"It is fair to say that travel book publishers are having a tough time at the moment and in some quarters people are raising the spectre of "the death of the guidebook". I think it is far too soon to predict that..."
Ben Box at Pico Bolívar in VenezuelaAs a freelance writer, Ben Box has worked on many projects since 1980, but the mainstay has been his dedication to the South American Handbook. He took over the editorship of the Handbook in 1989 and this, plus his involvement in many of Footprint's other Latin American titles, has allowed Ben to travel in the region for over 30 years. This might suggest that he knows South America well, but each trip brings new discoveries and new friendships and his enthusiasm for exploring the continent shows no sign of diminishing. He says that he is very grateful to be able to put to good use much of what he learned from studying Spanish and Portuguese from the age of 15 through to a doctorate from the University of London. Ben's home is in rural Suffolk (England).
ECOCLUB.com: Ten years ago, the first time we interviewed you, you were celebrating the 80th edition of the legendary South American Handbook. What do you consider as the key changes in the guidebook, in the publishing environment and indeed in South America since 2003?
Ben Box: That’s a big question to start with! Let’s begin with changes in the guidebook: in terms of production there have been many developments, most obviously the return in 2009 to the traditional hardback format of the book. As you can imagine there have been plenty of stylistic, technical and printing changes, too. Another major event was the change of ownership. The parent company is now US-based, but the publishing team remains in Bath, UK, as it has since the 1970s. We are continually researching the market we are aiming for, what its demands are and, consequently, what sort of information should be in the book. We are also moving forward on new platforms on which to present content and new ways to sell it. Footprint, along with all publishers, are also having to face up to the huge changes in bookselling, not just the “Amazon versus high-street bookstore” debate, but also the changing nature of the policies which bookshops employ in order to decide how many (or few) copies to stock on their shelves.
It is fair to say that travel book publishers are having a tough time at the moment and in some quarters people are raising the spectre of “the death of the guidebook”. I think it is far too soon to predict that, just as I think it misguided to single out guidebooks as the only medium under threat. I still hold to the view that I expressed in 2003:
“People like books, they like to be able to flick back and forth, to scribble in them and refer back when at home. Maps are easier to use in books and books don't need batteries. … I think it's going to take a long time for the printed page to disappear, but I don' t see why, with so many rapid changes in technology, the two forms can't exist side-by-side, even in ways we haven't dreamt of yet. We have to be flexible and inventive.”
As for changes in South America, there have been too many to list. Some that seem significant to me at this moment include (in no particular order): The economic rise of Brazil and its influence within the BRIC economies; the increase in spending power of many sectors of society in South America, but all the while huge economic inequalities persist; the continuing economic influence of China in the region. The recent political developments in Colombia, with the peace talks about to restart after a break; the re-emergence of Colombia as a tourist destination. The usual ups-and-downs of currency fluctuations making places cheaper or more expensive for visitors.The importance of global campaigning groups such as AVAAZ; local campaigns, especially with an environmental slant; student protests in Chile and Peru; the recent protests in Brazil. The election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff. Hugo Chavez’ legacy, will it last? The importance of social democracy as a political force in, for instance, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of plastic and the question of how to dispose of it; the mismatch between the vast amounts of rubbish and environmental programmes; inequalities in the provision of basic infrastructure. The use of mobile phones as a means of communication. And to come soon, but with its impact already being felt, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
ECOCLUB.com: Beyond its numerous qualities, is it a certain perception (by global northerners) of South America as mysterious, rebellious and overall dangerous to uninformed travelers, which is facilitating the purchase of the South American Handbook, compared to guides of more mainstream destinations? And how accurate is such a perception?
Ben Box: Because of the internet and all its sources of information, I don’t think that there is any reason for travellers, or potential travellers, to be uninformed. The internet also makes it much easier for the inhabitants of South America to inform the rest of the world of their realities, through politics, culture, tourism, etc. Having said that, certain myths do linger. The mystery of South America should not be off-putting; that’s an attraction, isn’t it? Is it rebellious, or dangerous? These terms conjure up images of an earlier era, of guerrilleros and bandidos. There are pockets of insurgency, but they are not generally in the places where tourists will go. Visitors should always ask about safety if they intend to go off the beaten track – as they should anywhere in the world. Danger covers a multitude of things, from bus travel to opportunistic crime to natural disasters. There are very few parts of the world that are entirely free from danger in one form or another. As long as you are well informed, many dangers can be minimised. I am very happy if people use the Handbook as the first port of call in their search for understanding.
ECOCLUB.com: Considering the evolution of readers, but perhaps also of your own, preferences, do you at all try to focus more on quality community-owned and small family businesses and other forms of ecological & socially just tourism?
Ben Box: Yes, definitely. Not just those businesses themselves, but also operators who use and promote such businesses. This is very important because the local businesses may not have the means to promote themselves as forcibly as larger organisations. They may not know of the outlets they can use. Guidebooks and other sources of information can play a valuable role in putting businesses and tourists in touch with each other.
ECOCLUB.com: Based on your immense, first-hand experience, is there hope for more worker-managed businesses in tourism & leisure, an Argentinian phenomenon of the past decade?
Ben Box: It’s kind of you to bestow upon me immense, first-hand experience! But I am afraid that I don’t have that kind of experience when it comes to worker-managed businesses. I presume you are referring to the ERTs (Worker-Recovered Enterprises), which sprang up in Argentina after the 2001 economic crisis and whose model is being followed in other Latin American countries and, I read recently, in your own country, Greece. With specific reference to the tourism and leisure sector, I do not know. I can see it working with, say, a large hotel, but my experience is mostly working with smaller enterprises (hostales, independent restaurants, privately-owned tour operators). There is no reason why the workers in such establishments could not run the ship if the owner pulls out due to some economic problem, but small tourism and leisure firms depend for their existence upon their clients. Whoever is running the business must retain good relationships, so the staff members are always the frontline.
