Life

How Lonely Planet sparked a travel revolution: 'It's a good thing to go places'

One couple's love of travel turned into Lonely Planet – a treasure trove of wisdom used by millions of people to travel well on a budget

Lonely planet founders

Left: A 1950s rickshaw in Karachi, Pakistan Right: The Wheelers in Dunedin, New Zealand, 1974 Images: Tony/Maureen Wheeler

Fifty years ago, a book changed the world. It changed the way we navigated places and experienced different cultures. And it all came about by accident. 

In October 1973, the first in what would become the Lonely Planet imprint was published. The previous year, newlyweds Tony and Maureen Wheeler had left England with £400 between them, a second-hand
minivan bought for £50 and an aim to reach Australia, but not much of a plan beyond that. 

“When Maureen and I met, one of the first topics of conversation was travel, so travel had always been on our itinerary from the start,” Tony Wheeler tells The Big Issue. 

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“We just decided we would do the Asia Overland Trip (later better known as ‘the hippie trail’). The plan was we would leave London, we would get to Australia, we would spend all the money we had to get there. Then we would work in Australia – because at that time, you didn’t need a visa, you could just turn up – for a few months and then fly back to London.  

“But we had so much fun that we decided we’d spend another year getting back. People kept asking us: What did you do? Where did you go? How did you do it? So we made a book out of it, and away we went.” 

That book was called Across Asia on the Cheap and the Lonely Planet story began. Along with it, a travel revolution. 

In 50 years, Lonely Planet guides have sold over 150 million copies. Through the decades they allowed explorers to venture off the beaten path, on a budget that opened up travelling to everybody.  

“Looking back, if you were really an economiser you did one of two things. You either stayed in youth hostels or you camped,” Wheeler says. 

“Backpacker hostels were starting up, and they were taking on youth hostels, but the youth hostels had this sort of holier than thou thing; you had to do your duties and there was a curfew. And my god, don’t let them think that anybody who stayed in a youth hostel had ever had a beer in their life.” 

Backpacker hostels mushroomed in previously undiscovered countries thanks to guidebooks literally putting new places on the map, but Lonely Planet’s horizons broadened as tourists’ did too. 

“The very first couple of books we did were really aimed at backpackers. Backpackers and nothing else,” Wheeler remembers. “But when we did a guidebook to Nepal – it was our third or fourth book – we thought this is crazy. It’s the only guidebook anyone’s ever done at that time on Nepal. To have a whole book only for backpackers when there are people going there with money, that’s crazy. So that book covered the expensive places as well. And it’s been that way ever since.” 

The Wheelers sold the company 15 years ago for what’s reported to be well over £100 million, but their passion for travel hasn’t dimmed. While the couple remain predominantly based in Australia, this interview was arranged when Tony Wheeler, now 76, was in Belgium; we spoke while he visited London then images were sent over from his layover in São Paulo airport after a trip to Iguazu Falls. In half a century, travel has transformed the world and all of us, for better or worse. Is it possible to still find the paths less beaten, to have the kind of adventures the Wheelers experienced 50 years ago? 

“Yeah, I really think so,” Wheeler says. “I read something recently about JFK’s daughter going back to the beach where her father swam ashore after his patrol boat was wrecked off the Solomon Islands. There’s a backpacker place within view of it. When I was there, I then flew up to a place a bit further off the beaten track. There was nowhere to stay at all. But I did have a very old Lonely Planet guide to the Solomons. And it said, go to the church and ask them about their guesthouse. So I went to the church and sure enough, they did have a guesthouse. I paid a dollar or two for a night there – great.” 

Even in the most remote places, you can still access the internet on your smartphone. Has that removed the mystery and romance? 

“Well, you can always leave your phone behind,” Wheeler says. “I wouldn’t be without my phone. I don’t think it hurts. Sometimes if there’s a choice between the flea-bitten dive and the five-star hotel, I’m in the five-star hotel. I can afford it. But very often you’ve got no choice. Every now and then I’ve stayed in places and I think, I hope I don’t die tonight because it’d be embarrassing to have my body found in this.” 

Guidebooks can still be indispensable when it comes to avoiding the dives and uncovering hidden treasures. Wheeler loves to see the “battered and beaten” copies of Lonely Planet. While Lonely Planet books originally focused on how to travel on a shoestring, spending as little as possible, today’s travellers have to travel with as small a carbon footprint as possible. Environmental concerns could turn the clock back on our jet-setting lifestyles as we return to the kind of slow, low-impact travel the Wheelers were pioneering in the 1970s. 

“Someone like me who travels a lot, you feel guilty, there’s no question about that,” Wheeler says. “I’ve done quite a lot of train travel this year. Air travel does have a bad name. But it ain’t the only bad thing you can do in this world. 

“It’s only in recent years – in my lifetime – we’ve all started to be able to travel the way we have. For a lot of people, it’s more recent than that. I mean, Lonely Planet sells a hell of a lot of guides in China. I’ve bumped into young Chinese travellers in strange places and I can see they’ve got their Chinese Lonely Planet guidebook. If there’s enough English between us, I can ask them what they think.” 

Balancing our need to travel more responsibility, as the world is opening up for populations of countries for the first time, means what tourism will look like 50 years from now is anybody’s guess. But Wheeler believes travelling will still be a crucial part of life. 

“Fifty years from now, what does the world look like? I mean, global warming. Half the world is cooking and Australia has had two great ski seasons in a row. 

“But travel is the only way we really communicate. If we do it through the media, we’d think that every place in the world is a disaster and we shouldn’t be there and when you get there you find that the Iranians are not that bad. Their government’s fucking awful, but the people of Iran are terrific.  

“It’s a good thing to go places.” 

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