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All change in the travel market

1 September 2008

Travel books have rarely been so much in the headlines as they were in the UK last week when Tony Elliott, the pugnacious founder of Time Out, used a speech at the Edinburgh Festival to lambast the BBC. The public broadcaster has recently acquired Lonely Planet's travel guides and Elliott is not alone in thinking that the BBC is getting out of control and offering unfair competition to commercial businesses.

But travel publishing is going through bigger changes than that. It has seen years of boom as people from the richer countries of the world have travelled more and more, and increasingly have opted for long haul destinations. The growing market for guidebooks has brought about intense competition amongst the different travel publishers. Now the twin changes wrought by people's concern about their carbon footprint and the global economic downturn are bringing that era to an end.

Americans, affected by the weak dollar, have been travelling less, but Europeans have been making up for it and there's been huge growth in the number of tourists touring the world from countries such as China. In the UK 2006 was not a good year for travel publishers, with intense competition. But in 2007 this trend was reversed, with travel book sales up 5.95%, compared to a 2.93% fall in 2006. Discounting took a heavy toll of publishers' profits and Stephen Mesquita, author of a report on sales for the Travel Publishing Yearbook, estimates that £19m ($35m) was given away in unnecessary discounts.

But the biggest change in travel publishing is only now making itself felt. Mark Ellingham, who sold his Rough Guides imprint to Penguin last year, said then: 'We are on the cusp of major change. In the next five years guidebooks will be almost completely digital.' Publishers are responding to the changing market by developing exclusive online content and focusing on other ways of delivering the information.

Ellingham predicts that by cutting out paper costs and substituting PDF downloads to devices such as the iPhone, information will be delivered directly on a subscription model. He says: 'The book market is stagnating and beginning to decline and the digital medium becoming properly useful. There will be a thinning out of travel guides - there are too many at the moment. A lot won't make the transition to digital.'