21 September 2010

Do guidebooks create the beaten path?

I have a recent edition of Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door. Here's what it says on the back cover: “Avoid crowds and tourist traps . . . Discover off-the-beaten-path towns, trails, and natural wonders.”

But as anyone who has followed the insider knowledge of such guidebooks can attest, by the time you get to one of these hidden gems, you'll find a dozen other tourists already there, each one bearing your same guidebook and the glum expression that says, "This is not what I was promised."

You know that famous Yogi Berra line, "No one goes there; it's too crowded"? With guidebooks, we get just the opposite phenomenon: everyone goes there because it's not crowded.

This is nothing new. A 1963 profile of Arthur Frommer in Time included the following anecdote:
Last week in Paris one proud hotelier told Frommer: "It is your book which bought this elevator." But the new lift meant higher rentals, and Frommer sadly made a note to drop the hotel from the next edition. 
Or there's this, from the 1966 edition of Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe (and which serves as a reminder that the snarkiness of youth is timeless):
In the low-cost field the most popular guide is Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day, which has become so widely circulated among American tourists that you will generally find them sitting on top of each other in the hotels and restaurants recommended.
The most telling example of a guidebook's impact on a place is, I think, one that involves Frommer's rival Temple Fielding, he of the raffia basket carry-on and the portable record players and the mink-covered beer can opener. Such was the impact of his guidebook that, according to John McPhee's 1968 New Yorker profile, "A waiter's strike in Italy was postponed when leaders of the national waters' union were informed that Fielding was in the country."

The guidebook effect extends way off the beaten path, too. In Getting Stoned With Savages, J. Maarten Troost travels to the South Pacific island of Malekula, where he meets a man while walking through the forest:
"I am George," he said curtly. "Do you have a Lonely Planet?"
I did indeed have a Lonely Planet guide to Vanuatu. We had brought it out from the U.S. Remarkably, they had a chapter on Malekula, which I had read thoroughly, highlighting all the references--and there were many--to the dangers posed by sharks.
"Turn to page one-fourteen," he said. "Do you see?" He jabbed at the page. "That's me."
The entry to which he referred read, in its entirety: "In the village on Wala Island, George's Guestroom  is small, for one or two people."
And have you read Eat, Pray, Love? Don't lie. You're reading a travel blog. I'm just going to guess, then, that you've either read or intentionally avoided Elizabeth Gilbert's gazillion-copy-selling spiritual self-help tract masquerading as travel writing. Just a hunch.

Anyway. So she goes to Bali. To (proper-noun) Love. But she's not quite done with the praying and the physical health stuff, either. Gilbert befriends a healer named Wayan, and decides to help her out--in part so that Wayan can reach that eternal goal of the tourist-area business owner: a listing in a prominent guidebook.
If she had a home, she could finally be listed in Lonely Planet, who keep wanting to mention her services, but never can do so, because she never has a permanent address that they can print. 
As it turns out, Lonely Planet was not the book that really put Wayan on the tourist trail. That, of course, fell to . . . Eat, Pray, Love.  From Time last month:
Wayan, an outspoken Indonesian healer of dark beauty and another of Eat, Pray, Love's personalities, was, with her young daughter and two adopted orphans, once on the verge of eviction. Now a staff of well-built men churns out her healthful Vitamin Lunches for calling travelers. From January to March of 2006, 237,260 foreign tourists stopped by Bali. Since then the number has swelled steadily, and in the same three months of this year, there were 551,186 visitors to the island.
While precise figures are not yet available, industry observers from the Denpasar Tourism Academy have confirmed that the island has been repopulated by tourists looking to develop their spirituality. . . . "It's a thing we want to promote because those activities bring peace to mind," says Nyoman Suwidjana, deputy chairman of the Bali Tourism Board. "And Bali loves peace."
Emphasis mine. Just in case you missed the irony. 

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