That enduring spectacle of scruffy 20-somethings clambering off a bus in some dusty backwater clutching a dog-eared guidebook may soon be a thing of the past. Lonely Planet has defined four decades of intrepid budget travelers, yet dwindling sales led one of Australia’s most iconic brands to slash around 80 jobs last week — a third of its editorial staff. Free online alternatives easily accessible through ubiquitous wi-fi and cheap 3G have taken their toll. Despite assurances by parent company NC2 Media on Monday that it had “no intention to cut our guidebook lists beyond normal management,” many remain anxious that the largest travel guide publisher in the world is winding down. Aging drifters have been staging a Twitter requiem under #lpmemories, reminiscing about adventures from Buenos Aires to Beijing made possible through the leafy tomes.
Founded in Melbourne in 1972 by Maureen and Tony Wheeler, the company’s first title Across Asia on the Cheap quickly became an indispensable classic, dubbed the Yellow Bible by readers. The couple tapped into the emerging mind-set of young, culture-hungry travelers happy to dispense with creature comforts to stretch every last cent. Today, Lonely Planet has printed more than 120 million books in 11 languages and spawned a magazine series and television show. Alternatives such as the Rough Guide, founded 10 years after Lonely Planet, grew in popularity by adopting a similar model; many hours have been spent in budget digs the world over, weighing up the pros and cons between competing titles for various destinations.
Lonely Planet’s guides, with their iconic blue spines, have been ingrained into the backpacker experience. Excited students would arrange to meet at the first hostel listed in “the book” in whichever boondocks they were heading to. Like most of my peers, I have also had my share of Lonely Planet–inspired escapades. Once while backpacking through Central America, a friend tore his Lonely Planet in half to give the northern section to a girl he became enamored with (we had already traveled through that region and she was moving in the opposite direction). Months and several countries later passersby would spy his tattered remains and exclaim: “Oh my god! Do you know Sarah, the English girl with brown hair? How did you get the other half of her book?”
Sitting all night by a temple in Kerala to witness an authentic Kathakali performance, amongst only a few sleepy local residents #lpmemories
— Svenja Meyerricks (@svaenj) July 23, 2013
Shawn Low has written more than half-a-dozen guides for Lonely Planet and tells TIME that there has been “a lot of anger, fear, sadness and everything in between” about the recent cuts. Low remains confident that the series will continue in some guise, however, as “travelers value quality information gathered by authors who speak the language and who have spent time on the ground sniffing out accurate information.” Nevertheless, the staff has been left guessing about the “new content model” proffered by Daniel Houghton, the 24-year-old executive director of Nashville-based NC2 Media, which recently purchased Lonely Planet from its previous owner, the BBC. Staff morale has reportedly been low every since the buyout.
Perversely, the guide’s unrivaled reputation became instrumental in its shortcomings. Fortunes could be made upon the briefest mention in the Lonely Planet, and unscrupulous hoteliers would open premises with identical names to recommendations in order to dupe sleep-addled new arrivals. Businesses suddenly listed in the guide would see footfall skyrocket and standards suffer. Chefs working at listed restaurants would quit on the promise of more money elsewhere — or staff would be turning over anyway — so quality could never be guaranteed. Quoted hotel prices always lagged behind the true rates, and transport timetables were similarly out of date as new services were launched and obsolete ones scrapped. Neither writer nor management can be blamed — they undoubtedly reported facts as faithfully as possible — yet each revised version was by definition out of date even before it hit the shelves. The only reason to buy a Lonely Planet was for something heavy to carry in front of you to counterbalance the weight of your backpack behind, or so the old joke went.
— jutta scheibelberger (@JScheibelberger) July 22, 2013
Lonely Planet fans will take some solace in the fact that all alternatives are also deeply flawed. Open source online guides such as WikiTravel offer continuously updated listings, but are also susceptible to underhand practices from businesses illicitly bumping up their own ratings. Similar concerns saw an investigation launched into TripAdvisor by the U.K. advertising watchdog in 2011. A marked lack of trust means there will always be a place for “well-researched travel guides” from a “trusted, authoritative source,” insists Low. “The collective travel experience of authors on guidebooks is truly vast.”
So how can Lonely Planet stay relevant? By managing expectations regarding “information vs. inspiration,” Nikki Scott, founder of Southeast Asia Backpacker magazine, tells TIME. “Reading a guidebook can be an emotional part of planning a once in a lifetime trip — starring ideas, circling places on a map and turning over the corner of pages,” she explains. “Can you get this same feeling from a website?” Those who once lambasted the inevitable inaccuracies in Lonely Planets are undoubtedly amongst the thousands now eulogizing the guides when faced with their potential demise. The series inspired a generation to leave their hometowns and engage the world, and few publications can claim to have fostered such understanding between different cultures, not to mention create such fond memories for so many people.
— Matt Huntington (@MattHunt194) July 22, 2013