Dear Lonely Planet: Hire Me

A few months ago, while visiting Belgrade, I came across this line in a Lonely Planet article:

This underrated destination in the European traveller’s mindset is a sitting duck for those who hunt memorable experiences.

To be fair, Serbia is a difficult place to describe. It was far from being my favorite destination and I’d have a hard time writing about it with any real enthusiasm. Still, that didn’t stop me from asking Lonely Planet to let me try.

As you might imagine, I didn’t get a response – as is often the case when lobbing thinly veiled insults at reputable media organizations online. I don’t fault them for taking the high road, but I’m kind of surprised they did. Surely their editors surely know that nothing interesting ever happens there.

 

My problem with travel writing – and guidebooks, in particular – runs much deeper than a single line in Lonely Planet Serbia. The real issue? Travel writing is lazy. It relies on empty platitudes, sloppy comparisons, and tired stereotypes to describe what are arguably some of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world. There should be no shortage of inspiration, and yet here we are: 

The mere mention of Bali evokes thoughts of a paradise. It’s more than a place; it’s a mood, an aspiration, a tropical state of mind.

Taking its place alongside the Pyramids and the Serengeti, Victoria Falls … is one of Africa’s original blockbusters.

Tel Aviv could not be more different to its older sibling, Jerusalem. Modern, vibrant and cosmopolitan: hedonism is the main religion in this hip, bustling Mediterranean ‘Manhattan’.

Forgive me for being so blunt, but that is some terrible writing. And my expectations aren’t that high either. All I’m asking is that web copy make sense. That a writer doesn’t bill a waterfall as “a blockbuster” and describe a major city by comparing it to two other major cities. I expect every sentence to make a point.

“A tropical state of mind,” indeed. And they wonder why no one buys books anymore.

Rice cycles. #ubud #indonesia #riceterraces #rice #travelbog #travelgram #travel

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I’ll be the first to admit that summarizing an entire country or city in just a few sentences is no simple task. I’m even willing to admit that it might not be possible. Perhaps guidebooks should skip all the creative rambling and focus on the practical and the factual: a list of attractions, a brief history, a simple “how to” for getting in, out and around. I’d much prefer that to seeing Istanbul summarized as: This magical meeting place of East and West has more top-drawer attractions than it has minarets (and that’s a lot).

When I read that, I cringed. And if you’ve ever been to Istanbul then you probably did too. Dare I say that anyone who has visited Turkey can come up with something more interesting than, “It has an awful lot of minarets.”

I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but then I read the page for Krakow:

If you believe the legends, Kraków was founded on the defeat of a dragon, and it’s true a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares.

Just, keep in mind, that’s Krakow they’re describing. One of the few cities in Poland not decimated by the Nazis. A place that survived one of the darkest periods of modern history and then reinvented itself as a first-class tourist destination and burgeoning tech scene. The city that’s so interesting it inspired a major motion picture about what happened in a sink factory.

I don’t know how anyone could have gone there, took a look around and walked away thinking, “So let’s lead with the dragon.”

Together forever. #loversbridge #krakow #poland #travel #solotravel

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Another quality that’s sorely lacking in guidebooks is objectivity. And I understand that’s a tricky matter too. After all, the purpose of travel writing is to showcase the best the destination has to offer and convince people to go. But these write-ups need to strike a balance between interesting and honest. In many cases, they don’t.

For instance, I don’t think we should begin a summary of Prague with the sentence, “[This city] is the equal of Paris in terms of beauty.” First of all, no it’s not. No one thinks so, not even Czech people. If they did, then they probably wouldn’t feel the need to brag about being the birthplace of the contact lens. They’d just be like, “Look around. Like Paris, but cheaper.”

Bottom line: Prague is Prague. Just like Paris is Paris and Beijing is Beijing. Tel Aviv is not a Mediterranean Manhattan and Manhattan is not an Atlantic Dubai. Like Mark Twain said, comparison is the death of joy.

Every city needs more color. #solotravel #travel #prague #czechrepublic

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The examples go on and on:

Estonia doesn’t have to struggle to find a point of difference: it’s completely unique. 

Prepare for your senses to be slapped. Marrakesh‘s heady sights and sounds will dazzle, frazzle and enchant. Put on your babouches and dive right in.

Albania has natural beauty in such abundance that you might wonder why it took 20 years for the country to take off as a tourist destination since the end of a particularly brutal strain of communism in 1991.

