23 Jan 2010
We were truly fortunate to have the honor of hearing Tony Wheeler - the Founder of the iconic and essential Lonely Planet guides in conversation with William Dalrymple.
Tony seemed a little reticent when it came to speaking and Dalrymple skillfully guided him on a memory trail by questioning him about the key turning points in his life.
Tony Wheeler started his life by living in Karachi and the Bahamas before his family moved to Detroit. He remembers feeling at that time that "You should always be slightly uncomfortable, if you aren't uncomfortable, you can't enjoy it"
While Tony loved travelling and writing, it was his wife Maureen Wheeler who kept the company running, even going as far as to say "Lonely Planet would not have started without you Tony, but it would have fallen flat on its face without me"
When he first started travelling independently, there were very few guide books available in the market, the notable ones at that time were Merry's Guide to India (1970) and the Bit's Guide.
In those days Thailand saw maybe a 100,000 tourists in a year. Today the number stands at 8 Million a year. In those days Singapore had character, but today it is an air conditioned shopping center.
He recounted his passport being stamped "SHIT" at the Malaysian border, allegedly standing for Suspected Hippie in Transit.
The first Lonely Planet was started in October 1973. He and Maureen had landed in Australia with no money and he had to pawn his camera to be able to buy food. 8500 copies were printed of the first edition of the LP. Today these originals are collectors editions.
He is sometimes asked if it is ethical to puiblish LP guides for places like Burma. Isn't there a moral responsibility? His response is that the more people that visit, the more the points of contact. Engaging with countires on a non-diplomatic platform has its own effect and makes a difference to the traveller and the people from the host country that he/she comes in contact with.
LP was recently sold to BBC worldwide (he declined to specify the price), but he and Maureen have retained a substantial minority of the shares. The reason they sold to BBC was that they felt it was a good, responsible company which shared a similar vision to them.
He also promised that the LP magazine would soon be launched in India.
When asked if the internet and other modern technologies like Kindle and internet access on phones would kill travel guides like the LP he closed the session by saying "If you drop your LP in the water, you can pick it out, dry it and reuse it. If you drop your kindle in water, throw it out and forget about it."