Belfast Telegraph

Nuala McKeever: Can you tell me what planet these tourist guides are from?

Apparently we live in a “hip and hedonistic party town”. That's according to the new Lonely Planet guide to Ireland. Belfast is buzzin'. Larne's forlorn. Armagh's not too amazing. And our best tourist attraction is the pub.

I have a problem with these guide books. On the one hand, yes, the author should be free to state his or her opinion. But on the other hand, that's the problem. It's only his or her opinion.

But once it's down there in black and white, it's like the Gospel. At least, it is for those who aren't from the place, who buy it to be informed and guided on their visit here.

My own experience of using guide books has not been a very happy one. Right back to the early Eighties, Inter-railing in Europe, sweaty baguette in one hand and the Rough Guide in the other, I was disillusioned pretty quickly. My friend and I decided the guide had been written by someone called Miss Information.

“Stopalotatus is a charming little village with friendly folk and unpretentious architecture” translated into “It's a dump with one ugly hotel full of Germans and no one will give you the time of day.”

“The town's camp site is very central”. No it wasn't, it was five miles away up a steep mountain.

“You will easily while away a whole afternoon in the delightful museum”. Half an hour tops, and that included a pee break and a cup of coffee.

So I take these guides with a pinch of salt.

Ok, it's probably better for us all if visitors don't read, “Apart from the Mountains of Mourne, Northern Ireland's not worth bothering about” which sums up our entry in a guide to Ireland from a few years ago.

But there's something patronising about being summed up at all. Facts and figures, travel information, dates and history, fine. Get it all out on paper. But apart from that, it's all opinion and a lot of lazy re-gurgitating of the tired, same old stuff.

Look at most guides to any place you know well and they'll invariably trot out the usual suspects when it comes to recommending places to eat and drink. If I see another bl**dy photograph of the Crown Bar in a guide to Belfast ... grr ...

And no, I suppose we don't want to emphasise the dark side of our city too much either. “The Village is a scary place where you might get beaten to within an inch of your life if you're not from there.” That's not entirely representative either.

But how can any guide really tell it like it is when the person writing it isn't from the place? It's not a guide, it's an impression. A very particular impression. So rather than one impression, why not put together a collection of writings about a place, from lots of sources, local and visiting?

I gave directions to some visitors the other day. They were getting on the same bus as I was, heading into town. Along the way, six pensioners got on and off (free travel has made bus-hopping for the over 60s an active alternative to bingo, it would seem) and when we all alighted in the city centre, a man offering Bible tracts shared his love of the Lord with us whether we wanted it or not.

Hip and hedonistic? Hip-replacement and head-the-ball, more like ...

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