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WikiVoyage: The New Era of Travel Guides

For all of you travelers who have ever wanted to thump a guidebook writer over the head with their outdated, incorrect chuck of bound and printed toilet paper you now have the chance. It’s called Wikivoyage, and it’s my impression that it has the potential to beat the daylights out of the traditional guidebook industry.

What is Wikivoyage?

Wikivoyage-logo.svgWikivoyage is a site that initially got it’s start when the German editors at Wikitravel jumped ship and forked their section off in 2006. Soon after, the Italian editors followed with their section. Since then, they functioned independently as the “German and Italian Wikitravel,” but by the end of 2012 this was looking as if it was going to change in a big way. The English language editors of Wikitravel were also growing at odds with the commercial entity that owned the site, and made headway to join their counterparts at Wikivoyage. Then the project got a major boost when the Wikimedia foundation — the people who run Wikipedia — invited the rogue Wikitravelers in. The result is a massive wiki travel guide that’s fully supported by Wikipedia.

Wait, I thought Wikitravel was run by Wikipedia!?!

Wrong. Wikitravel has nothing to do with Wikimedia foundation. They are run by a private company called Internet Brands that seriously dropped the ball when it came to developing an “epicentric” travel guide. It has been reported that Wikitravel’s editorial team have long been requesting software upgrades and new tools so they could provide users with an up-to-date experience, but all Internet Brands gave them was more advertisements. The company was apparently content to sit back and use Wikitravel as an easy cash cow. As just about any traveler could tell, Wikitravel went stale years ago.

Apparently, the editors noticed too.

Now a “super-site” has been formed as the English section of Wikitravel has been reunited with WikiVoyage, and the behemoth was migrated to Wikimedia’s servers. Rapid development ensued, new tools were added, and the refurbished, revitalized WikiVoyage was launched on January 15th.

The result is already awesome.

Imagine a true wikipedia for travel that’s run well, is updated with uber-modern features, that has a critical mass of users. That’s what has been created.

The travel guide of the future

Many of us been saying this for years: there needs to be a user-submitted and edited online travel guide where travelers can select the pages they want and make their own books that they can then print out, download, or order a print version of. Bam, just like that, WikiVoyage has given us what we want. What is more is that they did it in an incredibly straight forward and easy to use way.

Not only is WikiVoyage an online travel guide but it can be a print guide, an ebook, or a Kindle book as well. All you need to do is select the pages you want in your book from an incredibly easy to use interface and then download it as a PDF, OpenDocument, OpenZIM, of EPUB file for free, or send it off to Pedia Press to be printed on-demand and mailed to you for a fee. Individual pages can be printed out or downloaded as well.

I’m standing here at a monumental moment where the online travel guide, the ebook guide, and the print guide have been blended into one. Goodbye Lonely Planet.

The fall of the top-down travel guides

When I say “Lonely Planet” here I mean all major traditional guidebook publishers. It is easy to target LP because they were the leader of the pack, and they, more than any of their competitors, did not take what they had and adapt it to the new media in order to survive and flourish. To be blunt, in an age were media needs to evolve like lungfish, LP stubbornly remained a dinosaur. They deserve their extinction.

Lonely Planet had more than enough opportunity to collect a body of travel information like the world has ever known, but they ignored what could have been their best contributors: their users. Who among us has not wished that there was an easy way to get in contact with LP and correct the erroneous parts of their travel guides? Who hasn’t wanted to report a hostel that raised their prices or the restaurant that went downhill to the guidebook company that made their business? Who hasn’t wanted to advise their traveling brethren to visit one place as oppose to another? Who hasn’t wanted to berate the LP for turning an “pristine off the beaten track” destination into yet another backpacker ghetto full of touts and money suckers?

But the major guidebooks did not open their ears to listen, and their downfall is eminent.

For far too long the major travel guide publishers treated their researchers as though they were travel gurus, the cream of the traveler crop. They’re not. More often than not they are just people who studied a particular region of the world in university or overtly meticulous journalists or authors. They are more or less just choads like the rest of us. Or, more truthfully, travel isn’t very complicated, anybody can do it, and anybody can share their information and experiences with those who follow.

