As I stand in front of my bookshelf, staring longingly at the rows of travel guidebooks collected over the years, I let out a sigh of frustration.
All industries have been impacted by the challenges of the past year, but the travel sector has been hit particularly hard. Travel restrictions have meant very limited tourism travel across the globe, which has had an effect on a huge range of companies and individuals – the travel agents, the tour operators, the airlines and cruise companies, the tourism catering businesses, the travel accessories providers... and of course the travel publishing industry.
I should know. I am a freelance travel writer, and work has been hard to come by in 2020, to say the least.
According to Adrian Phillips, managing director of Bradt Guides, sales of guidebooks dropped off the preverbal cliff in spring 2020. Philip Cooper, publisher with Frances Lincoln, confirms that their short term plans were heavily impacted, with many of Frances Lincoln’s travel titles being postponed and delayed.
Yet travel-related online content saw a rise in page views in the months that followed. Unsurprisingly, escaping our living rooms is obviously very much on people’s minds, and it seems fairly safe to predict that there will be a resurgence in travel writing and sales as soon as the promised vaccines take hold.
For Phillips, lockdown has been an opportunity to get creative in the Bradt Guides’ publishing portfolio.
“We launched a Travel Club and a contract-publishing imprint called Journey Books," he reports. "[We also] introduced titles like The Travellers’ Quiz Book and The Travellers’ Colouring Book, titles that we wouldn’t otherwise have found the space and relevance to commission."
But while it is great to hear of silver linings, a part of me can't help think that people will eventually get tired of novelty travel titles and simply stop engaging with the sector, assuming it is powerless to remain relevant and useful in a world of fast-shifting rules and restrictions.
Of course, I want to believe we will at some point all travel again like we did before. However, I also have a niggling feeling that things have changed irrevocably. It isn’t just the inability to travel, or the limitations placed upon us when we do travel – such as the requirements of test certificates, wearing of masks and social distancing - that makes me fear for the industry, but our increasingly enlightened focus on the environment. Travel just isn't the incomplicated pleasure it used to be.
But rather than undermining the industry long-term, could this mean a welcome new era for the travel publishing instead?
Phillips is optimistic. When travel resumes, he believes that “the trend will be towards people taking fewer but longer trips that puts less pressure on the environment and allow deeper immersion in a destination”.
Similarly, Cooper believes this could be a chance for a “more carefully curated and researched (travel guide)” with detailed and evergreen content about how to “just travel less or to travel in greener ways, a thread increasingly running through our books”.
It's a view that Thomas Jonglez of Jonglez Publishing shares. Like Cooper and Phillips, he believes that “many will rethink their way of travelling in discovering the pleasure of local or proximity tourism” and that travel guidebooks will need to reinvent themselves to chime with this new desire.
Guidebooks have traditionally instructed us on where to sleep, where to eat and what to see. They also inform us of any cultural and social differences we should be aware of, and ensure that we are equipped with the basic knowledge we need to safely enjoy our destination.
But Jonglez points out that there is more appetite now to discover the new in the familiar, and that travel guides need to become something which “help people to realise, that they may have walked a street a thousand times without ever noticing a beautiful detail or building on their way.” He also feels they will increasingly encourage travellers to “try to slow down a bit, again as we did during the lockdowns, take time to feel the presence” of our own beautiful surrounds.
Jonglez points out that this is something their own Secret Guide to… series already focuses on, and he hopes that new attitudes towards travel could see an increase of people more interested in the smaller, surprising details of places.
But with widespared vaccinations still a distant dream for some countries, will guidebooks now have to contain standardised cautionary labels; a “caution: contents hot” and “contains peanuts”-style labelling signalling the risk at each destination? Can the 'let welcoming locals guide you with a friendly hug' approach really work in a world still beset by social distancing? In short, will guidebooks be condemned to continually remind us of past pleasures we can no longer enjoy?
It is hard to truly predict just what the new year will bring. With tourism providing the beating heart for so many global economies, perhaps restoring and encouraging safe travel - not least by supporting new and engaging travel publishing - will shoot to the top of many governments' agenda. We could be on the brink of a new generation of guidebooks which highlight meaningful experiences, social responsibility and environmental sustainability like never before. Let's hope.
Amy McPherson is a travel writer based in London, specialising in outdoors and active travel. Having spent most of 2020 indoors, she is starting to dust off her guidebooks and looking forward to exploring the world again.