With around six million guidebooks sold annually, it’s no surprise that a Lonely Planet is often one of the first things that travellers put into their backpacks. The guidebook publishers are over 30 years old and each title is updated every two years. The company’s 360 authors spend over 9,000 hours on the ground, researching obscure and well-loved destinations. Lounge met James Sundram, Lonely Planet’s head of Asia. Edited excerpts:
Travel guide: Sundram (right) recommends eating at Glutton’s Bay at the Esplanade in Singapore. Photo courtesy: The Singapore Tourism Board
Are any new India-centric titles planned?
I hope there will be many more. India is a dynamic location. In fact, as of now we have North-East India, which you won’t find (with any other guidebook company). And then we have Mumbai Encounters. The Encounters is a new range for the frequent traveller to the cities. A lot of people have come to Mumbai many times but they’ve never really got into it. For example, having a fish-and-chips dinner in India is a sin. You got to have the real stuff and Encounters is just for that. This has also helped the domestic market, because it’s great when foreigners travel with a better, deeper understanding.
Have online travel guides affected your business?
The reality is, online has created a spiral of information and accessibility. That has created more demand for our travel guides. It’s been a very subliminal type of advertising because people never knew of this location and that location and this wonder and that wonder. People are now saying, “I want to go there, I have to go there.” It’s not Paris, London and New York. It’s about places people were never aware of, so it’s actually stimulating opportunities.
Are there any guides for new locations coming out soon?
Honestly, I can give no specifics. We already have 350-odd locations and are researching new places even as we speak. That’s because the world is moving into newer locations.
Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2009 talks about the best locations you should see in each continent, including everything from cycling destinations to adventure destinations. Previously we went to London to see the Big Ben. Maybe now we can go to London for strawberries, or to New York for the plays. So we will travel to locations that might not necessarily be new. You can even travel home and get the best encounters.
How has Lonely Planet India changed over the years?
The book is pretty much the same, ironically, because we started out by giving very in-depth information. As we moved along, we realized we just had to keep enhancing the information because it was getting clearer, as years went by, that different people saw different reasons to visit Mumbai or Delhi or Rajasthan. Initially, a lot of people were interested in just the golden triangle—Agra, Rajasthan and Delhi. But now more and more people are adventuring down south, or going to Kolkata and Assam, which are beautiful, and where people connect with nature and simplicity. India per se has not really changed—and we’ve had that information for all those years.
Did the controversy about writer Thomas Kohnstamm saying that he had not visited certain places he wrote about in the guidebooks change the perception of Lonely Planet?
No, that incident let us prove to the world our integrity and what we did. Hours after we found out, we had people on the ground rechecking the facts. Thomas was not an author collecting information, he was one of the coordinators. So really, he didn’t have to visit those places. We’ve decided that we weren’t angry, it didn’t affect our business, and indirectly gave us a lot of credibility.
Do you verify what the writers say in the guides, or do you trust them implicitly?
We do have that extreme faith, but it’s not about checking or not. The reality is we do have counterchecks, because society now changes so dynamically—what was there six months ago might not be there now. We have an overlap kind of a system in the way we collect information.
What is the best advice that you personally found in a Lonely Planet guide?
I was in the south of France and I needed to make restaurant reservations. In Europe, they often go on siesta so there’s nobody to answer phone calls. But if you drop by the restaurant, there will be people to take the reservations. It’s impressive because you don’t think about those details—an agent will simply say, sorry, the guy won’t answer the phone. And you wouldn’t think of actually making a trip there.
That taught me a lot about the culture—despite all this wonderfulness of technology, you still have to go down there, knock on the door until the guy wakes up and scolds you in the face, but appreciates the fact (that) you came there, and takes down your reservation. And the beauty of it was that evening, he recognized me, and called me by name.
Give us a tip about Singapore, where you currently live.
You have to go to this place called Glutton’s Bay at the Esplanade, because that’s one location that gives you the real sincerity of local Singapore food, but in a very upscale environment. It’s in the centre of the city and managed by the Singapore Tourism Board, and it’s very affordable. To me, if you’re in Singapore for only 2 hours, it’s one of the places you should go to.