Guidebook writers have the power to make or break businesses, turning sleepy villages into backpacker boom towns, show truly awful places as tourist meccas, and send even the most established of backpacker haunts spiraling downward based solely on their personal impressions that are invariably based on limited experience and short-term exposure. Nobody should be trusted this much under these terms and conditions.

What travelers need is collective opinion, not the rantings of any single individual. There is only one way to make a travel guidebook, and that’s through mass collaboration. A constant influx of reviews, reports, advice, and updates about travel destinations being filtered through a team of skilled editors will produce far better and more thorough results than even a very good guidebook writer working solo. Guidebook writing is something that shouldn’t be done alone. One person cannot possible collect enough information about a place simply by traveling through it once or twice, and the opinions of any traveler — even a professed expert — should be weighed against that of a community. You take good reviews and balance them against the bad, recommendations against warnings, and you figure out your own path, devise your own opinion, and contribute it to the collective pot of travel information.

Places change faster than “edition based” media. By the time a travel guide researcher has completed his or her trip and put it down in a book much of it is already becoming outdated. When that book is published and proliferated more changes will invariably occur due to the influence that the book invariably has over its users. The world is not static enough to be put down in a book, and, ironically, travel guidebooks themselves help contribute to this dynamism.

If there is a good system in place with good editors, a mass quantity of travel information will lead to quality. Thousands of people contributing their travel note and editing those of others in real time will eventually produce a travel guide that can cover more places and better keep pace with the changes of the world we travel through.

It doesn’t take a guru to record how much a hotel costs, it doesn’t take a travel expert to talk to locals and other travelers and find out places to go, it doesn’t take food connoisseur to say if a restaurant has good food or not, and it only takes diligence, not skill, to record bus and train timetables. But the major guidebook companies hold their researchers up on pedestals, and ignore the masses who could otherwise be doing research that is comparable with that of the “experts.” Lonely Planet merely gave their users a forum when they should have given them megaphones. The top-down methodology of the major guidebook publishers will be their demise.

It was reported last July that the BBC has devalued LP by 50 million pounds since they acquired the company in 2007.

Old media across the board has had a difficult time adapting to the internet age. People tend not to pay for things they can get for free, and there are masses of travel publications out their distributing their work for nothing. It is my impression that Lonely Planet was able to stay in the game for so long only because no major travel guide website had found a way to bridge the gap from the internet to personal data devices and print media.

Until now.

Wikitravel showed that a mass of users can make a pretty decent travel guide that can be far wider reaching, faster updated, and just as accurate (or even more so) than conventional top-down travel guide.

The problem with collaboration, user-submitted content websites is that A LOT of people need to be participating on the sites for them to work. There are TONS of user-submitted content travel websites, but very few have enough of a critical mass of contributing users to make them functional, let alone any good. For an online travel guide to be successful a huge body of people need to be on the same page. With the backing of the Wikimedia foundation WikiVoyage will have this. The wheels are already in motion.

Travelers have always shared information with each other. They write down their travel notes, combine them with that of others, and then pass them on to the next traveler who does the same. In this way, travel information continuously grew, was edited, and spread. In this era where thousands of people can contribute information to the same documents and share them instantaneously, travel guides can be made on this model to the millionth power.

No private guidebook company with all the “experts” in the world can compete against this.

I’ve almost completely relied on Wikitravel for travel information for at least the past five years. I’ve only purchased one guidebook since 2008, and I can’t say I miss them. The problem with Wikitravel was that it was solely an internet based guide — to render its pages in other forms of media was cumbersome or even impossible. I have notebook upon notebook full of handwritten notes that I jotted down from Wikitravel pages. I have say that I’m more than pleased that Wikivoyage has made this practice something of the past. I now go to en.wikivoyage.org, select only the pages I want, and cleanly download
them to my smartphone. Collecting and consolidating travel information couldn’t be easier or better.

