Free up-to-the-minute online travel advice is overtaking the printed word, writes Chris Vedelago.
The publishers of printed guidebooks are facing a growing threat from the popular Wiki phenomenon, with consumers accessing a fast-growing repository of free travel information online.
Wikitravel, which uses the same user-generated content model as Wikipedia, holds more than 24,500 entries in 21 languages that includes destination guides, news, events listings and travel alerts. The site, wikitravel.org - which has more than 50,000 registered users - is updated and edited constantly.
While Wikitravel's parent company, Internet Brands, won't disclose the number of visitors it receives each month - beyond stating the figure is "in the millions" - traffic to the site reportedly grew by 30 per cent in the year to November.
Internet analyst Alexa ranks Wikitravel as the 3542nd most-visited website, well above the ranking of many guidebook publishers who offer some information online for free but largely act as portals for advertising and selling the print and digital versions of their products.
Wikitravel won't disclose the number of visitors it receives each month - beyond stating the figure is "in the millions".
"While most traditional guidebooks are published once a year, the Wiki format enables objective, up-to-date information on changing conditions and details on both popular and less-travelled destinations," Internet Brands spokesman Joe Ewaskiw says.
It appears a growing number of users are choosing to access the site while on the road using mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones.
"According to our data, 5 per cent of visitors to Wikitravel came to us from mobile devices in November 2010," Ewaskiw says. "This number is up 75 per cent from May 2010.
"In response ... we developed a mobile version of the Wikitravel site for mobile browsers."
The growth of Wikitravel comes as sales of traditional printed guidebooks have dropped sharply in recent years. In the US, sales of international guidebooks fell 20 per cent between 2007 and 2009, according to the publisher of the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book, Stephen Mesquita. British sales dropped by 22 per cent in the five years to 2009, with nearly all the decline in the past two years.
Mesquita says while it is unclear how much of the slide is due to the global recession, an issue facing the industry is how much the traditional guidebook market will have changed by the time economic conditions improve. "Are consumers changing their habits irreversibly during the recession by sourcing more free information - and, if so, will they ever change back to books?" he asks.
Mesquita says there is also the question of whether the "democratisation of information" through user-generated websites will mean that "expert information" is no longer affordable for publishers or required by consumers.
But some publishers argue that content is only as reliable as the people who post it. "Lonely Planet's recommendations are verified by expert authors who know their destinations intimately," Lonely Planet spokesman Adam Bennett says. "Our authors are passionate ... travellers who also happen to be professional writers."
Alexa ranks Lonely Planet as the 1557th most-visited website.