Adding insult to injury is that these quotes are coming from one of the biggest, most popular travel brands on the market. They are, quite literally, as good as it gets. And you know what? I think I could do better. By that I mean that I could write something for each of these places that is original, accurate, honest and smart. If anyone wants to take me up on it, I’ll be in Helsinki, where “the boulevards and backstreets are awash with magnificent architecture, intriguing drinking and dining venues and groundbreaking design.”

14 Comments
  1. Oh how I hope somebody takes you up on it! I’m so tired of trying to make my way through all the fluff and mythology spin!

        • Oh fun! OK:
          1. If you want to get the cheap tickets up to the Eiffel Tower or any tickets to the Anne Frank house, book them immediately. They sell out months in advance.
          2. If you don’t mind blocking time and working from a schedule, I’d actually recommend you purchase tickets for all museums you want to go ahead of time. I spent quite a bit of time waiting in lines in both cities. It’s possible to buy online in most cases, so definitely consider it for the places you know you want to go. Obviously, the Louvre is a must see… so is the Van Gough museum in Amsterdam.
          3. If you’re in Paris on a weekend and you like flea markets, there is a great one: Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen. I think it’s both Saturday and Sunday… but you should check. I was also surprised that shopping in Paris at non-designer boutiques was pretty affordable. And the style in Amsterdam was my favorite – I bought more things there than anywhere else in my travels. It’s all quirky, fun stuff – expensive, but you can’t find it too many other places. If you like shopping, save some room in your suitcase.
          4. Personally, I would do the Arc de Triumph in the evening. Better views – just my opinion.
          5. Depending on your time and interest, Brussels is just 60 or 90 minutes from Paris by train (I forget exactly) and it’s cheap. Definitely a cool place if you want to take the time to go if you haven’t been already.
          6. I didn’t really “get” the appeal of the windmills outside Amsterdam. I mean, it’s nice, but I don’t know that I’d put it on the list unless you really care.
          7. Food has never been my thing – sorry, can’t help you much there. I’ll just say that in Paris, I loved all the bakeries and cafes. I lived off the baguette sandwiches – cheap and delicious. I also met up with a friend at this bar for drinks and snacks and it was excellent… I can find out the name of that and some other places from him if you are interested. (It’s actually the guy I met in Hong Kong when I sliced open my foot… he’s French, so he has the best recommendations all over Europe and he lived in Hong Kong so long that he knows Asia really well too. Really, HE should be writing the travel book!)
          8. It could be hit or miss, but my friend Jen and I had the BEST time at a club called Club Nova in Amsterdam. There were Germans! There were balloons! It ended with us eating waffles at 5 a.m. Worth a look!
          9. Finally – in Paris especially – please be very careful about pickpockets. You may remember that my iPhone was stolen within 30 minutes of arrival – which is something that has never happened to me before or since. In other words, I’m pretty with it and still I was no match for the professionals, so please be alert – especially on the Metro and if you take a train from the airport.

          ENJOY!!!

          • OK – will drop him a line and see what he says :) You’re welcome – enjoy! Eat all the baguettes for me!

          • OK – here’s what I learned about bars and restaurants in Paris. I’ve never been to any of them, so I can’t vouch for them personally but I can say that my friend has always given me excellent recommendations and don’t expect these to be any different:
            1. Lunch at Comptoir de Relais, get there before noon to get a table; no bookings
            2. Clover – dinner. make a booking
            3. Clamato and Septime are two great new places, book ahead
            4. Old School: Chez Georges
            5. Best value: La Regalade Conservatoire
            6. Cheap and cheerful bio/natural wines: Le Verre Vole

            ENJOY!

  2. I love Lonely Planet so much for all that it is. And adding to you their roster seems like something they’d do, for the good of all

  3. Lonely Planet used to be what you read for the kind of tip you gave Clarissa – the been-there-do-this kind of info. Now it just aggregates a bunch of info that you can easily get from googling yourself. It’s still a timesaver but I miss what it used to be :-(

    • Yeah – I appreciate all the practical information. Lonely Planet does that pretty well. It’s the actual writing and most of the articles that make me wince. And there’s really no reason for it, you know? Just stick to the facts! I actually didn’t look up what they wrote for NZ… and I probably shouldn’t. It’ll only set me off.
      Thanks for reading! Catch you soon!

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