To Go or Not to Go
Judith Rosen -- 1/29/01
How global politics, economic fluctuations and social issues affect travelers' itineraries
In 1999, travel expenditures in the U.S., including international traveler spending on U.S. air carriers, reached $544.1 billion and generated $92.5 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Despite higher gas prices last summer, more than half of all U.S. adults, or 107.9 million people, took at least one trip of 50 miles or more between May and July 2000. TIA anticipates that domestic and international travel in the U.S. increased 3% last year, accounting for close to $561.3 billion in spending.
While domestic travel has been strong, so has international tourism. Thanks in part to the popularity of Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, followed by this fall's bestselling photographic study In Tuscany (cowritten with husband Edward Mayes), Italy continues to be hot. Pat Carrier, president of Globe Corner Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., quips that "it was hard to fathom that there was anyone but Americans in Italy last summer. I didn't think Italy could be any bigger, but last year our sales were up in Italy books 30%."
England, France and Spain--which many look to as "the new Italy"--are also popular destinations, as are Mexico, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. With an assist from the film version of Alex Garland's The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Thailand, not just Bangkok, has become a frequent tourist stop. Asked about trends, Rochelle Jaffe, owner of Travel Books & Language Center in Washington, D.C., says, "I'm seeing more on Southeast Asia and Cambodia. It's surprising. Vietnam is getting stronger and stronger. Of course, Bali and Indonesia are bargains. Once you get over there, it's pretty cheap."
The strength of the U.S. dollar has meant smooth sailing for most travel-related businesses during the past two years especially. To find out
Thinking GloballyFor Eric Kettunen, U.S. general manager of 18-year-old Lonely Planet, which has its U.S. headquarters in Oakland, Calif., business has been up. "Halfway through our fiscal year [July through June], we are 28% ahead of last year in unit sales," he says. "Obviously the last eight months and recent economic conditions haven't seemed to impact our sales. In my generation, travel--in terms of life priorities--is much more important than it was for our parents' generation. In the Bay Area, many people can't afford to buy a house, but they've been to many continents."
As far as global issues, such as the current breakdown in peace in the Middle East, affecting travel, Kettunen comments, "The only time our sales flattened out was in 1991 with the Gulf War. At that time, we were really focused on off-the-beaten track in Asia, Africa and Latin America." Since then Lonely Planet has diversified its offerings: "We now provide plenty of options for those who are concerned about traveling overseas, including city guides to most major U.S. cities and regional guides such as The Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains." Even so, Kettunen adds, "what we positively don't do is 'slice and dice' guides to very popular destinations--and we will never have a guide to Disney World."
Langenscheidt Publishers has one of the broadest travel publishing programs--maps, guides, dictionaries and language-learning cassette packs. President Stuart Dolgins regards its "one-stop shopping" approach to travel as one of the company's biggest assets as far as insulating it from world events. "Say you're going to Paris," says Dolgins, "I can give you dictionaries, phrase books, menu readers, travel guides and maps."
What he's also found is that just because people don't want to travel to a country, that d sn't mean that they don't want to know more about it. "If there's a trouble spot somewhere, we sell a lot of maps," says Dolgins. Then, too, while travelers may change their itineraries because of political unrest or the weather, such as the recent earthquake in El Salvador, they don't cancel their trips entirely. "If someone had planned a vacation for a year," says Dolgins, "maybe they're not going to Israel. But they'll change their destination to, say, Germany."
The Globe Pequot Press in Guilford, Conn., the largest publisher of regional travel guides in the U.S., has benefited from both those who want to travel and those who just want to read about
In June Globe Pequot is banking on a guide to a place much closer to home but still out of reach for most people. Few can afford to do Los Angeles First Class, but author Merle Elias lets readers dwell vicariously in the terrain of the rich and famous. She offers referrals to Michael Ovitz's in-house art curator as well as contacts for exhibit safety services during an earthquake.
Eight-year-old Travelers' Tales in San Francisco prides itself on filling a travel niche for what executive editor and cofounder Larry Habegger calls "experiential guides with many points of view." Travelers' Tales Cuba (June), edited by Tom Miller, for example, brings together writings by Eduardo Galeano, Cristina GarcÃa and Gay Talese on what is growing to be one of the more popular Caribbean destinations, even though it's illegal for Americans to spend money there. Although these kinds of armchair travel books might seem to be immune from political turmoil, Habegger's found, unlike Urban, that "if people want to read about a place, they're more likely to read about a place they can go."
