Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lonely Planet's big travel hoax

No, Tonga is not on any of Lonely Planet's many lists.

Hurrah! The top travel list of Lonely Planet is out for next year, and my country is on the list! Oh, wait. There isn't only one list. There are several. No, I mean many. As in loads!

Click on the photo above to buy "198", by book on
visiting random people on my travels
to in every country in the world 
Yeah, welcome to the world of social media. Big corporations or organizations are using you to get publicity. Like Lonely Planet, the most famous travel guide on Earth. And no, you are not the only one being used. So are huge media companies like the BBC, Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (or NRK for short in Norwegian, and coincidentally my employer), CNN, Australian and Today in Singapore. I hope that makes you feel better. Four of six inhabited continents already jumped on the bandwagon to scream and shout about the travel lists. And Africa and South America are usually not that far behind.

Why do I even care? Well, I have travelled a bit, and there is nothing ruining the genuine travel experiences more than world famous travel publications telling everyone where they should go. Because people do actually listen. So when Norway, Samoa, Tunisia are on the list, more people will go there. To experience the unique, the quiet or whatever makes a place stands out.

Well, isn't that a good thing?

Yes, it might be. More people will actually go to places they never even knew existed. Places they would never otherwise have ventured to. This generates more money, boosts local economies and creates an atmosphere for more openness and understanding. Or does it really? It might merely reduces travellers to "bags of cash" instead of being potential friends, enriches the few locals that are anyhow well off and increases the walls between the poor locals and the rich and spoiled visitors.

No stan countries are on any of the list. 
Prices will go up and places get more crowded. Which means that any genuinity that might have been around, is out the window.

The problem is that the lists of a popular guide book series like Lonely Planet are self-contradictory. That not too many people visits a place is often what makes it special.

The question one might ask is whether Lonely Planet out of kindness is making these lists to guide people to where they actually want to, or can afford to go. Or whether they are influenced by big tourist countries and just aim to maximize the number of countries listed. In order to maximize the world-wide publicity.

And yes, that was a retorical question.

The water in Dominican Republic is too blue.
The only bit of good news in all of this, to those of us interested in exploring places less visited, is that so many destinations are listed that there is a limit of how many people can actually visit each destination. That will actually limit the damage.

I have always longed for places not usually visited by tourists. Luckily Tuvalu and Nauru are not on any of the Lonely Planet lists. But it is probably only a matter of time. Unless they sink first. Or run out of cash.

So, how many countries are actually listed? And how many lists have Lonely Planet produced for 2015?

Too few people visit Palau for it to be interesting enough.
Let me start with the latter question. There are 19 of them (listed at the bottom of this post), with 10 entries in each. That should mean 190 recommendations, although a couple of them cover more than one country. And I have then left out "North Africa", one of the biggest regions in the world.

67 countries, more than a third of the 198 countries in the world, are covered. Plus outer space, Antarctica and an ocean cruise. So, 34% of the countries are "best in something". How convenient for marketing purposes. But how accurate is it? Such lists can of course not be objective, so there is no right answer to the question. Let me just observe that amazing countries such as Ecuador, Guyana, Madagascar, Tonga, Bhutan, Federated States of Micronesia, Sri Lanka, Belarus and Dominica are not listed. Neither are any of the "Stans", the 7 countries ending with stan.
The mountains in Bhutan were too steep.

And I presume that Sierra Leone might also conveniently have been left out due to the Ebola scare.

So which countries are represented? All continents are on at least one list, by the following number of countries:
Europe: 25 of 47 countries.
Africa: 10 of 55 countries.
Asia: 15 of 47 countries.
Oceania: 3 of 14 countries.
North America: 6 of 23 countries.
South America: 7 of 12 countries.
Antarctica: Yes.

But which country wins the list war? It will come to you as no surprise that the top 14 countries (those with at least 4 entries) are all rather big when it comes to tourism. The winners are, as follows:

  1. USA: 26 listings 
  2. UK:  16 listings
  3. China: 11 listings
  4. Australia: 7 listings
  5. France: 7 listings
  6. Norway: 6 listings
  7. Canada: 5 listings
  8. India: 5 listings
  9. New Zealand: 5 listings
  10. Japan: 4 listings
  11. Namibia: 4 listings
  12. South Africa: 4 listings
  13. Turkey: 4 listings
  14. An ugly wreck disqualified
    Guinea Bissau.
  15. United Arab Emirates: 4 listings
How odd. The winners are already rather famous tourist destinations. They also put a lot of money into marketing their countries (and, yes, my home country Norway is among them too). Just might any of them have influenced Lonely Planet?

The US is not surprisingly on top with 26 listings. That makes the lists very US biased, in my opinion. But, hang on, what about the UK? It is number two with 16 listings.

So what?

Well, the US does after all have "only" one listing per 352,000 square kilometers. The UK has one listing per 15,180 square kilometers! That is 23 times as many as the US, compared to land mass. The average for the entire world, with 190 listings, should be one listing per 784,000 square kilometers. So maybe the lists are actually very UK biased, after all.

All in all, these lists are pretty much rubbish, and designed for PR purposes (to sell travel guides) more than anything else. And PR they will get. Of course, pretty much anyone on one of these lists will use it for what it is worth. Which, it turns out, isn't really that much.

Enjoy your next trip. May I suggest that you go somewhere not mentioned on any of Lonely Planet's speculative lists?

To the the 25 least visited countries in the world, perhaps.
Or maybe you're up for the 15 hardest countries to visit?
The buildings are not preserved
well enough in Afghanistan.

Lonely Planet's lists are listed below. They can also be found here.
  1. Best cities
  2. Best regions
  3. Best countries
  4. Best value destinations
  5. The world's most illuminating experiences. 
  6. The world's best places to get a 'yes'
  7. Top 10 unforgettable family travel experiences 
  8. The best free things to do in 2015
  9. Stimulating hot drinks to break your coffee addiction
  10. The world's best places for extreme eating
  11. The royal wee: the world's best bathrooms
  12. The most gay-friendly places on the planet
  13. Special anniversaries in 2015
  14. Top places to feel like you’re in the future
  15. Top 10 wonders of the small-screen world
  16. Top 10 sheepish travel encounters for the Chinese Year of the Sheep
  17. Top 10 wonderful workouts around the globe
  18. Top 10 literary walking tours of the world
  19. Bait a hook: top 10 fishing spots around the world

Disclaimer: My counting may not be 100% accurate, but there are unlikely to be any big inaccuracies.