ISSN 1108-8931


Year 5-Issue 58, Mar. 2004

Index of Interviews

Ben Box
Editor, Footprint South American Handbook

Ben BoxOne of the first assignments Ben Box took as a freelance writer in 1980 was sub-editing work on the South American Handbook. From this humble beginning came editorship of the South American Handbook itself in 1989. Involvement in many of Footprint's other Latin American titles and in other freelance projects has meant that Ben has been able to travel in the region for over 20 years. He says that he has also been lucky enough to use much of what he learned from studying Spanish and Portuguese from the age of 15 through to a doctorate from the University of London. Ben's home is in rural Suffolk (England).

As the editor of the legendary South American Handbook, now in its 80th edition, what in your view makes this continent, and in turn your guidebook, so special for independent tourists? Is it because South America is so fascinating, or too scary for northerners planning to visit?

People can engage with South America at all sorts of levels: through the politics, the music, the history and archaeology, through volunteering and environmental issues, and so on. All these different elements are by no means homogenous throughout the sub-continent; there are great variations, many positive conjunctions and many conflicts. It is this variety in a region which, at first glance, may seem quite unified (by a shared colonial heritage - for good or ill -, liberation movements based on European models, European languages) which is so enticing. Especially when you add the indigenous dimension. But the downside comes when the apparent similarity overshadows the individuality of each country and its particular creativity and problems. Then issues like terrorism, or eco-destruction become associated with the whole region. Or things get oversimplified, like when a TV programme on a South American theme is accompanied by El cóndor pasa, whether it's about Bolivia, Guyana or Brazil. The South American Handbook has been following all the developments for 80 years, sifting information, showing the positive and what to avoid, but above all listening to its readers and giving them choice.

How politically-correct, and how political should a guide be? After all, good guidebooks need to discuss the history and politics of some tortured lands, and be a little bit controversial, no?

I don't think a guidebook should be a political vehicle. There are plenty of other outlets for that and guides can point to them. Guidebooks can present the arguments and discuss them, but personally, as an outsider, I wouldn't presume to pronounce who's right. It's a question of balance and respect. What you can be opinionated about is levels of service, about establishments or people not fulfilling what they say they'll do.

Is it true or a myth that guidebooks mostly influence, and are appreciated by, educated "independent tourists", rather than "mass tourists".

Largely true, I think. Mass tourists tend to rely on the tour operator from whom they bought the package. But that's not to say that tourists who buy from the mass market are not educated or that they are not independently minded. And anyone can appreciate a guidebook. I suppose it depends whether you use it as background reading or while on the road. From the South American Handbook point of view, we don't get much feedback from the mass market, but lots from independent travellers and we have lots of contact with specialist tour operators. But everyone is looking for new angles all the time, to keep the market fresh. And there are plenty of pioneers out there. It's great if the guidebook is part of that illustrious company.

With what criteria do you personally choose hotels and tours?

Good value, whatever the price range, and personal attention.

Do ecotourism qualities play any role?

Yes; many people have ethical and ecological concerns and want to reflect that in their travels. I want to help others satisfy that.

And how much genuine ecotourism (ecological community tourism) have you come across in your travels?

It's growing, gradually. There is a move away from the "it's outside the city so it's green" type of tourism.

Do you travel incognito?

Yes, as far as possible. But if I am calling on a hotel, etc, with no intention of staying, having a meal or taking a tour, I say what I am doing. Otherwise all the questions that I ask would seem very suspicious. Sometimes, though, pride in what I do gets the better of me and say who I am.

Can you still relax and travel as a tourist or do you keep taking mental notes?

The latter.

Is the Internet a competitor or an assistant for the guidebook industry?

It's an assistant, especially for research and for contacts. But it has to be used judiciously and dates of posted information checked very carefully. However, an establishment's website is only going to present the best view, for advertising and sales/bookings. So there is a two-way traffic in the sense that guidebooks can also promote websites, but on the understanding that the establishment and website have been vouched for. Guidebooks add an extra dimension to the information that websites provide - what the website won't tell you, like an insider's guide.

