Articles

born under a wandering star
by Michael McDonagh


As Tony and Maureen Wheeler sat at their kitchen table in Sydney in 1973, preparing what was to become the first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, they couldn’t have imagined the extent of the journey on which they were embarking.
 
 
 

The couple met on a bench in Regent’s Park in London in 1970, got married a year later, bought a minivan for around ¥10,000 and set off on an overland journey from London through Asia to Australia. They only intended to travel for a year and then settle down but when they finally arrived in 03, with just 27 cents between them, they were bombarded with so many questions — no doubt from Aussies with the urge to get out from down under and see the rest of the world — the ready-made audience inspired them to turn their diaries into a book. The first print-run of 1500 copies, hand-sorted, trimmed and stapled by the authors and hawked around the bookshops of Sydney, sold out in the first week. Thirty years and 55 million copies later, Lonely Planet guidebooks still manage to retain some of that personal touch. The attention to detail, gleaned from first-hand experience, is one of the keys to their phenomenal success. “These days you can do an awful lot of research just sitting at your desk and clicking on yet another website,” comments Tony Wheeler. “But at the end of the day what makes our guidebook better than another is writers getting out there and pounding the streets, wearing out shoes, trying out things personally. You can’t fake it.”

Lonely Planet has published over 1500 different guides including titles as diverse as Trekking In East Africa, Cycling Cuba and the Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook. “What started out as a rather appropriate way to help fund our next big trip has morphed into an organization with offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, London and Paris,” explains Wheeler. The company currently employs more than 400 staff publishing 600 titles in 17 languages and has spawned a television series, Lonely Planet Six Degrees, and an award-winning website, www.lonelyplanet.com, which receives over 2 million individual hits a month.

All things considered it’s probably safe to surmise that Tony and Maureen no longer travel in the way in which we have become accustomed through their books, but they still remain thoroughly engaged in every stage of the process of producing the guides. Wheeler himself spends around six months a year road-testing new editions.
The progress of Lonely Planet’s evolution from cottage industry to market leader has paralleled and hastened changing travel habits. Lower airfares, young people with more time and money on their hands and dissatisfaction with homogenous package tours and holiday resorts has spawned an army of independent travelers wandering around the globe, Lonely Planet in hand.

Tourism wasn’t the huge industry thirty years ago that it is now. Lonely Planet’s first guides used to include things like “if you get to this island in Indonesia, walk down the main street to the docks, turn left, there’s a house there and a man called Wayan will take you to . . .” Of course they can’t put things like that in now, because 20,000 people will turn up, all looking for Wayan.

Success has helped make an alternative the norm. Clutching a Lonely Planet guide makes us feel like Indiana Jones in the same way a Michelin guide induces the illusion of being a gourmet & connoisseur. Self-styled travelers find themselves merely one of a horde of adventurers descending en masse for a hill tribe trek in Thailand, the tribe solely devoted to catering to the crowds that Lonely Planet bring stomping to their door. A few years ago I was amused to find myself in a Western-style restaurant in Delhi sheepishly sipping an expensive milkshake and waiting for a veggie lasagna and chips, in a room full of fellow travelers, all of us with our Lonely Planet guides on the table, all relieved to be somewhere certified clean and tasty to take a break from the adventure raging outside.

Tony Wheeler concedes the point that DIY holidays are as unique as assemble-yourself-furniture but maintains, “that it’s still remarkably easy to escape the crowds and have your own adventure.” On the subject of well-trodden paths he emphasizes “everyone’s trip, especially the first, is an adventure. The people you meet, the streets that you walk down, the feelings and emotions you get from that, they’re yours — it doesn’t matter how many people are there.”

Times change, as do demographics and technology. The baby boomers are retiring, society is graying and technology is impacting on the publishing business. Wheeler foresees a boom in activity-related holidays — yoga, cooking, surfing, hiking and the like. He also reckons the day is fast approaching when PDF file guides are downloaded at the airport with a swipe of a credit card. That day may already have passed. Lonely Planet is developing WAP sites, palm pilots and mobile phone guides.

For all the changes the essence of travel remains the same. “I’m a firm believer in the value of travel,” says Wheeler. “In a world of misunderstandings and suspicions, travel is the best possible way of turning our misconceptions upside down.”

 

Staff Continued

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