In his new book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, author Thomas Kohnstamm admits everything from drunken philandering to peddling ecstasy. But some critics say shoddy journalism is his greatest sin. Kohnstamm defends his memoir and his integrity.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In his new book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism, author Thomas Kohnstamm admits to all sort of questionable activities, from drunken philandering to peddling Ecstasy.
But that's not what got critics calling his memoir the travel industry's dirty little secret. What really seems to have punched their tickets were passages that implied that Kohnstamm cut corners, plagiarized and traded his status as a journalist for favors.
Despite a harsh blowback from many in the industry, Kohnstamm claims that his book reveals the real world of a functioning Lonely Planet travel writer, warts and all. I'm joined now by the professional hedonist himself. Thomas, welcome to the show. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Thank you, Bob, nice to be here. BOB GARFIELD: It is no small thing to get a review in Lonely Planet in some out-of-the-way place. All of a sudden you're going to find this influx of young backpackers, their Lonely Planets in hand, trying to get the experience that they read about. This is a big thing for people who get a good review. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: I talk about a hostel that had been in a number of guidebooks through a number of years, a Swiss-owned hostel. They were communicating, writing updates in Lonely Planet and keeping a high profile with the company.
And then when the owner was out of town back in Switzerland, a local establishment stole the name of the hostel, and his telephone number, so that [BOB LAUGHS] they could be the place that was featured in the guidebook. And so he – [OVERTALK] BOB GARFIELD: Hotel identity theft. Thomas, you confessed to a number of questionable, if not altogether sleazy, practices. But, more significantly, you describe the travel writing business as rife with sleaze. Take me, please, on a brief tour of that. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: The reality of a guidebook writer in, in the present industry is that the fees have gone down. It's very rare that there are royalties involved any more. And it's a rotating cast of young and wide-eyed writers. BOB GARFIELD: So writers such as yourself are just basically unable to fulfill the terms of the contract for the money they're getting in the time allotted to them.
THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: People find ways to cut corners on the road, which is getting comps and freebies and trying your best in the process to maintain your objectivity. BOB GARFIELD: In your writing for Lonely Planet, did you file copy that suggested to your editors and to your readers that you'd been to a place that you had never, in fact, visited? THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Yes, of course. There are numerous establishments that I was not able to visit in person that I collected information from trusted sources in the field and did my best to corroborate that with other information.
The only illustrative details about a place that I always take without being there were usually from the last edition of the Lonely Planet book.
BOB GARFIELD: You talked about going back to previous editions to give what was reputedly up-to-date information. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: I myself, in my own personal experience, stayed in a hotel in St. Croix, Virgin Islands that I'm sure once upon a time was a beautiful place. When I stayed there, I was the only occupant of the hotel on the night I was there. The place was faded, to say the least.
Oh, and by the way, in returning from dinner to the parking lot, I was kidnapped at gunpoint. What was true last year, especially in the developing world, where Lonely Planet guides spend a lot of time, what happened yesterday is not necessarily a predictor of what the reality is today. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: How can you so easily dismiss the idea of cutting and pasting from a previous edition? THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Now, there are inherent limitations to a paper guidebook. There's going to be a year lag, pretty much, between the time that that book is researched and the time that it's out on the shelf.
Buying a book at Barnes & Noble is not going to safeguard you from the big, crazy world out there. And people, by following these tourist trails, also going from Lonely Planet-recommended hostel to Lonely Planet-recommended hostel, are not necessarily going to the best ones. It's not the end-all and be-all, and it's not an insurance policy. BOB GARFIELD: But you do understand, ultimately, why people are exercised about this, right? I mean, if you're owning up to not honestly representing your reporting experience people are going to have a problem with that. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: A lot of the so-called scandal or blowup happened before the book came out. And as people have read the book and seen how I argue my points, I've had a lot of very positive feedback. BOB GARFIELD: Thomas, thanks for joining us. THOMAS KOHNSTAMM: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Lonely Planet Guide Books, it should be mentioned, is treating this as an exceptional case and is reviewing the books Kohnstamm contributed to, and will correct any errors it finds.