"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien


The Sacramento Bee Speaks with Joe Cummings

Writer Calls Desire for the "Undiscovered" a Western Conceit

By Janet Fullwood, Bee Travel Editor, 8/8/1999

Travel guide author Joe Cummings stopped in Sacramento recently during a book tour. He sat down to discuss new developments in travel.

Q: Both Lonely Planet and Moon Publications used to aim their guidebooks directly toward the low-budget, backpacker crowd. Now both series include listings for medium and even high-end hotels and restaurants, as well as the inexpensive places. Just who is your audience?

A: Low- to medium-budget, independent culture freaks. People who want to be very comfortable and safe all the time maybe don't want to read these books.

Q: What point of view do you bring to your guidebooks?

A: I'm looking all the time for things - little signposts - that tell people where they are. I bring in things you see on the street, things that can help people understand the culture, so it's not just a straightforward search for a hotel.

Q: How have your books impacted tourism to their respective destinations?

A: I can see how what I write has influence on the hotels and restaurants people use. But as I learned early on, if you rave too much about a hotel or restaurant, a lot of times it will go downhill very quickly because of the impact of more customers. So now I downplay my descriptions, make them more subtle.

Q: Do guidebooks influence people to go to a particular destination in the first place?

A: I don't see much influence as to which towns travelers pick - and definitely not which countries they pick. Marketing surveys show that before people buy a guidebook, they mostly talk to people and read things that stimulate them to go somewhere. People have where they're going figured out before they leave home. A lot of places I write about really positively don't get many tourists at all, while some of the places I rag on a lot are just booming. Go figure.

Q: Do the same places remain popular year after year with budget travelers?

A: It goes in waves: You see people go to the same places every year, then about every five years it shifts a bit.

Q: Do you personally check out all the restaurants and hotels mentioned in your guides?

A: Yes. If there are only 10 hotels in a town, I see them all, but if it's a big city with say, 200 hotels, I might check out 30 for first edition, so by the time I hit the third edition, I've seen them all - and there are new ones. The same goes for restaurants.

Q: What's the procedure for checking out a hotel for inclusion in the guide?

A: I go in like a normal tourist would, ask about rates, start talking about a friend coming, then ask to see a room, or maybe more than one room if there's a lot of variation. I look in the bathrooms, find out if they have hot water, and what kind of toilet. Then I'll check the mattress out, kind of push it with my hand, see if it's any good. Sometimes it looks so rotten I'm afraid to touch it. . . and that's about all I have time for.

Q: Some of your hotel descriptions make the places sound rather, er, undesirable. Why include the bad apples with the good?

A: Sometimes if there are three hotels in a strip you really have to talk about all three of them, even if one isn't any good. That's to warn people off. On the other hand, if it's a lousy hotel and it's on the outskirts and not many tourists go there, I can omit it and spare people the trouble. I only include the bad places if people are likely to be exposed to them.

Q: Your guides to emerging destinations - Laos and Burma, say - are the pathfinder books for tourism in those countries. Almost everyone traveling there is carrying a copy - and your photo is inside the cover. Are you ever recognized?

A: Not often, maybe once a month. Sometimes it has a snowball effect, especially in small place. I'll be on a train and a person next to me is reading one of my books - they might have the page open to my bio - and they recognize me, and they tell other people. And sometimes people are on the lookout for me. Several times I've heard a rumor I've been killed. In Mexico, I've had people calling embassies. In Burma, its really common for me to meet some travel supplier who says, "Oh my! I can't believe you're alive.' "

Q: What's changing for budget travelers? Any new developments in the culture of the road?

A: The phenomenon of Internet cafes is a big one - there's an explosion out there, especially in Thailand. If other countries follow suit, nobody will have to carry a laptop around; they can just stop in at an Internet cafe, take care of their correspondence and go on to the next town.

Q: In the Alex Garland novel "The Beach," which is set in Thailand and being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the author takes several jabs at Lonely Planet - and Joe Cummings - for leading travelers to previously "undiscovered" locales and precipitating their "ruin" by tourism. How do you feel about that?

A: I understand how people feel when a place gets too many people from another culture. And I understand why people get annoyed by that, and bored by that. But when it you want it to be all for you . . . that I don't understand.

People use Lonely Planet to find new places - and then when they find anyone else there, they get mad at Lonely Planet, when that's how they themselves got there in the first place!

That's the thing: The people in this novel would never have gotten to Ang Thong Archipelago on their own, if they were real live people, without Lonely Planet or some other guidebook to tell them how.

Q: But don't most experienced travelers want to get off the beaten path and discover more remote, "unspoiled" places?

A: Sure - but this attitude that you're going to find some untouched part of Asia that no one else will see, that it will be your own private little experience - that's such a hypocritical, counterproductive, selfish, delusional, Western idea

People have this idea that they want to go to some non-Western society, and they want to make sure no other Westerner is there but themselves. What a contradiction! I mean, if you're a Westerner and you're there, then its already been polluted or whatever you want to call it. You're polluting it.

Q: You live between Mexico and Thailand and continue to update the guides to those countries. Any new projects in the works?

A: I want to go deeper and deeper into fewer and fewer places. Right now I'm working on a photo book of Buddhist stupas. I'm also doing a culinary guide on Thai food and a Thai language audio pack for Lonely Planet.

Q: How do you plan to ring in the new millennium?

A: I think we'll be in Laos. I want to be somewhere out of the mainstream, somewhere it's not a big commercial event.

Read Part 1 of this interview

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