Is it possible to find out 2017's top travel destinations based on book sales?

Remember summer? When half of all the emails you sent out received an automatic reply along the lines of: "Sorry, I'm out of the office for the next two weeks drinking unlimited Mai Tais and having the best vacation of all time while you're still stuck at work. I'll get back to you as soon as I can." Now that we're all back at work for the fall, we've become nostalgic for that unlimited Mai Tai time and those too-short vacations, which got us wondering, is it possible to determine the top travel destinations of 2017 based on book sales?

A few caveats

Of course there are a few factors we need to consider. First and foremost, not everyone who travels buys a travel guide, especially these days. There's plenty of fantastic knowledge freely available on the internet thanks to the plethora of travel bloggers who make their living by visiting exotic places and posting about it on Instagram and TripAdvisor. Secondly, buying a travel guide is not necessarily an indicator that someone will travel to that specific destination. Thirdly, travel is not always solely for vacation purposes. It might be that Canadians are traveling home, to visit family, or for business, in which case a guidebook might be less needed.

We also need to consider availability. The number of books published and available in the market varies greatly depending on the location. For example, it's much easier to find a guidebook to London, England than it is to find one for Huacachina, Peru.

The final thing we need to keep in mind is that some BISAC subject codes represent a specific country, while others represent entire regions. For example, there's a BISAC for Southeast Asia, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam. There is also a BISAC for Japan. So if 5,000 copies of a guidebook to Thailand are sold and another 5,000 for Indonesia are also purchased, they are grouped together as 10,000 units sold in the BISAC category TRAVEL / Asia / Southeast. Yet if 6,000 copies of a guidebook to Japan are sold, it would appear lower in this ranking even though it's (hypothetically) more popular than the other two.

That said, we love data so much that we're going to do the research anyway.

Print sales of travel books over the last five years 

Print sales for travel books in general have been trending downwards for the last five years, with a slight uptick in 2015 due to the successes of Bill Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling under the TRAVEL / Europe / Great Britain BISAC and his earlier book A Walk in the Woods under the TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues BISAC, which was adapted into a film that year. There was another uptick in 2017 due to the successes of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders under the TRAVEL / Special Interest / Adventure BISAC, and Harry Potter: A History of Magic by the British Library under the TRAVEL / Museums, Tours, Points of Interest BISAC.

A graph showing that the travel book market has been trending downward from approximately 800,000 units in 2013 to approximately 600,000 units in 2017.

Sales of travel books by region

When we break down the category further, looking only at the region-specific BISAC categories, we can identify the most popular travel destinations in terms of the number of books sold in that category. Again, keeping in mind all the things we discussed above, we used the most specific BISACs possible (down to the fourth and fifth BISAC levels) so we could narrow down the most popular destinations as closely as possible.

In 2017, the top 15 region-specific travel BISACs were:

  1. TRAVEL / Europe / Italy

  2. TRAVEL / United States / West / Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA)

  3. TRAVEL / Europe / Great Britain

  4. TRAVEL / Europe / Spain & Portugal

  5. TRAVEL / Europe / France

  6. TRAVEL / Canada / Western Provinces (AB, BC)

  7. TRAVEL / Asia / Southeast

  8. TRAVEL / Canada / Ontario (ON)

  9. TRAVEL / Australia & Oceania

  10. TRAVEL / Europe / Eastern

  11. TRAVEL / Europe / Iceland & Greenland

  12. TRAVEL / Canada / Atlantic Provinces (NB, NL, NS, PE)

  13. TRAVEL / Europe / Ireland

  14. TRAVEL / Asia / Japan

  15. TRAVEL / United States / Northeast / Middle Atlantic (NJ, NY, PA)

Top regions by season

We also decided to compare them by season to see if there were any noticeable changes. For the most part, things stay fairly consistent. Most travellers buy guidebooks in the months leading up to their trip, rather than right before they leave, so let's keep that in mind as we look at the results:

Top 5 BISACs for winter 2017 (weeks ending Jan. 2 to April 2, 2017)

  1. United States / West / Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA)

  2. Europe / Italy

  3. Europe / Great Britain

  4. Europe / Spain & Portugal

  5. Europe / France

Top 5 BISACs for spring 2017 (weeks ending April 3 to July 2, 2017)

  1. Canada / General

  2. Europe / Italy

  3. Europe / Great Britain

  4. Canada / Western Provinces (AB, BC)

  5. Europe / Spain & Portugal

Top 5 BISACs for summer 2017 (weeks ending July 3 to Oct. 1, 2017)

  1. Europe / Italy

  2. Canada / General

  3. Europe / Spain & Portugal

  4. Canada / Western Provinces (AB, BC)

  5. United States / West / Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA)

Top 5 BISACs for fall 2017 (weeks ending Oct. 2 to Dec. 31, 2017)

  1. Europe / Italy

  2. Europe / France

  3. United States / West / Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA)

  4. Europe / Great Britain

  5. Europe / Spain & Portugal

Unsurprisingly, the data tells us that people buy guidebooks for warm destinations in the fall and winter while planning for a winter/spring trip, and they buy guidebooks for cooler destinations in the spring and summer. Canadian destinations are far more popular in the spring and summer, perhaps because the kids are on school holidays and families are looking to take more local, inexpensive road-trip vacations.

Iceland & Greenland on the rise

As we were doing this research, we noticed that the volume of books sold in the Iceland & Greenland BISAC category has seen steady growth over the last five years, despite overall decreases in travel book sales. Perhaps it has something to do with Icelandair's burgeoning stopover program. It's been offered since the 1960s, but the program has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade or so.

A graph showing the upward trend in unit sales of books about Iceland and Greenland. From approximately 5,000 units in 2013 to approximately 12,500 units in 2017.

Sales trends vs. StatsCan

Finally, we decided to compare the list of BISAC categories against this list from Statistics Canada outlining the top 15 countries travelled to by Canadians. This data was collected in 2014 via electronic questionnaires and Air Exit Survey, and it counts overnight visits only. To keep things as accurate as possible, we compared their list to a list of BISACs with the most unit sales going back to 2014. We also tried to use BISACs that were as close to the country level as possible and we excluded Canada BISACs.

Top countries according to StatsCan Top BISAC categories by volume sold (2014-2017)
1 United States United States
2 Mexico Italy
3 United Kingdom France
4 France Great Britain
5 Cuba Spain & Portugal
6 Dominican Republic Southeast Asia
7 Italy Australia & Oceania
8 Germany Central America
9 China Ireland
10 Spain Eastern Europe
11 Netherlands Japan
12 Republic of Ireland China
13 Hong Kong Belgium / Netherlands / Luxembourg
14 Bahamas Germany
15 Australia Greece

Interestingly, the number of people visiting Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas is vastly different than the number of people buying travel guides for those destinations. This is likely due to the fact that many travellers to these destinations typically visit all-inclusive resorts and so travel guides are not really necessary.

To answer our original question, it would appear that no, it's not possible to determine the top travel destinations based on books sold, but it is possible to spot overall trends.