova’ and whether I intended to keep this for the next edition.  For the record, this type of stalking isn’t out of the ordinary here in Romania.  Inappropriate, socially unacceptable questions are actually quite common, like your exact income, private business concerns, when and how generous your last bowel movement was, but I digress.  When I hemmed and hawed, I was treated to a tirade about the local tourism atmosphere and how featuring anyone in an Author’s Choice box wasn’t fair to the rest of the community. 

I empathized, but I also explained that my job is to do/write what will ultimately be best for travelers and I cannot let myself get bogged down the local politics of each city, allowing it dictate how I write the book.  By the end of the phone call, I was feeling so harassed and unnecessarily burdened, that I very nearly deleted the guy from the book. 

Furthermore, an additional wearying challenge about researching Romania – Romanians please correct me if I’m overstating the matter – is the common tactic where people/businesses wanting to succeed, rather than working hard and providing quality service, instead try to get ahead by enthusiastically spreading damaging rumors and lies about their competition.  I had a hell of a time sifting through unsolicited ‘advice’ given to me about hotels/restaurants/tour guides by people who, it turns out, were either repeating fantastically inaccurate gossip or flat out lying to my face.

I’ll admit, I’ve felt the power surge of my job on a couple of occasions.  Writing a resounding review of a place that won my heart and vengefully deleting places that had raised their prices 200%, started employing blatant tourist scams or had thrown me out of their pensions, maniacally screaming after me when I inquired about their phone number.

As bad as I feel I’ve had it, I can only imagine that this phenomenon is magnified by a factor of 100 in LP-sensitive places like Bangkok, Amsterdam and the whole east coast of Australia.  The upshot is, I imagine doing incognito research is probably a tad easier in places where people asking benign questions aren’t viewed as candidates for being undercover Securitate agents and imparting reasonable customer service takes priority over personal calls and gossip magazines.

In the end, despite playfully listing item #3 above as a ‘perk’, ultimately, it’s often a liability.  Unless you’re me, then it’s a virtual non-factor and can even backfire, forcing me to metaphorically kiss the donkey’s butt just to get a straight answer out of people.

And yet, we still do it.  If only the psychiatric community knew about this goldmine of neuroses.