Can You Trust Your Travel Guidebook?

New Tell-All Has Readers Wondering

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By Michael Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page P01

It's become the shot heard 'round the travel world. Former Lonely Planet guidebook contributor Thomas Kohnstamm's "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" -- a tell-all memoir about his 2004 assignment in Brazil and other antics -- has cast shadows on the industry and has readers wondering how much they can trust the books.

In "Hell," published this week by Three Rivers Press, Kohnstamm, 32, weaves a hedonistic tale of his days indulging in sex and drugs rather than visiting every one of the places he wrote about. He admits relying on secondhand sources rather than his own observations in some cases. Travel blogs are humming with denunciations.

The author, who says he was given 60 days to cover a 1,000-mile section of northern Brazil for the 2005 Lonely Planet guide for that country, says he's being criticized because he revealed guidebooks' dirty little secret: Authors can't get to every place they're expected to review because publishers don't give them enough time or money to do the job properly. So, he says, he was forced to do a "mosaic job," relying in some cases on information from local contacts, fellow travelers and the Internet.

Kohnstamm, a Stanford University graduate who bolted from what he termed a dead-end New York job to hit Brazil's back roads for Lonely Planet, has garnered the greatest attention for his extracurricular activities while on assignment.

"The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight. We end up having sex . . . on one of the tables," he writes of his visit to a sushi restaurant. Reviewing the place in Lonely Planet's 2005 Brazil guide, he describes it as being a "pleasant surprise" and says the "table service is friendly."

Kohnstamm, reached at his Seattle home last week, said that when his "pitiable" payment from Lonely Planet ran out, he had no choice but to accept freebies from the places he was covering.

"I was idealistic and went in with the best of intentions," he said. "I didn't want to reveal myself as a Lonely Planet writer or make compromises, but I ran out of money."

Kohnstamm wouldn't say what he was paid but says he spent almost half his fee on last-minute flights from New York to Fortaleza in northern Brazil. He also used a chunk of his advance entertaining a flight attendant in Rio.

He maintains that his work stands up: "While I may not have been the most effective researcher, I know that I always did a good job of trying to understand and capture destinations as a whole. I would put my writing up against any other guidebook out there," he said in a follow-up e-mail. "LP was always very happy with my work; there were no complaints about my materials and they have since found no inaccuracies in them."

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, asked to comment, said he isn't surprised Kohnstamm ran out of time and money. "He spent so much time partying . . . I'm amazed he had any time to research anything," he said in an e-mail. The company said it is reviewing all the books to which Kohnstamm contributed. If "any of the content has been compromised," publisher Piers Pickard said in an e-mail, "we will take all the necessary steps to correct it."

As for authors' soliciting or accepting free food and lodging, Lonely Planet's published policy is that its writers "don't take freebies in exchange for positive coverage," phrasing that might suggest a potential loophole. But Pickard says that the company has a "strict no-freebies policy" and that Kohnstamm violated it.

Kohnstamm says that he's not the only writer to take occasional freebies and that it's the only way to stretch the fee. "Hotels were laughing at me for not taking freebies." He said he never exchanged free lodging for favorable coverage.

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