Tony Wheeler founded Lonely Planet in late 1973 after a six-month overland trip across Asia that resulted in Across Asia on the Cheap. Today the company has become the world’s largest independent guidebook publisher with more than 500 titles in print and over 400 employees. We met to talk about his most recent book, Bad Lands, part travelogue, part social and political commentary.
You seem to have covered vast swathes of the globe even as a child. Where and why did you venture and what was it like at such a young age?
My childhood travels were strictly business, there are embassy-kids, armed forces-kids, airline-kids etc, and I was the latter. So I grew up in Pakistan, the Bahamas and the USA, until I was 16 and finally got back to the UK. I had some great times.
Did you make the trip across Asia with the guide in mind or was it ‘accidental’?
A complete accident.
When you set up Lonely Planet did you ever imagine you’d have the success you have had?
It still scares me.
What were the biggest challenges to Lonely Planet in achieving that success? And how were you affected by 9/11?
Early on it’s simple – succeed or fail is like fly or crash; if it gets off the ground that’s all you ask. Later the challenges are more complex and may be bigger but somehow they’re also more remote. 9/11 was a huge problem, as it was for anyone in travel.
What developments can we look forward to at Lonely Planet and how will your stance on climate change and the effects of flying affect the company and the guides?
Of course we’re going to see a lot of what we do migrating to new platforms. I keep saying people will still want travel books, whether they’ll be on paper is a different question. And climate change and the ‘should I fly?’ question is going to be huge challenge to anybody involved in travel, but we’re not going to solve the problem by sitting on our hands and saying ‘stay home.’
What advice do you have for someone wanting to become a guidebook writer?
Travel, it’s the only answer.
How did you choose which countries to visit for Bad Lands, other than those that were on the axis of evil list and what did you hope to achieve in visiting them?
They were either countries labelled as pariah countries (Burma as the number one example), or places that had been blacklisted and boycotted (Cuba from the US perspective), or had done bad things (turned out a bunch of guys who wanted to fly planes into buildings, blown up airliners) or were just a little weird (poor little Albania). With all of them I wanted to see if there was a back story, something we didn’t find in the regular media.
What was the worst thing to happen to you while travelling through these Bad Lands? And how does that compare to any other troubling events from previous travels?
Really I had no problems, but then I think the real problem is likely to be a near miss, the guy who was about to mug you but doesn’t, the accident which didn’t quite happen. So perhaps I was lucky. I did realise, late in the game, the guy I was travelling around Afghanistan with was much more worried about my safety than I was!
Which struck you as the best, and which the worst, Bad Land?
I don’t think there’s a best and a worst. If we look at good as how many tourists go there than Cuba has a (comparatively) huge tourist business. Or Burma has virtually no tourists when it has just as much to offer an neighbours like Thailand or Vietnam. Albania hasn’t really been bad at all but has been comprehensively forgotten by the outside world.
We do cover Albania in our Western Balkans book and perhaps it will deserve a book of its own. Similarly we cover Iraq (but only really as a ‘desk job’ in our Middle East guide) and we cover North Korea as comprehensively as it’s possible to cover it in our Korea book (which is South and North Korea). Any of them could generate a stand-alone Lonely Planet guide if a. there were enough visitors to warrant it and b. there was enough freedom to visit to make writing a whole book worthwhile.
Can we look forward to a Good Lands and if so, what would it entail?
Well Simon Calder at The Independent asked me to come up with nine Good Lands to counterpoint my nine Bad Lands. And I did but I’d better not let that one out of the bag until he publishes it! I have thought about Bad Lands II, and I’ve got a chapter about possible contenders at the end of the book.