Would you still buy a traditional travel guide from Fodor’s or Lonely Planet if you could save and print pages from Wikipedia’s new crowd-sourced travel guide for free? Introducing Wikivoyage, the guidebook industry’s biggest nightmare.
Written “by the traveler, for the traveler,” the worldwide travel guide that anyone can edit launched Tuesday and puts a new spin on trip-planning.
“There’s a huge global demand for travel information, but very few sources are both comprehensive and non-commercial,” said Sue Gardner, executive director of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.
Stefan Fussan, chairman of the board of the Wikivoyage Association, added that the site’s purpose “is to promote education and knowledge of all countries and regions in the world, as well as understanding among nations.”
As the Wikimedia Foundation’s 12th official project, the site has been in beta since November in nine languages and contains more than 50,000 articles on destinations around the world. Each is edited and improved by some 200 volunteers and can be downloaded for free as a PDF file, printed and even gathered together into an ad-hoc guidebook for a trip.
Like the Wikimedia Foundation’s sister sites, the content is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, which allows anyone to read, copy, print, save, modify, distribute, sell or update the site's information. The pages themselves carry a familiar Wikipedia format and provide historical information, as well as travel tips and advice on what to do and where to stay.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said that development of the travel site was a priority for the Wikimedia Foundation during an interview on Comedy Central’s "Colbert Report" last week. He hinted that Wikivoyage would be up and running soon, and reports leaked later in the week that it would go live on Jan. 15 to coincide with the 12th anniversary of Wikipedia’s founding.
If it’s successful, the site could have industry stalwarts like Lonely Planet and Fodor’s shaking in their travel boots -- and it comes just a little over a year after Google’s controversial acquisitions of Zagat and Frommer’s.
In describing what Wikivoyage is not, its developers say they frown upon travel essays, personal travel journeys, vacation photos or advertising brochures. In other words, it’s not a travel blog, photo-sharing tool or the Yellow Pages.
What it is, they say, is more of a complete travel guide than a supplement. Indeed, Wikivoyage drives the knife further into the guidebook industry’s heart by claiming that one of its missions is to become a useful tool “for travel guide publishers and advisers who want up-to-date information.”
Amanda D’Acierno, vice president and publisher of Fodor’s Travel, counters that Fodor’s provides “curated, informed reviews of hotels, restaurants and sights.”
“Our team of writers help sift through the many options so travelers don’t have to, offering expert takes on what we believe are the most worthwhile spots.”
Wikipedia is largely responsible for the demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and its entrance into the travel industry could have broader implications for the publishing industry. But Douglas Quinby, senior director of research at travel market research company PhoCusWright, said it will be anything but smooth sailing.
“There is already a travel wiki out there that is used by most people that go online for any type of travel research and it’s called TripAdvisor,” he remarked. “I wish Wikivoyage the best of luck, but this space is already so incredibly crowded with both a tremendous amount of great content and a tremendous amount of not so great content. They are definitely jumping into the fray.”
Quinby said there is a lot of user-generated noise out there, and although Wikivoyage won’t have to worry about turning a profit, others that do have found it incredibly difficult to compete as more companies turn to social media to disseminate content.
“There have been scores of companies that offer a similar type of product but none have really nailed it with consumers,” he said. “Much of the industry is focused around mobile, and there are a lot of smart mobile apps that enable travelers to maintain their itinerary and get around challenges of roaming charges by innovative ways of storing content locally on the phone.
“There is enormous demand for great travel content and tools to help travelers organize it, but [Wikivoyage] is entering a crowded field with people [who] are very well financed and extremely innovative.”
Companies like Google, Expedia, Kayak and TripAdvisor are putting all of their weight and muscle behind mobile and being able to service their customers across the entire trip lifecycle, he added.
And then there is the issue of integrity, which has already dogged sites like TripAdvisor, where there is an ongoing debate about the authenticity of the content. What’s to stop every hotel and restaurant from inserting a plug about themselves or a tour company from touting its products?
Moreover, Wikivoyage is already embroiled in a lawsuit over its content, some of which was “forked” from Web-based collaborative travel guide Wikitravel.
Wikitravel, which won the Webby Award for Best Travel Website in 2007 and is owned by for-profit Internet Brands (not the Wikimedia Foundation), claims that two former volunteers infringed on Internet Brands’ trademarks by allegedly stealing the company’s intellectual property.
The case was dismissed in November, but a countersuit from the Wikimedia Foundation arguing that Internet Brands had no lawful right to impede, disrupt or block the creation of Wikivoyage is still pending.
Lawsuit aside, whether Wikivoyage succeeds depends largely upon you, the consumer, and whether you decide to become a part of Wikipedia’s Internet mob. As Wikivoyage itself notes, “the more people that use the Edit link, the better Wikivoyage becomes."