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A guide to guidebook realities

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Guidebook author Brett Atkinson says part of researching is talking to tourists and locals alike. Photo / Supplied
Guidebook author Brett Atkinson says part of researching is talking to tourists and locals alike. Photo / Supplied

The latest Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand came out the other day with the usual flutter of controversy over descriptions of the Bay of Islands as over-hyped, Hamilton as dull and Kiwis as eager-to-please. But what really matters to travellers, of course, is how accurate the advice is.

How do Lonely Planet's writers - five of them for the latest edition - go about collecting their information? We've probably all heard the tall tales of researchers collecting their material from the nearest bar or providing plugs in return for bribes. But what's the reality?

According to Brett Atkinson, a Kiwi who has written stories for Herald Travel and contributed to more than 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks, he spent six weeks on the road researching the South Island and Stewart Island content for the latest issue.

But, he says, work on the new edition started two years before. "Since the 2008 edition, I've been compiling a What's New file [using] reader feedback from the previous edition, articles from magazines and newspapers, snippets of information from travellers' blogs and websites, and emails and Facebook postings from various tourist organisations."

For instance "a concise mention in Air NZ's inflight magazine led me to the equally compact Mou Very bar in Dunedin; a business story on North Otago wine in the Herald provided the inspiration for boxed text highlighting the emerging wine scene in the Waitaki Valley; on the road conversations with other travellers saw me checking out an isolated surfers' hostel on Banks Peninsula, and enjoying craft beer bars in Christchurch and Dunedin".

Atkinson says the recommendations from locals "were usually spot-on ... even when they knew I was a proud Jafa."

When it comes to checking out accommodation, he says, guidebook writers have to be a bit underhand. "I almost feel guilty about my constant white lies to accommodation owners, usually along the lines of, 'I'll be coming back to Oamaru with my family next month. Would it be possible to see a few rooms?'."

Investigation of a town's restaurant scene is equally tricky. "[It] often becomes a series of mini progressive-dinners with entree, mains and dessert sampled at three different locations. And experiencing a city's nightlife scene demands late nights, usually on weekends."

But, Atkinson says, as well as checking things for himself it's also essential for guidebook writers to tap into the views of real tourists.

"This time around, kayaking on Doubtful Sound and after-dark kiwi-spotting on Stewart Island were good opportunities to interact with other travellers and get their opinions on the New Zealand travel experience."

And what were their opinions? "How adventure operators manage to be both personal/friendly and professional at the same time - a pretty good reflection of the Kiwi personality really - and the quality of information and expertise on offer at i-SITEs."

- NZ Herald

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