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Why I still travel with my Rough Guide

The series has no equal

It was a wildlife park in Uttar Pradesh close to the India-Nepal border in May 1993. We’d arrived after a long ride on a juddering old bus, hoping to see elephants, antelopes, leopards, possibly even tigers. But the safari centre’s only two vehicles, a mini bus and a 4×4, had both broken down. Whilst the staff tried to fix them, we were all left to kill time in the hot, dusty office. 

Every hour or so during this seemingly interminable afternoon, a new batch of backpacking Western tourists would be dropped off and each one would stride purposefully to the reception desk and launch into variations on the following request: “We’d like to get to the outer reaches of the park so we can optimise our chances of seeing a tiger. So we really don’t want to use the minibus — we’d rather wait for the Land Rover. Will it be available today please?”

The Rough Guide had an undisputed eminence

Given that the vehicle in question looked like it might never be available again, each time this happened the rest of us who’d been waiting for hours already would roll our eyes and groan. 

The reason all these arrivees were saying the same thing was because that’s what it told them to say … in The Rough Guide to India.

This title was so ubiquitous among the backpacking fraternity then that in several months of travelling I don’t think I met a single other party who didn’t have a copy. Many referred to The Rough Guide simply as “The Book”, as if it were biblical, which in a sense it was: our travel bible, as indispensable as a rucksack. Of course there were other guidebooks too, Lonely Planet, notably. But the Rough Guide had an undisputed eminence.

The nineties was probably the zenith of the travel guide industry’s fortunes. I wore out the copy I was packing that day, but my replacement 1996 edition had a cover price of £14.99. Adjusted for inflation that would be £31.30 today. It sounds a lot but it was actually rather good value, running to 1,279 pages with an extraordinary degree of detail. Opening it at random, I find there are 16 pages on Agra and the Taj Mahal alone, explaining everything from the historical contexts to where to get a reasonably priced masala dosa. Those hefty cover prices — and healthy sales to a willing public — meant the company could afford to do the research properly: a team of writers would be dispatched to all corners of a country for months at a time. There are six writers credited on that India edition. 

All that was before the digital revolution, which kicked in towards the end of the decade and had a devastating effect on this kind of business model. Suddenly the idea of paying £31.30 for content when you had Google for free left most people opting for the latter and the publishers struggling to continue. Despite a valiant attempt by Penguin to rescue the declining Rough Guide brand, even that giant could not make the model work. 

These days writers are given just a few weeks to update old editions rather than the months they were once allowed — and often they are asked to do so from their desks rather than by visiting the country in question. Like many of their former readers they are now using Google as their primary research tool. The pay rates for contributors, I’m told, are a fraction of what they once were. The free version online contains just a fraction of the old print editions’ insight. It’s a sad state of affairs. 

Nothing has come along to replace them.

They never did fix the SUV that day in 1993

Without a Rough Guide you’re left hoping that you can perhaps find a “48 hours in … ” feature in The Guardian or Telegraph because failing that you’re left with local tourist office stuff or, God help you, Tripadvisor. Free content does not make for better content. 

Which is why I still take a print edition Rough Guide practically everywhere I travel. This is not an attempt to be eccentric — although it can appear so to younger fellow travellers, like I’m some affected poser practically using an Edwardian Baedeker rather than an iPhone to navigate a city. Because although the “where to eat/stay” stuff is hopelessly out of date — the cook of those 1993 masala dosas is quite probably dead by now, the restaurant long closed — they go into exhaustive detail on what to see in any town and what it means, and that stuff is largely timeless. 

As we have a library of dozens of the things, it seems contrarian not to take one. 

We recently returned from a tour of provincial France on which we were accompanied by our 1997 Rough Guide. This one credits a research team of eight writers. Their guidance on how to get around two cities that were new to me, Grenoble and Nîmes, still worked in almost every respect, and we could Google the rest. 

Of course you could say — as my India memory may suggest — that their widespread use had a tendency to homogenise. I’d argue the opposite: where today much travel literature is reduced to “Ten Things You Must See”, the Rough Guides offered ten thousand things you may want to see. Veteran readers knew that the “may want to” destinations were very often more rewarding than the “musts”. This reduced rather than increased traffic to the same overcrowded places.

They never did fix the SUV that day in 1993, but we finally made it out into the park by minibus late in the afternoon. Its noisy faltering engine scared off any leopards, antelope or tigers but we did see a few elephants — and also peacocks. I’d previously only encountered these in English country gardens, but to see them roosting in a verdant forest backdrop was a striking image that has remained with me ever since. As has the Rough Guide that led me there. 

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