The humble guidebook has remained a staple of travel for generations, offering information on the best sights, activities, accommodation options, and local cuisine, to ensure that the traveller makes the most of their journey. However, hard-copy guidebooks have now been rendered largely obsolete by the emergence of digital technology, forcing publishers to find new ways of distributing travel-based content online.

Our idea of the objective modern guidebook emerged in the 1830s, as the steadily improving transport infrastructure facilitated a rise in domestic tourism. Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers began printing in 1836 and covered tourist destinations in Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Later on, following World War II, European and American perspectives on international travel introduced readers to budget travel options, thus improving the accessibility of the market. Travel publishing quickly became a global business, where larger publishers were able to tailor to trends in destination preferences; big names such as ‘Let’s Go’, ‘Lonely Planet’, ‘Insight Guides’, and ‘Rough Guides’ have since dominated the market after being taken over by multinational companies like the BBC and Pearson.

In 2005, the guidebook industry hit a peak in sales, with the top 100 international travel guides selling an average of 9,372 units; this number dropped by 40% in seven years and has only continued to decrease. Some attribute this to a tightening of purse strings when it comes to travel spending; however, global trends indicate that we are spending more, with the average British family spending a quarter of their disposable income on holidays. 

Therefore, if the decline in guidebook sales is not due to a decrease in travel spending, there must be another reason – the digital age, which has prompted many publishers to turn to electronic distribution. The main reason for the boom of the digital industry is that much of the information is free; travel platforms such as Tripadvisor, now a $3 billion business, make their money from advertising, as well as booking-fees from hotels and attractions.

I have ditched the hard-copy guidebook in favour of YouTube vlogs, Instagram content and, in particular, the filter functions provided by Apple Maps, which allow you to search for nearby attractions and conveniences. In agreement with Concrete’s lead photographer, Roo Pitt, guidebooks can often be “a little generic and vague or out of date quite quickly” due to the lengthy publishing process; however, Pitt also points out that they “often cut out a lot of the ‘white noise’ of the internet”, identifying that “they often include tips on cultural differences, helpful phrases, and information on local transport”, perhaps offering a closer link for those looking to engage in the cultural aspects of their trip. 

I can admit to seeing the attractive, almost romantic charm of leafing through a physical book and wandering the streets of some far-off country, going wherever the wind takes you. In reality, my holidays have never looked like that; my family has a preference for efficiency and flexibility while travelling, as we have always been keen to pack in and experience as much as we can. The only thing similar to a guidebook amongst my possessions is a beautifully presented copy of travel and style magazine ‘Cereal’ including a wonderful feature on Tokyo, gifted to me by my older brother with the promise of taking me there one day. It is this kind of sentimentality that, in my opinion, is keeping the last of the hard-copy guidebook industry alive, but will not be able to support it sufficiently to stop it from eventually disappearing altogether.

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