Interview with Lonely Planet’s Founder

tony wheelerOne thing I love about having a travel blog is that it lets me meet amazing everyday people and also gives me a chance to meet my travel heroes. I’ve had drinks with Pauline Frommer, meet Rick Steves, became friends with Johnny Jet and Matt Gross the (ex) Frugal Traveler, hung out with Rolf Potts, and chatted about flights with George Hobica just to name a few things. A few weeks ago, Lonely Planet put me in touch with their founder, Tony Wheeler. We exchanged a few e-mails, he agreed to do an interview, and I gushed a bit about his influence on my travels.

Nomadic Matt: Your “Lonely Planet Guide to Southeast Asia” changed guidebooks and travel. It created a mass market and accessibility that didn’t exist before. How does having such a big impact on travel make you feel?
Tony Wheeler: Great, looking back we were there at the start of something big happening. Travel was becoming more affordable and accessible so there was a demand for destination information. That’s how Lonely Planet started, with people asking us for our recommendations for destinations because we’d been there and done it. This led to the creation of our first guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap. There’s actually a book about to be published by a guy who tries to travel around the region today using one of our original books, South-East Asia on a Shoestring (now 36 years old). Amazingly, he finds lots of places either still in operation or run by the children or even grandchildren of the people we encountered when we researched the guide in 1974. Travel is constantly changing and developing but the need for trusted, accurate information about destinations is still there. More people travel further and longer and in different ways. Our guides continue to provide the tried and tested recommendations that our first guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, was founded on.

Lonely Planet is considered the bible for young, backpackers and long term travelers. It’s the book they use far more than any other guide out there. Is that the market you had always hoped for given that was the style of travel you started with?
We started out doing books for people just like us, young and penniless. Obviously we’ve changed over the years and so have the books! But although we cover the upscale travel just as much as backpacking these days I still have a real soft spot for the backpackers, they’re travel pioneers, they’re often pioneering new routes and new ways of travel and let’s face it, there’s no travel experience like the first time travel experience. I reckon gap year travellers learn more in that year than they did in their last 5 years of school. Or the next years of university! I also like the tough travel, off-the-beaten track information, which is why I’ve enjoyed myself using our Africa guide in Congo DRC these past three weeks.

In the book “The Beach”, there is a line “Once it’s in the Lonely Planet, it’s ruined.” That comment reflects a feeling that Lonely Planet (and guidebooks in general) sterilize places and turn them into tourist traps. How do you react to such criticism?
The key here is that Lonely Planet guidebooks are just that – a guide. We encourage travellers to use our guides as a starting point, by providing them with the tools to create their own adventures. Tourists will visit destinations regardless, we are just providing them with the tools to travel independently and put their tourist pounds back into the local economy. It has always been paramount to us that Lonely Planet encourages responsible, independent and ethical tourism. Our guides advise travellers about the local history, politics, culture, wildlife and economy so that they can get to the heart of the place and understand the destination they are visiting. I have dedicated my life to travel and am a strong believer in its benefits, both for the traveller and the local community that they are visiting. Travel broadens the mind by sharing cultures, language and traditions. It is impossible to argue that tourism doesn’t influence destinations but there are many factors contributing to the growth of tourism, not least flight routes and the declining cost of travel.

Are there any aspects of travel that have changed over the last 20 years that you DON’T like? Why?
A lot of people will say the greater ease of travel, communication, and information have taken the romance out of travel, but I reckon things like internet cafes are just a new version of poste restante. There’ll be just as many tales of internet cafe meetings and romances as ‘sitting on the steps of the post office reading long lost letters.’ The saddest change is a post-911 security one. Of course, I hate all the farting around with metal detectors and X-ray machines (and I could design a better way of doing it than 90% of airports I pass through) but the biggest one is that you can’t go up on the flight deck anymore. While you never could on US airlines, elsewhere in the world if you asked nicely you could generally get invited up to the flight deck to have a look over the pilot’s shoulder. The one occasion I flew Concorde I went up the sharp end and twice I even got to sit in on a landing of a 747.

On the flip side of that question, what do you see as the more positive aspects of how travel has changed over the last 20 years?
Romance or not, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the ease of doing things these days whether it’s booking a hotel, getting a seat on a plane in Congo DRC or a train in Switzerland, and that you can download visa application forms instantly. (Iran was amazingly wired and helpful in that respect the last time I went there.) That almost anywhere you can get a free or near-as-damn-it free local SIM card for your phone so I’ve had my own phone number everywhere from Afghanistan to Zambia is also amazing as is ATM machines spit out currency in the weirdest and most unlikely places.

Where do you see guidebooks going in the digital age?
It’s often said there’s as much print as ever, it’s just not necessarily on paper anymore. I think we’re going to keep on researching things, to do a good job you have to go there, you cannot research a place from behind a desk or in front of a computer. But whether that ‘guidebook’ will be a book or an iPhone app, who knows.

What do you think of travel blogs?
Great. Travel blogs publish such a wealth and diversity of travel articles. It is a fantastic community and it’s exciting to watch it grow.

Do you believe there is a professional quality to travel blogs that is on par with guidebooks?
Some of them. But then there are some good guidebooks and some crap ones as well.

