Wheeler’s first-class operation
Sun., Jan. 23, 2005
UBUD, Indonesia – While backpackers around the world use Lonely Planet guidebooks to search out the cheapest hostels or flights, its publisher has had enough of budget travel. He goes first-class.
“I can do things in comfort now,” said Tony Wheeler, head of one of the biggest travel book companies in the world with annual revenues of $58 million.
The Australia-based company started off in the 1970s catering to travelers doing things on the cheap. But these days, those who buy its 650 titles – which cover almost the entire world – are as likely to be business travelers or vacationing families as they are backpackers.
Wheeler is also anticipating the travel guide of the future – one that is accessed electronically.
“Look what happened to encyclopedias. The model worked wonderfully for a century and then just fell over. It could easily happen to us,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a literature festival in this Balinese hill town.
The future guide book, he said, is a “mobile phone, my handheld computer and a global positioning system all molded together. You call up Italian restaurants, and find one that looks nice, and then a little arrow points it’s that direction for 480 meters, and then it phones up for you and books a table.”
Wheeler and his wife Maureen wrote Lonely Planet’s first book, “Across Asia on the Cheap,” in 1972 after the pair made an overland journey from London to Australia.
It was an instant success – and things just kept on getting better. Nowadays, so many backpackers travel with Lonely Planet guides that a recommendation in it for a hotel or restaurant can guarantee success for that establishment.
“When we started out we were doing books for backpackers because we were young and penniless,” he said. “I was so young back then, I’d talk about people in expensive hotels like they were creatures from another planet.”
The company’s profits have been helped by an aggressive presence on the Internet. Visitors to the Web site ( www.lonelyplanet.com) can buy its books, as well as flights, travel insurance and hotel rooms through links to selected companies.
Though he may travel first class, Wheeler still dresses like a backpacker. He turned up for this interview in an Ubud cafe in sandals and a floppy hat, carrying a battered rucksack over one shoulder.
Lonely Planet is so ubiquitous that it is even cited by critics who say tourism, especially in developing countries, is replacing local cultures with Western consumer lifestyles – a charge Wheeler defends.
“Things change, and we are one of the factors in that change,” he said. “It is a shame in some way, but I don’t think anyone in Singapore is saying take us back to the ‘60s, ‘50s or ‘40s. It is very selfish for us to think people should stay simple and things were nicer when they didn’t have electricity.”
He also dismisses arguments that the increasing popularity of once-remote locations is spoiling the travel experience.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not the first person up the mountain, but the 10,000th. The view is just as good,” he said.
After 30 years crisscrossing the globe for work and pleasure, Wheeler still travels around six months of the year. In 2004, he went to Iran and Libya and spent a month in Europe.
“I have got a list of places I want to go and I’m not going to tick them off before the end of my life unfortunately,” he said.
“Ethiopia, it really is time I went there. Overland from Singapore to China – just to see how it works. Transiberian Express. It drives me crazy I haven’t done it.”
In November, the company released its first travel guide to East Timor, which Wheeler wrote and researched himself. The tiny country has great beaches and a rich Portuguese heritage, and is now peaceful after its bloody break from Indonesian rule in 1999.
Wheeler says he “might just break even” from the book, but that publishing it was important to show that company “was still going to that sort of place.”
“Some of these places we do make no sense at all, you do them because it’s fun to do them,” he said. “If people are going somewhere odd, the first thing they think of is Lonely Planet.”
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