Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Travelers share tips, trade stories online

POSTED: 11:02 a.m. EST, December 20, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) -- Had Jani Patokallio relied solely on a printed travel guidebook to plan a recent trip to Cambodia, he might have skipped a visit to Sihanoukville, turned off by talk of bumpy bus rides, bombed out buildings and kidnappings.

But after checking out Wikitravel, one of several free sites that let travelers themselves share information and reviews, he learned the seaside town has changed since the book's printing.

"Five years ago it was absolutely nothing there," said Patokallio, 29, a telecom consultant in Singapore. "Today, it's already a beach resort. There are five-star hotels, good restaurants. The road is paved and rebuilt."

When Patokallio got back, he added his experiences and insights, expanding the entry by 50 percent, so that other travelers might consider a visit, too.

In the old days, travelers had to rely primarily on professional guidebooks, unless they happened to know someone who had gone to, say, Sihanoukville recently.

These Web sites make it possible to find that person who did visit Sihanoukville. Several new ones have emerged in recent months, selling their ability to stay current and cover destinations popular and obscure, even as guidebooks respond by emphasizing their editorial oversight.

Internet Brands Inc.'s Wikitravel and Wikia Inc.'s World Wikia organize user contributions the way a traditional travel guidebook would, with sections on how to get there, what to eat, where to stay and what to do. Powered by technology known as a wiki, anyone may add and change entries regardless of expertise.

Gusto LLC, IgoUgo Inc. and other travel sites take more of a social-networking approach.

Members have personal profile pages just like those on News Corp.'s MySpace. Visitors not only can read what others have to say, but also can find out about the reviewers' personal background: Do they travel with pets or kids? Do they tend to like destinations that are off-the-beaten path?

Varied formats, philosophies

TripAdvisor LLC, meanwhile, offers a blend of wikis and profiles.

One site, Tripmates Inc., even lets people find travel companions or contact locals for one-on-one advice. Joe Voboril, 28, a financial analyst in New York, contacted a Tripmates user in Greece who had highly recommended a sunset cruise that from guidebooks "looked like a touristy dumb idea."

"It was one of the best values," he said. "I never would have done it or looked for it."

RealTravel Inc., meanwhile, has a tool for recommending travel destinations based on criteria you enter, such as budget, age, interests and the size of the traveling party. Matches are made based on what similar users have said about places they've been.

Frommer's, Fodor's and Lonely Planet typically hire locals and seasoned travelers to update their guidebooks every one or two years. Although the publishers acknowledge their paid writers can't cover every single restaurant or hotel, the way scores of volunteers can, they question whether travelers really want everything.

"There's so much information out there that people want somebody to discriminate for them," said Michael Spring, publisher of Frommer's Travel Guides, a division of John Wiley & Sons Inc. "We're not doing anyone a favor to list 100 places. You want someone to say this is better than that."

The philosophy extends to the guidebooks' Web sites. Lonely Planet Publications Inc. has a lively online forum for discussions about everything travel, but when it comes to reviews, the publisher wants readers to respond only to items written by professional writers.

"That's who we are, and people look to us for that impartial review," said Brice Gosnell, Lonely Planet's publisher for the Americas.

Lori Gauld, 34, said she likes RealTravel for its journaling features but prefers guidebooks for planning trips.

"I write all my notes (and use) Post-its, highlighters and things like that," the Toronto consultant said. "I can bring the book along."

Credibility questions

Reviewers' credibility is one concern. Sites differ on how they handle hotel owners, tourism officials and others who might want to flood the sites with positive reviews, but all agree it's a potential problem.

Tripmates and other sites let visitors check other travelers' profiles to gauge how alike they are and judge recommendations accordingly. A feature Gusto plans to launch next month will even help users elevate the writings that come from other members they deem friends.

The Web sites, meanwhile, are good for niche travelers and destinations that a travel guidebook might mention in passing, if at all.

Wikitravel, for instance, has a guide for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a set of rugged islands off Antarctica. IgoUgo has entries from users who like to visit lighthouses or travel with a dog. World Wikia has resources on how to hitchhike out of Tokyo.

User-contributed Web sites can afford to devote entire guides for narrower audiences -- World Wikia is trying to start one on Iraq.

But Tim Jarrell, publisher of the Fodor's division of Random House Inc., said such sites have largely been "long on dreams and short on execution."

Many of the community sites started in recent months, meaning the entries are varied and far from complete. Bill Kaufmann, founder of World Wikia, said the site has spent the past three months "laying the groundwork for what I think would be a complete set of guides."

The sites have largely been making money through ads, with a few exploring ways to sell travel services. IgoUgo has links to travel agency Travelocity; both are owned by Sabre Holdings Corp.

Ultimately, travelers may use both in their planning.

"How they are going to get there, where they are going to stay, that's really the stage at which we engage people," said Ken Leeder, RealTravel's chief executive. "Once they go on their trips, absolutely they take their printed travel guides with them."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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