Which blogs do you like? What are some examples of “good ones”?
I don’t follow any blogs, but if I’m looking for something connected to some trip or place or idea I’m thinking about then I often end up on somebody’s blog. The Congo trip I’ve just done was very mundane, but God there are some great Congo stories out there. Like this one by a Belgian couple who slogged their way right across the country, all but destroying their Land Cruiser en route and putting it through the sort of hell Toyota could hardly have dreamed up. And I’ve gone down plenty of ‘roads’ on Land Cruisers where, at the end, I thought ‘what a vehicle! Amazing!’

Why did you sell your stake in Lonely Planet?
We didn’t want to run it forever and it was time for a change.

Now that you have sold Lonely Planet, how are you keeping yourself busy?
Travelling! I’m working on a new travel book and Lonely Planet keep asking me to do some things.

So you are still involved with LP? Is that as an advisory role or do you have a special title?
A title? A role? Something I get paid for? No. But I write a monthly column for the LP Magazine, I seem to write a lot of intros/forewords/columns/etc for assorted LP books, I’m still often asked to front for something, appear for something, etc with LP. And for the rest of my life I’ll be ‘one of the people who started LP.’ And I’ll never be able to go anywhere without sending back corrections/additions/suggestions for the relevant book. Incidentally, I never had an LP business card with a title or role on it.

If you have any one advice for travelers, what would it be?
Go. And go somewhere interesting.

  1. Great interview! I love Tony’s take on travel and using guidebooks as a starting point. I think guide books get you to a destination but if you don’t explore beyond that then your travels are something someone told you to take rather than something you experience for yourself. Go beyond, get lost, and even in that popular tourist area, explore the streets and back roads to discover life away from the museums and tourists.

  2. This is a great interview with such a groundbreaking travel icon. How exciting to get to speak with such influential travelers – it’s inspiring that you have been so successful as a travel blogger!

  3. Great Interview Matt!
    Brought back a memory of an approach of AMS airport on the flight deck of one of KLM’s first 747’s years ago (must have been early 80ies) behind a captain who when he had put the colossus on the ground admitted he suffered from vertigo, but only when the plane was on the ground where he was seated some 15 meters above the ground…..

  4. I love Lonely Planet Guides, and the introduction of the magazine was just smart. When I begin to do research for an upcoming trip, Lonely Planet guides are always in the mix. However, I’ve had a few friends mention that they Guides aren’t are reliable as they once were. I wonder if that has to do with a change in ownership….

    BTW: Great Interview!!

  5. Matt, that’s a cool interview. I like how you asked him that one challenging question. In my opinion, I have a love/hate relationship with LP guidebooks. On the one hand, they’re a valuable resource & have steered me in the right direction on more than one occasion; however, I feel they lack ‘hard’ hitting opinions & critical information at times. When I traveled in China there were some truly awful temples (very expensive as well) that I avoided ONLY because of discussion with other travelers and not because of the guidebook I was carrying.

  6. Ryan

    Fantastic insight into one of the most successful figures in the travel world, he sounds like he still has the travel bug even after all these years.

  7. The Lonely Planet for West Africa was my bible on my first trip through West Africa in 2005. The only time I cursed it was when I was lost in Bamako for a few hours. Driving my truck the wrong way down one way streets and twice through the central market whilst trying to find what turned out to be one of the worst places I have ever stayed in. There was however loads of times when it was invaluable. Hopefully they keep producing a quality product and maybe in the digital age travellers can make suggestions for updates so as to conquer the problem of being outdated by the time they roll off the press.

  8. Really enjoyed the interview. I loved his response to the criticism – that guidebooks are just a starting point and aren’t intended to “ruin” someone’s favorite spot by giving it publicity.

  9. I like Tony’s take on the quote “Once it’s in the Lonely Planet, it’s ruined.” The quote is nonsense; it’s all about this off-the-beaten-path experience, and for some people this means going where nobody has gone before AND nobody has written about. Instead, original experiences come from your own initiative of engaging with what is around you. It’s about being proactive, adventurous, as Tony says, and seeing the mystery, novelty and beauty in no matter what tiny village or street corner of a metropolis you are in. I think the same goes for travel blogs. Experiences described, places shown or corners uncovered in a guidebook article or a travel blog post don’t ruin anything. They are meant to inspire others to go after their own exploration.

  10. Great interview. I remember when I first discovered LP guides. I think it was ’85 and I was in college and taking a summer backpacking around Europe. I left with the Let’s Go guide and quickly realized I made the wrong choice when I was on a train with someone who had an LP. I’ve always wanted to meet Tony, his original trip in the early 70’s was an inspiration for my backpacking across Asia in the 90’s. The man defined an industry.

  11. It’s so true! We start off using the LP and then the real adventure unravels before our eyes! Will be forever grateful for the LP.. it has paved the way to soooo many gems! Great interview Matt, and thanks for sharing from the heart, Tony!! :)

  12. LP is still a great guide for those that want to feel safe when they travel but yes guide books do not have the abitlity to have up to date last minute info. so selling out of LP was a good move considering the years of dedication to its creation. some young dudes needed to take the mantle and run with it in the digital age. However this can be an issue in the wild congos etc
    Cool stuff we all look forwar to the future of how LP will evolve

  13. I still read and use lonely planet whilst planing some exciting holidays, It is also interesting to see that our young adult children also pick up LP to do some research. It has some excellent information and has been one of the most recognised sources of information for travellers. However it is now time to pull it into the digital age so information can easily be updated. This will be fine whilst within internet range but could be challenging when it is not accessable.

    I look forward to the next chapter …..

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