The founders of Lonely Planet have written their autobiography, reflecting on over 30 years spent travelling the world and writing guidebooks to help others follow in their footsteps
Just finished this breakneck autobiographical tour through the history of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guidebook company, written by its two founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Well, written by Tony actually, with occasional interjections from Maureen as the narrative progresses. It’s a shame that Maureen didn’t write more of it, because Tony Wheeler’s intensely practical mind (he was an engineer by trade before getting the travel bug) means that this autobiography is big on facts and figures but quite short on feelings and reflections. Every chapter is a relentless recounting of the travel schedule for that period of their lives, which in some places reads more like a bare bones itinerary than a travelogue.
Despite that, The Lonely Planet Story (published in the USA under the title Unlikely Destinations and previously published in hardback under the title Once While Travelling) is still a fascinating book to read – how a British couple arrived in Australia with 27 cents to their name and built the biggest travel guidebook company in the world that has offices on 3 continents and revenues of millions of dollars a year, all the while travelling to almost every country in the world. From hacking together their first guide, Across Asia On The Cheap, over a kitchen table in Sydney through to the hundreds of people they had to lay off at Lonely Planet after September 11th, Wheeler provides a stream of anecdotes about how he and Maureen winged it at every stage, managing to produce and sell their books by a mixture of idealism, “give it a go” attitude, financial risk and sheer bloody-mindedness. In this sense The Lonely Planet Story is actually as much a business biography as it is a travel memoir.
For aspiring travel writers, there is a lot of useful information in here. Burnout seems to be a common recurrence amongst even the most experienced guidebook writers, and there is a big gap between the romantic dreams of being a travel journalist and the guidebook reality of gathering endless accommodation and restaurant information on the road. Certainly there is still plenty of room to be creative in your writing and enjoy your travels on the Lonely Planet ticket, but it appears it requires meticulous planning and discipline to achieve such a happy balance. (See this in-depth interview with a Lonely Planet writer for a blow by blow account of what’s involved). There’s several pages dedicated specifically to what Lonely Planet looks for in new writers, but more importantly, the whole book is a primer in the vagaries of travel publishing and how radically things have changed in the 30 years at the different destinations to which the Wheelers have returned.
This is where The Lonely Planet Story really scores points – and where I wish they’d written more. The first Lonely Planet book came out in the year I was born – 1972 – and it’s almost inconceivable to me how back then Afghanistan was a mecca for travellers, while Bali’s and Thailand’s beaches were only in the first stages of development. The dramatic and rapid changes that have occurred in many places are a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks for the locals, but in terms of telling a story of change, there must be scores of excellent anecdotes with which the Wheelers could have illustrated their book. I don’t mean anecdotes of the “Eee, I remember when all this were green fields” nostalgic variety, but in terms of the good and bad impact of tourism on these places. The Wheelers have a first hand and ongoing, double decade, perspective that few others can match. So it’s a little disappointing that there isn’t more discussion and insight into various destinations then and now, and more of an attempt to capture what the pair of them enjoyed then and prefer now.
The one thing that does get the full timeline treatment is Lonely Planet’s evolvement from being cut and pasted together with foul smelling glue on the kitchen table to its current state of the art digital creative process. Wheeler talks a fair bit about the mechanics of how they put the books together, from the laborious typeset efforts in Singapore hotel rooms through to their early adoption of very clunky computers and on to their forward thinking embrace of the Internet before its potential was widely recognised. These bits might be a bit dull for some, but seeing the transformation of their business through technology was educational for me. Certainly the Wheelers’ “do it yourself” attitude, making do with whatever they could afford t a time rather than procrastinating, should be an inspiration to any travel writer,as the tools to publish and distribute your work are so much easier and more effective thanks to the Net.
Lonely Planet’s success echoes the global explosion of the travel industry and the rise of the backpacker over the last 20 years. As the dominant guidebook company that has set the standard against which all others are judged, Lonely Planet will always attract a huge amount of criticism – usually from the same people clutching a dog eared LP copy moments earlier. (The one issue that Wheeler returns to several times during the course of the book is the criticism they received for publishing “Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma)” – clearly it still rankles). But it’s easy to underestimate the importance of their original stance – independent travel is easy and won’t cost a fortune – and easy to forget that the Wheelers have given millions of people, myself included, the first push over the edge to actually go and travel and see some of the world. While The Lonely Planet Story may be quite dry reading in parts, there’s no doubting that the Wheelers’ passion and fascination for travel remains undimmed, and their enthusiasm is well captured by this sprint through their remarkable travel and business history.