Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why Lonely Planet Indonesia stinks

I love guidebooks. They are your entry into a place, are usually more honest in their assessment of a location, its accommodation and what's on offer than tourist office advertising paraphernalia, but are not always accurate as to prices. I forgive them that, the delay between research and publishing sets up an inevitable disparity as prices change dependent on the market.

What I cannot forgive them for is their tardiness. A guidebook that is continuously updating and republishing needs to not just rehash the same old information. It needs to find new places to visit, explore the places in more detail and offer more options. One word of advice to anyone wanting a guidebook is to get an old one, don't bother buying a new one, because the only difference between old and new will be the prices. And even the new prices are inaccurate.

Because I travel slowly and research possible destinations using multiple sources I often hear about places not mentioned in Lonely Planet.  Gunung Padang, for instance. Mahat Valley is another. Besides LP there are Rough Guides and there used to be Periplus Guides, who published the most detailed regional guides. But none of the guidebooks these days do more than rehash and update the old information. Rough Guides no longer produce anything but a Bali and Lombok Guide, meaning your only option for the rest of Indonesia is LP. Periplus is still a great bookshop to browse in when in Indonesia, especially for maps, and if you manage to find one of their old guidebooks in a second hand shop, grab it for me will you!

Some people will say that keeping some places a secret from the guidebooks stops them getting touristy. I think that's crap, people need information to make choices about where they want to visit, and no-one can possibly visit everywhere. Also, why shouldn't my tourist dollar be spread more widely? And, if 200 million Indonesians know about a place, but it isn't in a western guidebook, is a few extra western visitors going to make it more touristy??

So what exactly do Lonely Planet researchers do? It seems to me they mostly find new hotels for us to stay at, and in Indonesia they seem to only find mid budget and higher. They also seem to specialise in finding eateries that serve western meals, because apparently us Westerners can't handle eating the local food too often. (Then again, it's easy to find the local food, not so easy to know where to get western food I guess). It seems that either the focus of the guidebook's market has moved to flashpackers, or the researchers can't stomach a place without air con and western comforts. I suspect it's the former.

I see so many backpackers on the road, carrying their oversized luggage, trying to find a place within their budget. There are lots of places offering clean, friendly rooms for less than 100,000Rp, but they sure don't feature often in LP. So the backpacker, who has had to negotiate the intricacies of the public transport system, and keep an eye on their possessions in a crowded bus, has then to trawl the streets for a bed, because they can no longer rely on LP to give them a helping hand. Cheap places don't have websites, but that doesn't mean they are dirty and unworthy of staying in. The flashpacker, on the other hand, often pays for the conveniences of better transport, and he or she knows where they're staying, thanks to LP and having booked ahead.

Perhaps budget backpackers are no longer a big enough market for LP, and from my reading of travel blogs and conversations with travellers on the road, I may well be a minority in not requiring western comforts. At least the budget backpacker is a resourceful soul, who can find his or her own way, but it would be nice to have a little helping hand. It certainly no longer exists in the guise of a guidebook.

This little rant isn't in any way meant to be attacking people's choices. If people want a higher level of luxury and convenience than I need that's totally fine by me. My problem is that a guidebook that purports to be a one stop shop, and began as a guide for the budget backpacker, is no longer catering to that end of the market.

If all I can get from Lonely Planet is an updated list of mid budget and flash accommodation and eateries, and the same old rehash of tourist sights that I can find in a second hand book from 20 years ago, why should I waste my money on them?

Any one else feel the same way?

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