With its ability to bridge the gap between online, e-reader, and print media, along with its wiki format and ethics, WikiVoyage has ushered in a new era for the travel guide.

Filed under: Internet, Travel Information, Travel Tech

About the Author:

Vagabond Journey has been featured on MSNBC.com, The Daily Mail Online, Business Insider, Gizmodo, the Des Moines Register, CBS Phoenix, NBC LA, and numerous other international and local publications. has written 2687 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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  • http://www.davidswills.com/ David

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ve been using Wikitravel for years, but since maybe 2011 it’s been kind of hard to take seriously. Most of the good information has been in place for a couple of years, and the only things that have been added are added by the companies that they promote…

    • Vagabond Journey

      For sure, Wikitravel was in danger of going real stale. I’m real glad to see that some new life was breathed into the project. Hopefully the Wikimedia backed WikiVoyage lives up to the expectations I have for it.

  • Martes

    Thanks for this great article!
     
    “Who among us has not wished that there was an easy way to get in contact with LP and correct the erroneous parts of their travel guides?”
    Well, LP actually did gave his users the possibility to correct the guidebook. I did and got a nice reply saying thank you and so on, but when I had a look into the new guidebook I noticed that they did not take any of my comments into consideration and listed a for a couple of years closed bar again as a nice place to go out… They listed me at the end of the book though, but still it was the first and last time I tried to help them.

    • Vagabond Journey

      @Martes This is so true. They balk at being community oriented and open to receiving contributions from readers, but in the end their arrogance wins out and they ignore their readers. Oh well. The internet age is bottom-up, and we all know where to go now. Thanks for submitting this anecdote.

  • Frank

    I compared the Wikitravel and Wikivoyage entries about Lviv and they are both basically the exact same. I understand the concept is tweaked by user contributions but for me it’s basically the exact same thing almost word for word. The only difference I notice is the advertising on wikitravel, which I don’t use anyways so there is no real difference for some users.

    • Vagabond Journey

      That’s right. Everything on the English version of Wikitravel was migrated to WikiVoyage, but the content on the two sites should evolve and change as they pages are updated and more are added. What’s different, and what I’m excited about, is the new functions and the new community.

  • http://gyrovague.com/ jpatokal

    I felt a bit nostalgic reading your post — it sounds an awful lot like I did back in 2007 or so when I thought Wikitravel was the future.  But while the wiki model works great for referenced, verifiable information like Wikipedia, large parts of travel are fundamentally subjective and not easily distilled into a single source of truth:
     
    http://gyrovague.com/2011/09/13/user-generated-content-what-went-wrong-and-why-it-still-matters/
     
    I do think Wikivoyage has a vast amount of potential, but it’ll need a lot of investment to take it to the next level and separate the objective bits of travel (“the train to the airport takes 20 minutes and costs $7.50″) from the subjective (“this restaurant serves the best pizza ever”).

    • Vagabond Journey

      @jpatokal This is very true. But it’s my feeling that the subjective impressions of a large community are better than those of a small group of guidebook researcher. 
       
      I’m actually surprised at how well Wikitravel worked even with poor management. To be honest, I’ve found myself lead astray far less with WT than with using just about any LP guide.
       
      Who hasn’t sat around a hostel listening to backpackers tell stories of the creative ways that they angrily disposed of their guidebooks after finding them incorrect for the dozenth time. I’m not saying that user submitted travel guides subvert this problem entirely, but at least they give us the option of jumping online and changing the faulty information rather than taking our frustrations out on a chunk of paper. 
       
      You’re right though, it is going to take a lot of work to get WikiVoyage running in top shape.

    • Vagabond Journey

      @jpatokal ”Likewise, I suspect the winner of the travel sweepstakes will be neither “UGC” nor “experts” alone, but the first travel company that manages to harness together a solid base of open content to build on, the raw power of a million travelers contributing and correcting, the iron fist of editors and curators pummelling it into shape, and the slick usability of a professionally designed and laid-out travel guide.” 
       
      That’s from the article cited above. I agree with this, and I hope the “hows” will soon be discovered.