Travelers' Tales also offers armchair travelers previously out-of-print classics such as Leonard Clark's 1953 account of searching for El Dorado, The Rivers Run East (Apr.). Other solo travel narratives include Brad Newsham's Take Me With You, which is one of the top 10 Book Sense 76 picks for January/February. Published in the fall, it chronicles Newsham's 100-day journey to find a friend to visit him in the U.S. for a month. Habegger attributes the success of these titles, at least in part, to Travelers' Tales' broadening of the market with theme-based books. "I do think we had something to do with that," he says.
For Vermont-based Trafalgar Square Publishing, which distributes British publishers' travel books such as the newly established Activity Series, global issues weigh less heavily. "Travel's been a good solid area for us over the years, both with the guides and the armchair books," comments managing director Paul Feldstein.
"We as a company were up 37% this year," says Feldstein, referring to business in all areas. Trafalgar's travel list, which, he is quick to note, "is subject to the publishing whims of our distribution clients," ranges from a pictorial history of Travel (HarperCollins U.K., Mar.)over the past hundred years, compiled by Mark Griffiths from the London Times archives, to A Literary Guide to London by Ed Glinert (Penguin U.K., Feb.).
Because it takes so long to make a travel book--at least six to nine months for some publishers and up to two years for others--it's not always possible to pull a book when trouble breaks out. For example, Fodor's has no plans to hold up the fifth edition of its Israel guide due in April. "We decided we could have an update on our Web site," says publisher Kris Kliemann. A few years back Fodor's took Honduras and Nicaragua out of its first edition of upCLOSE Central America because of the devastation from Hurricane Mitch. Both will be added back to the second edition, scheduled for May. As Kliemann sees it, "We don't rise and fall on what's happening in book publishing, but what's happening in the world."
Acting ResponsiblyGiving back is a cornerstone of Lonely Planet's philosophy. According to Kettunen, "Each office is responsible for donating a percentage of the total for their regions of the world. We give to big ones like Greenpeace and Doctors Without Borders." But the U.S. office, he adds, also gives to various organizations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. A few years ago, for example, Lonely Planet underwrote the cost of producing a medical handbook for Mayan women.
Lonely Planet's books encourage readers to contribute to the places they visit. Thailand, which has sold over 100,000 copies worldwide in the past 12 months, devotes eight pages to ecological and environmental issues and what travelers can do to minimize their impact on them. It also lists 15 Thai environmental organizations that travelers can support.
A similar philosophy seems to prevail at Rough Guides, where travel publisher Martin Dunford tells PW, "In our books, we have always tried to write responsibly and respectfully." Still, he acknowledges, how that translates into which countries to cover can sometimes seem arbitrary. For instance, Rough Guides d s not have a guide to Burma, or Myanmar, although it did do one on Romania when Ceausescu was in power. "Our view," says Dunford, "was as long as the opposition in Burma was opposed to tourism, we decided against it. We don't think our point of view is morally superior. It's difficult because we are part of the tourist industry. We benefit from it, and at the same time we're aware of moral and economic damage, whether it's the number of people passing through the Vatican Museum or Gao.
"It's not up to us to proscribe how people should travel. You can't really say some regimes are more despicable than others," Dunford continues. Pointing out that if Rough Guides used Amnesty International's list of the 20 most repressive regimes, he adds, "We wouldn't write about the U.S."
A buzzword for environmentally conscious tour operators in the 1990s, ecotourism has since been transformed into a general respect for nature. At Avalon Travel Publishing, which was formed in July 1999 with the purchase of Foghorn and Moon Handbooks, publisher Bill Newlin explains that it's all about honoring the tenet: "Do go, do enjoy, but do it responsibly." John Muir, which was purchased by Avalon last January, was the first travel publisher to have a complete line of books devoted to nature-based tourism. Currently Avalon has no plans to continue the series. "Over time we are incorporating that emphasis and respect with Foghorn," says Newlin, referring to Avalon's outdoor guides connected with the Leave No Trace organization dedicated to keeping the outdoors clean. For Avalon, ecotourism can even affect cover decisions. "If we have a picture of a tent too close to the water on the cover of a book, we take it off. It's not so as to avoid offending," Newlin explains, "but to set an example."
Even though Avalon has books that deal with politically sensitive destinations, such as its Moon Handbooks: Cuba, Second Edition (Nov. 2000),Newlin believes in making sure that the infrastructure can handle an influx of tourists before going ahead with a guide. "In the Caribbean and other destinations," he says, "we pay attention to the tourism infrastructure. If the hotels and restaurants aren't already in place, we are apt to wait. For us, there have been some questions about how much you should cover. If there isn't any infrastructure, will you strip the gears?" Still, during his long career with Moon Handbooks before joining Avalon, he can recall canceling only one guide, with the mutual consent of the author, on Colombia.
