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Are travel guidebooks making a comeback?

Arabella Bowen’s office in New York is near Times Square, so she sees a lot of tourists. But she’s noticed something in their hands of late that seemed to have disappeared for a while: travel guides.

Bowen’s observation is unscientific, but her interest is professional. She’s vice president and editor and chief of Fodor’s Travel, the nation’s second biggest-selling travel guide series and part of an industry that has started to rebound after years of precipitous declines, and against all apparent odds.

Sales of travel guides plummeted 41 percent in the first few years of the recession, more than twice as steeply as book sales overall, according to Nielsen BookScan. But the slide has slowed and, last year, sales of place guides — that is, carry-along travel books other than travelogues and memoirs — rose by nearly 3 percent. Some individual titles are up by even more.

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One reason is that more people are traveling. Travel overall increased nearly 10 percent last year, according to the US Department of Commerce, and 80 percent of that was for leisure and not business.

“Travel is looking a lot rosier than it was five years ago,” said Piers Pickard, publisher of Lonely Planet, which has risen to the top in US travel guide sales, with 17 percent of the market, followed by Fodor’s with 14 percent, Nielsen BookScan says.

But Bowen, Pickard, and others who produce travel guides believe something else is at play. Despite the ease of finding online reviews from the likes of Needham-based TripAdvisor, they say, their guides have a hold on travelers’ imaginations.

“That’s really what guidebooks are: interesting objects filled with surprise and delights,” said Bowen, one of whose first forays into travel writing was as author of the Rough Guide to Boston. “When you’re traveling, you’re shoving stuff into your guidebook all the time — the ticket stub from when you went to that museum, the postcard, the subway map, a business card. After you come home, you keep it on the shelf and it takes you back to the trip you’ve taken. It’s an object like no other.”

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Nostalgia notwithstanding, travel guides have had a bumpy ride.

The economic downturn coincided not only with turmoil in the publishing industry in general, but with a sharp decline in tourist travel and new competition from fast-growing travel websites and apps.

Hoping to capitalize on that, tech companies acquired travel publishers to milk them for their content. It didn’t take. Google bought Frommer’s before selling it back eight months later to founder Arthur Frommer, and BBC Worldwide picked up Lonely Planet before spitting it out again after two years to a US investor for $121 million less than it had paid.

Meanwhile, Penguin, which produces the DK and Rough Guides series, merged with Fodor’s parent, Random House. Distracted by their many other problems, publishers tried only halfheartedly to make money online from their travel brands. US sales from the five principal travel series that hold 80 percent of the market tumbled from more than $125 million in 2007 to $78 million in 2012, Nielsen BookScan says.

But while it may be early to pronounce them resurrected, travel guides are on an upswing altogether unrelated to quarterly statistics and technology strategies. They’re benefiting from people having remembered that they like them, editors and writers say. Especially baby boomers with the time and disposable income to travel; the average age of vacationers, the Commerce Department says, is 45, which makes them part of the generation that carried Lonely Planet or Let’s Go in its backpacks and now slips Fodor’s into its rollaway bags.

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“To me, the best analogy is cookbooks,” said Lorraine Shanley, former editorial director of HarperCollins and now principal at Market Partners International, which follows the book industry. “This weekend I wanted to make a spinach ricotta something, and I Googled it and came up with untold numbers of recipes, found one I liked, and made the recipe. But cookbooks are up. And why are cookbooks up? Because people have favorite authors and want to buy everything by that author.”

Travel guides “are brands,” said Shanley. “Fodor’s has been around forever. The emotional relationship between the reader and the travel book is like the emotional relationship between a reader and a favorite cookbook author: It summons up a lifestyle to which you have an attachment.”

Meanwhile, said Pickard, the novelty is off online reviews, and consumers are making choices between them and conventional hard-copy travel guides with curated content by locals or authoritative travel writers.

“The new media isn’t so new anymore and people are finding the medium that suits them the best,” he said. “And lots of people are deciding books are for them. A book is very reliable. It works. It’s a great piece of technology that’s been working for a long time.”

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After all, a travel guide by an experienced author is a $25 investment in a $2,500 trip, said Bill Newlin, publisher at Avalon Travel, paraphrasing the writer of his best-selling travel series, Rick Steves. (Avalon also publishes the Moon Travel Guides.)

“We’re not trying to reinvent basic information that people can find online,” said Newlin. “The information that we do provide is strategic” — how to avoid standing in lines, for instance, or where to find great restaurants that are off the beaten path. “The guidebook is a voice in your head. You come to relish that. It steers you.”

By comparison, said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of the Frommer’s guidebook series, “When you take advice from a user-generated website, you’re taking advice from a person who has probably only been to one place, in the case of hotels, so they might not know there’s another hotel a few blocks away that’s better.”

Travel guides “are trying to remind people of the importance of journalism,” said Frommer, whose father, Arthur, helped kick off the travel guide phenomenon with his “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” first produced for GIs stationed abroad in 1957. “Our writers have visited all the hotels. They’ve eaten at all the restaurants. So they can be opinionated in an informed fashion. It’s not just an aggregate of information, but a person whose voice and opinion you grow to trust.”

Nor does a guidebook need a battery, or Wi-Fi, added Bowen. “It doesn’t force me to know what I’m looking for so I can search it. That’s the great joy of travel, after all: the discovery of things you weren’t expecting. And we pack it all into this very portable product.”

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That’s not to say the guidebook companies aren’t going high-tech, too. Rough Guides now calls itself a “travel content provider.” Avalon produces 80 walking guides available only in e-book format. Fodor’s supplements its print guides with additional listings online. Lonely Planet is the world’s second-largest English-language travel site. “We have a brand name that stands for travel. People are going to keep thinking of us for that, whether it’s for books or not,” Pickard said.

“There’s nobody in this industry who’s pretending that the Internet doesn’t exist,” said Frommer. “But to put together an itinerary that really makes sense, to get a sense of the history of a country, no one does that as good as travel guides — yet.”

Plus, they’re a nostalgic presence on a bookshelf.

“You take the book with you on the trip, you make notes on the margin, you look at the cover photograph every single day until you get bored with it, and it comes back dog-eared with a coffee stain on Page 200 and a wine stain on Page 56,” Pickard said. “We know people love that, and that’s going to continue for a long time.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.