A short history of travel guidebooks and why they matter more than ever

As independent travel publishers everywhere struggle in the face of Covid-19, decorated adventurer and Bradt Guides founder Hilary Bradt reflects on the travel guide genre — and what you can do to help it survive.

By Hilary Bradt
Published 2 Apr 2020, 09:30 BST
a solo hiker follows the Inca Trail leading to the ruined citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru.

Bradt Guides launched in the mid-1970s with Backpacking Along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia, a title based on Hilary's and her then-husband's intrepid travels in Latin America. Since then, Bradt Guides have independently published hundreds of guidebooks, often giving much-needed coverage to undertouristed regions. Here, a solo hiker follows the Inca Trail leading to the ruined citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru.

Photograph by Getty Images

The days when we could travel anywhere we wanted, almost at whim, seem like a distant and beautiful memory. Now even a few miles from our home feels like a foreign country. So, for now, the written word has become our virtual reality and has the power to transport us to those places we know we’ll journey to once this crisis is over.

I’d like to share the story of the early days of adventure travel publishing, how Bradt Guides came to be established, and how our approach to travel has shaped a generation of explorers — and how, without your continued support, this global crisis might see this work come to an end. 

It was the 1970s, and George — my then-husband — and I were looking for a publisher for the next edition of our little guide, Backpacking Along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia. We met with the man who was then the leading travel publisher in Britain.

“No, this isn’t for us; it’s too specialised,” he told us. Our description of five hiking trails with off-the-beaten-track recommendations and thoughtful asides on local customs weren’t the sort of things he was interested in. “But I would publish a more mainstream guide to Peru if you’ll write it.”

Hilary Bradt founded Bradt Guides in 1974 with her then-husband, George. Half a century on, the company is one of the country's leading independent travel publishers. 

Photograph by Hilary Bradt

“But we can’t afford to go back there again,” I replied.

His attitude was cavalier: “That’s all right,” he said. “Just get some brochures from the tourist office and use those.”

And that’s why I ended up becoming a publisher myself. Guidebook writing is serious stuff, and good authors have an obsession with portraying the country they love with passion, accuracy and individuality.

The 1970s was a wonderful time for travellers, with three long-enduring companies starting up. Tony and Maureen Wheeler produced 94 stapled pages of Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973, the same year Bill Dalton put together A traveller’s Notes: Indonesia to sell at a music festival. A year later, George and I sat in our hammocks on a river barge in Bolivia to write up our long-distance hikes in the region, including a walk along an old Inca Trail into Machu Picchu.

We all had one aim: to share our travel discoveries with like-minded young people. We settled in our respective parts of the world — the Wheelers in Melbourne, Bill in California, and George and me in England — and started three successful publishing companies: Lonely Planet, Moon and Bradt, respectively. No financing, no business plan — just an intimate knowledge of our subject and the market. And it worked. Our inexpensive guides were bought by budget travellers relishing the new-found freedom of easy travel and lightweight equipment, with the early editions selling enough copies to fund the next book.  

“By buying a guidebook now, when you have ample time to digest it, you’ll be able to plan your next trip knowing you’ve done your bit for the people in those countries that depend on you.”

by Hilary Bradt

Lonely Planet, Moon and Bradt are still around nearly 50 years later. Bradt — still owned by its founder — is suddenly facing extinction as a small independent company. We’d survived ‘the death of the guidebook’ predicted by doom-mongers at the dawn of the digital age and were flying high, still following our original ethos of publishing the sort of books that make a real difference, not just to the traveller but to the country described. (As I step back from the day-to-day running of the company, this is the legacy I’m most proud of.) But this pandemic and the ensuing downturn in the purchasing of travel guides looks to threaten what we’ve built, with far-reaching implications. 

Throughout the decades, we’ve largely focused on unique destinations: places that aren’t covered by other publishers, countries with dodgy politics but wonderful wildlife or scenery, and war-torn nations that need the self-esteem a good guidebook brings. Rwanda is a good example: the president himself congratulated the authors on their role in bringing his country back to prosperity following the genocide.

Small local businesses that rely on guidebooks to tell visitors that they exist would suffer if these sources of information disappear. But that’s not all; we detail charities that welcome tourist visits (and, of course, donations). A children’s centre in Namibia is a case in point. I recently received an email from the its (now former) director, MaryBeth Gallagher, which read:

“I cannot tell you how many visitors and donations we receive because of your guidebook! And it’s been 10 years since you visited us!”

Because it’s the destinations, as well as you travellers, who dream of the holidays you’ll enjoy when this is all over. By buying a guidebook now, when you have ample time to digest it, you’ll be able to plan your next trip knowing you’ve done your bit for the people in those countries that depend on you.

Bradt Guides is offering a minimum of 50% off all books, e-books and gift vouchers on its website. To claim your discount, visit bradtguides.com/shop and enter code DREAM50 at checkout.

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