ECOCLUB.com: In the past 10 years, we have witnessed the rise of social networks and major trip review sites. How have these affected you as a writer and editor, and the guidebook sector as a whole?
Ben Box: One thing that has remained constant is the influence that personal recommendations play in decisions that people make in where to go abroad. The influence of social media, travel comparison sites and forums has widened the scope for recommendations, or otherwise, enormously. In a way, though, these sites have taken the place of family and friends and have introduced a degree of anonymity. A guidebook’s author narrows the focus, giving an impartial view. He or she helps you see through the web’s plethora of information and can provide valuable insights which may not otherwise be obvious. For a long while I resisted even looking at trip and establishment review sites, for fear of getting the wrong impression, or being influenced, but now I think that one can review the reviews judiciously, if only to build up a picture of which places people are staying in, eating at, and so on.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you get annoyed or rather amused when you read fake reviews of destinations and businesses you are familiar with? Are they much worse than official travel advisories?
Ben Box: Fakes are nothing new. Over the years Footprint has received many underhand attempts by people trying to denigrate a more successful rival and the practice continues online. Every publisher in whatever format has a responsibility to try to avoid such falsehoods reaching the reader, although I am aware of the debate over the terms “publisher” and “platform” when it comes to websites. When somewhere that I am familiar with receives such treatment in direct communication to me I make every effort to uncover the facts - I think that is the least I can do. I am not sure what you mean by official travel advisories? Do you mean those put out by government agencies, for example? If so, I do not think that they can be put in the same category as fake reviews.
ECOCLUB.com: Are more people nowadays opting for the electronic, and presumably cheaper, version of guidebooks?
The evidence from Footprint is that the hard copies of their titles outsell the digital formats. Whether this statistic will stay that way, who knows? Electronic versions are cheaper, but whether they and the technologies required to read them are what everyone needs is debatable. I think a more pertinent question is not so much the relative merits of hard copy versus electronic copy, but whether one needs a guidebook - in whatever format - or no guidebook at all. This ultimately boils down to the question: do you want to pay for your travel information or not? And if you don’t, how well- or incompletely-informed are you prepared to be when you set out on your travels?
ECOCLUB.com: Compared to when you first started in 1980, is it now easier to independently verify and keep information up to date, or is there so much information, noise and spin out there that it takes more or less the same time?
Ben Box: It takes longer now than it did in 1980. Sure, back then, to receive a reply to a query might take weeks because airmail was the only means you could rely on unless there was a phone – often there wasn’t. It is so much quicker now to get answers, but as you say, there is so much information, noise and spin that the sifting and the checking more than amply fills the time that it used to take for the letter to come back. Again, permit me to refer back to what I said in 2003: there is no substitute for on-the-ground research.
ECOCLUB.com: What, if anything, do you wish to say to people who choose a staycation, or domestic travel, on environmental grounds?
Ben Box: Phew, this is another big question. “Environmental grounds” is on the face of it quite a narrow focus: I presume the question is aimed principally at the rights or wrongs of intercontinental air travel.
I have no problem with staycations. Part of me is environmentally-conscious enough to do myself out of a job by saying don’t fly, but another part, which has grown so rich from travelling to South America, still wants to encourage people to go there.
The science behind it indicates that flying is more costly in environmental terms than other forms of transport, but from what I read there are some pretty complex calculations involved in reaching this conclusion. Despite the arguments against it, flying is not decreasing and I suspect that it’s not a straight matter-of-conscience question: do I to take the trip of a lifetime, or contribute to the destruction of the planet? On the other side of the coin, in the UK at least, staycations are decided by more than environmental grounds. A recent survey indicates that determining factors are the weather (in the UK, what else?), the relative cost of staying at home or travelling abroad, and places that people have seen on TV (so-called “set-jetting”, which influenced 40% of the survey’s respondents).
There is also an argument that says that you could be helping community development by going abroad, especially if you select carefully what you do and where you stay. In some South American countries tourism is an important contributor to national income, both on the governmental and the local level. It could be argued that to remove that source of income would be causing a different kind of damage.
ECOCLUB.com: What key advice would you offer youngsters wishing to follow in your footsteps? (or footprints!)
Ben Box: In the past ten years the world of freelance writing has changed enormously. The channels for expressing yourself in print or on screen have expanded, but the rewards have diminished. It is the same in lots of other freelance professions. It is very difficult to move beyond one’s own blog, for instance, and make a name for oneself. You have to persist, but not expect writing to be your sole source of income, at least not in the early stages. I was lucky in that I built up a range of contacts and projects early on and was in the right place at the right time to begin working on the Handbook. My key advice today? Have more than one skill.
ECOCLUB.com: You probably have one of the best jobs in the world. Do we guess write that you plan to continue at least until the 100th edition of the South American Handbook?
Ben Box: Whether I would agree with you that this is the best job in the world when I am racing to meet my deadlines and keep the book to length, I am not sure, but there are many times when I count myself very fortunate indeed, especially when I am travelling in South America. I have made so many lasting friendships and have worked with some great colleagues. I have been to some fabulous places. But another 10 years? Who knows – as long as I don’t lose my enthusiasm for South America and for writing, and as long as I don’t squander the friendships, perhaps. It would be nice to be involved in the centenary edition.
Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed a second time; it is an honour for me and for the Handbook.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, the honour is ours and we look forward to interviewing you again in 2023!