How have in the last few years, real and imaginary security and health scares, affected the travel industry in your view?

Not just in my view, from experience of talking to hoteliers and tour operators and from sales of guidebooks worldwide: travel is tremendously sensitive to outside shocks. Take the 90% fall in Peruvian tourism in the 1990s, when Sendero Luminoso and MRTA were most active and cholera was affecting the country. The effect of 9/11 and of SARS was very detrimental and I think it would be naive not to expect the recent terrible bombings in Madrid to have an effect, however much determination there is that life should carry on as normal in defiance of such atrocities.

Can reading a guidebook make a tourist over-confident, after all a guidebook is useful when one travels?

There have been occasions when the South American Handbook, in telling it like it is, has put people off going to South America. Does anyone rely on a guidebook to the extent that they believe everything is safely covered and their journey will be problem-free?

And what about guide-book writers, are they blase about these matters?

I sincerely hope not. The trick is to demonstrate that you, as a writer, have a fund of knowledge to draw upon, even if not everything is in the book. At the same time you should never to assume that your readers know as much as you do, but neither should you patronise them.

What is the foreseeable future for guidebooks, is it an electronic, palmtop-size one, or will printed matter persevere?

People like books, they like to be able to flick back and forth, to scribble in them and refer back when at home. Maps are easier to use in books and books don't need batteries. The technology is there now to make books palmtop-size or electronic, so why hasn't it happened already? I think it's going to take a long time for the printed page to disappear, but I don' t see why, with so many rapid changes in technology, the two forms can't exist side-by-side, even in ways we haven't dreamt of yet. We have to be flexible and inventive.

How important for creating a fair and accurate guidebook is reader feedback, and how do you filter out indirect advertising from feedback?

In an ideal world everything should be double-checked. Experience helps filter the advertising from the genuine feedback. But it also helps a lot having people on the ground to whom one can pass received information. And you cannot beat the firsthand checking done by travelling oneself. I always work on the principle that the emails and letters I receive are sent in good faith, just as what I include in the book is there in good faith, too. I find feedback very useful, if not for every detail, but for finding out where people are travelling, what trends are changing, where we can anticipate people's requirements and what are the latest popular choices.

Is there a line between guidebook writing and literary travel writing, and how often do you or would you like to cross it? Do these genres require entirely different skills from authors?

A guidebook is a travelling companion for two weeks to two years. It should support you, be reliable and relevant, help you on your way, and entertain you. Literary travel writing is much more personal, it can be controversial, funny, it can skip the boring bus journeys and the search for laundries. The two forms have different skills, but not exclusively. In both cases, there is no excuse for not writing well.

Of all the places in the world where you have travelled, would you settle anywhere, or, like Cavafy's Odysseus, you feel that "Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey"? And why did you embark on your Journey?

I am always happy to return to where home is now. I am not drawn to settle anywhere else - yet. All the same, there are still many more harbours that I have never seen before that I want to enter (Ithaka is a beautiful poem no?). Why did I embark on my journey? The answer to that is far back in the mists of time, but I hope that I am learning that there is no point in rushing through the journey. To quote Cavafy again: "Here let me stand. Let me too look at nature a little." Or Alan W Watts: "the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey".

Do you wish to say anything else to our readers? 

Just go, experience South America, and share with South America what you know, just as South America will share itself with you.

Thank you very much

Footprint ( celebrated in 2003 the release of the longest running travel guide in the English language: the 80th edition of the South American Handbook, edited by Ben Box. The Handbook, first appeared in 1924 and has been published annually ever since, with more than 1 million copies sold worldwide. Revered by Graham Greene, Michael Palin, Paul Theroux and many others, it is known as the ‘traveller’s bible’ and is the acknowledged benchmark for all travel guides.

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