Arnie WeissmannWhen I first started traveling, I began to wonder if there was a requirement that guidebook series begin with the letters F or B. My first purchase was a Frommers, followed by Fodors, Berlitz, Fielding, Baedeckers and Blue Guide.

The mold seemed indestructible until I headed to Africa in 1983, and the only book on the continent that I could find, Africa on a Shoestring, was published by an Australian company I had never heard of: Lonely Planet.

Today, Lonely Planet is the largest publisher of guidebooks in the world. Its 650 titles account for one-quarter of all English-language guidebooks sold.

It began as a series for budget travelers heading off the beaten path, and though it now covers mainstream destinations and mid- and upscale properties, it remains the brand of choice for independent, adventurous travelers.

The books are written for travelers, not tourists. Many of their readers pride themselves in avoiding contact with traditional tourism infrastructure -- less than 10% indicate that they prefer to travel with a tour group or buy a package or resort holiday.

Nonetheless, I would argue that the first wave of Lonely Planet readers has had a tremendous influence on the traditional travel industry. As they aged, they sought a bit more comfort, predictability and organization in their travel and created demand for organized ecotourism and adventure packages. They are today the driving force behind the movement toward experiential travel. In other words, they are the reason Tauck Tours became Tauck World Discovery.

Though young Lonely Planet readers can be viewed as being outside the reach of the industry, they could also be seen as a possible indicator of its future direction. In that light, Lonely Planets findings in its Travelers Pulse Survey 2005 is of keen interest.

The online survey, conducted last December, was produced in conjunction with VisitBritain and STA Travel as well as MTV, Youth Hostels International and a student travel federation. It received nearly 20,000 responses.

Lonely Planet readers love to travel, and they travel a lot. For instance, though only 19% of U.S. citizens hold a passport, 48% of American readers of Lonely Planet have traveled to more than 10 countries.

As a region, Europe was the most popular, but there was significant variance among readers from the three places that constitute the largest group of respondents (Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.) about which countries they would most like to visit in the future. The top 10 selections for Americans were (in order) Australia, India, Italy, Chile, New Zealand, Thailand, Greece, Brazil, Vietnam and Argentina.

The section marked Behavior may be the best indicator of future trends. Of particular interest were motivators -- why Lonely Planet travelers travel. On a scale of 1 to 5, 95% rated exploring other cultures as a 4 or 5. Eighty-seven percent were looking for a sense of adventure.

Interacting with locals and exploring nontourist areas each rated 82%, with relaxing or escaping life just a step behind at 81%.

Contributing to places visited rated 40%, but this number was higher among respondents ages 18 to 24. On the other hand, relaxing or escaping life saw a spike among respondents over age 35.

The overall sense one gets from these motivator responses seems to be bolstered by what I found to be the most interesting question in the survey: How has traveling as an independent traveler impacted your outlook on travel?

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 representing a major effect), 92% said respect for other cultures rated a 4 or 5. Eighty-three percent felt respect for other cultures prompted them to continue to travel independently, 82% said it helped them develop positive personal values and ethics and 79% felt it gave them responsible travel habits.

Although traditional travel agencies rated poorly as a source of pretravel information (13% indicated they used agents frequently for this purpose), they fared better when it came to booking. Selected as the booking method of choice by 24% of respondents, they beat out online agencies, which were chosen by 19%. Researchers expressed surprise at these findings, commenting that consumers still want the security of booking with a real person.

Supplier Web sites were the big winners, with 39% indicating thats where they book most often. Lonely Planet commented that discounts offered by airlines was a contributing factor.

The only sure way to get bookings, of course, is to give people what they want. They always want discounts, but when demand is high, no supplier or retailer wants to incent with rate.

To understand the other things people want, the Lonely Planet study may in itself be viewed as a guidebook of sorts, helping the industry find where it wants to go next.

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