Safety FirstFor Michael Brein, writer and publisher of the 20-year-old Michael Brein's Travel Adventures, which are designed to show visitors to cities from Oahu to Berlin how to see the most popular sites using public transportation, safety is an issue. Like most guidebook publishers, Brein notes, "I publish a simple standard safety message about keeping valuables hidden in a safe place and avoiding empty subway cars." Currently, he adds, "I am a little concerned about Mexico City--things happening to tourists in taxis and other occasional horror stories. But since my guides concern public transit as such, I will probably do a guide to Mexico City within the next couple of years." Brein's also been troubled about adding Moscow to his series, even though it has a good metro system. "I am not yet comfortable with it," he says. "When Moscow is as easy and comfortable to go to as Prague is, then I'll do a Moscow guide."
The safety of the researchers, as well as tourists, is of paramount concern at Let's Go. The guides are written by Harvard University students who visit the countries and update them each year. According to Lisa Senz, associate publisher of St. Martin's Press Reference Group, which publishes Let's Go, "We need to stay informed about global politics and current events because we need to ensure the researchers' safety. For example, the political climate in Israel is certainly going to affect the choices made this year."
Let's Go tries to be especially sensitive to the safety of women researchers traveling alone. It offers self-defense classes for all its researchers and reimburses women who choose to take rape-prevention courses. "Two years ago," Senz recalls, "Let's Go sent a female researcher to Cambodia. While she wasn't physically threatened, she was so completely ostracized that she couldn't do her job. That said, women do travel alone to many areas that one might assume are unsafe and frequently have wonderful, life-changing experiences."
All Fodor's guides have a section called Smart Travel Tips that g s beyond commonsense safety precautions. "We have stuff about etiquette," says Kliemann. "If it's OK to kiss people, if it's not. If it's all right to hold hands. We try to point out to people the kinds of concerns they should have." But safety is not only an issue for overseas travel. In Fodor's new 15-title Road Guide USA series, being introduced in April, says Kliemann, "we'll talk about what might be unsafe in urban areas. You have to be savvy and safe."
Recession-Proofing the Books"In Europe especially," says Rough Guides' Dunford, "travel is not a luxury; it's a necessity. Travel has been such a burgeoning industry over the 20 years we've been going that we're very little affected by any sort of recession. What has affected our sales more is political activity--the Gulf War, Tiananmen Square--particularly in the U.S. American are more timid travelers. You have to take a long view. Travel patterns change very quickly."
Even though, says Senz at St. Martin's, "Let's Go has the number-one travel guide to Europe," the company will be hitting the road in March and April to promote its whole line of 33 guidebooks and 20 map guides. The 50-city tour of U.S. college campuses from Indiana to Florida by Let's Go researchers is intended to promote the company's philosophy of "connecting to the cultures of the world" and to inspire a new generation of backpackers.
Ulysses Press, which was founded in 1983 in Berkeley, Calif., specializes in the kinds of books that it hopes will make it impervious to recession--guides on the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean. "The book business has always been considered recession immune," says sales and marketing manager Bryce Willett. "There's always been a belief that people will rely more on guidebooks to get maximum value from their vacation. A downturn in the economy d sn't scare us. U.S. travel always tends to be strong, and there are shorter trips."
"We watch the U.S. economy very closely," adds Globe Pequot's Urban. "Regional guides tend to be recession-proof. People still tend to travel for weekends and rambles through their own backyards. We're still doing plenty of stuff on short-haul weekend-type outdoor recreation. That's still a real steady growth area, and I don't see any changes."
At Travelers' Tales, Habegger is also sanguine about book sales, even if the dollar drops significantly. "I was just in Ireland, where the weakening dollar's good news," he observes. "That means that Europeans will be moving around and possibly coming in this direction. It might mean our international sales will pick up."
Sales for Rick Steves' Europe series over the past year have led Avalon's Newlin to anticipate continued growth in the year ahead. "Rick Steves has just had a tremendous year of sales. The strength of the U.S. dollar is huge. We haven't seen any indication that Rick Steves is going to slow down." If anything, Newlin expects to add a new Rick Steves' guide to Ireland in 2002.
Nor has the aging baby-boom generation affected travel sales. While some publishing houses see it as an opportunity to market specialized books, such as Avalon's Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler (Sept. 2000),others view it as a chance to push travel guides in general. "What we're seeing is, as people get older and have free time," says Fodor's Kliemann, "there's still potential for a lot more growth in travel. People see travel as a right."
While no one has yet devised a reliable crystal ball to foresee the future of travel book publishing, barring a conflict on the scale of the Gulf War, most houses look forward to sales continuing to fly high in the year ahead.
Volume 247 Issue 5 01/29/2001