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Does Lonely Planet's sale mark death of print travel guides?

Hiker with plugged in guidebook
Ben Popken

Tuesday’s news that BBC Worldwide was selling Lonely Planet to NC2 isn't quite “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but it’s clearly another step in the ongoing shift from print to digital. After all, when travelers can carry a library’s worth of travel content on their smartphone or tablet, those hefty tomes might as well be stone tablets.

“Travel content is about connecting content to travelers wherever, however and whenever they need it,” said Mark Henshall, a former Frommer’s editor and now content director at Propellernet, a UK-based digital agency. “Digital does that really well.”

And, like newspapers and other forms of print media, traditional guidebooks are feeling the squeeze. According to Nielsen Bookscan, the nation’s retailers sold 7.97 million books in the adult non-fiction/travel category last year, a 19-percent drop from 2011 and a 27-percent drop from 2010.

Presumably, some of those dwindling sales were mitigated by people downloading guidebook publishers’ digital content but the trend also speaks to larger demographic and societal shifts. From Wikivoyage to TripAdvisor to blogs by legions of amateur travel writers, alternative travel content is everywhere.

“If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the first place you’re going to go for travel information is a social network, not a guidebook,” said Howard Blumenthal, who writes the Digital Insider blog. “With so many people contributing content, you don’t have to go to Fodor’s to get hotel information because there’s TripAdvisor and its competitors.”

Even older travelers, says Blumenthal, may be tempted to make the shift. “Someone who’s been traveling for 20 or 30 years probably still wants a guidebook in their hand,” he told NBC News. “The problem is that once that person downloads an app, you’ve lost them.”

And there’s certainly no shortage of devices on which to download those apps. According to NDP Group, tablet shipments are expected to top 240 million units worldwide this year, a 64-percent increase over 2012. Vendors are also expected to ship 918 million smartphones this year, says IDC, with such devices surpassing older feature phones for the first time.

And yet, despite the rise of new media, the proliferation of devices and the interactive nature of digital content, both Henshall and Blumenthal maintain that there’s still a place — albeit a shrinking one — for printed books.

“Books still offer a different experience than tablets and mobile phones, more of a compelling, thoughtful experience,” said Henshall. “The travel publishers who will do well will be the ones who can shape information in the right way to create a good narrative whether it’s print or digital.”

Or, as Blumenthal puts it, “Books are great for context, for backstories and history — that’s a book you might take with you when you travel. The walking tour book? That one you’ll probably have on your device.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.