Interview - Lonely Planet - Tony Wheeler

Travelling Man
Interview with Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler
Pictures courtesy of Lonely Planet Publications

When Tony and Maureen Wheeler left London in 1972, all they wanted to do was see a bit of the world and make it to Sydney in time for Christmas. After six months of roughing it on the open road, they rolled across the famous Harbour Bridge with less than a dollar to their name but a wealth of experience. They wrote up the information they had gathered and Across Asia on the Cheap was born. More than 30 years later, Lonely Planet Publications boasts more than 500 titles and the man the New York Times once dubbed the “patron saint of backpackers’’ is a very wealthy man.
We caught up with Tony in Bangkok, where he had come to speak at a travel industry conference about the growing threat of climate change. An engaging, slightly built man, Tony talked candidly about how he feels Thailand has coped with mass tourism, Lonely Planet’s sometimes contentious image and selling the company to the BBC.

So, here we are sitting in the Author’s Lounge at the Bangkok Oriental, one of the finest hotels in the world. It’s a long way from the flophouses you used in the early Seventies. Is it first class all the way now?
[laughing] Mostly, but not all. I’ve actually stayed in two backpacker places in the last month, in Colombia. There was a particular town I wanted to go to that was famous for scuba diving, and it was a backpacker place. You know, if you want to go this town, you’re going to be staying in a backpacker place. But I started and finished my trip in Bogotá, where I stayed at a very nice 4-star hotel.

You’re here in Bangkok to talk at a conference on climate change. Do you think that the travel industry is doing its fair share to address the problems?
Global warming and climate change are a reality. There are some people who deny it, but I’m certainly not one of them.
The travel industry as a whole is getting a lot of criticism at the moment, and rightly so. The industry has to help improve things, but so far it has been very bad about dealing with its environmental impact. It has said, “Yes, we’re worried, we’re concerned,” but then they’ve put their heads down and done nothing about it.
It’s been particularly bad in this region; trying to get an Asian airline interested has been almost impossible. It’s been like “Oh no, it’s not us.” At least Cathay, and maybe one or two other airlines, have been interested.
I think airlines and other sectors have to show they’re doing something positive. I mean, there’s no question that airlines have improved incredibly. Planes are certainly much more fuel efficient than they were 20, 30 years ago. But the industry needs to show what’s already been done and what they plan to do in the future.

Towards the end of last year, after more than 30 years of running your own company, BBC Worldwide acquired a majority share of Lonely Planet. Why the change?
My wife, Maureen, and I were ready. We’ve been backseat drivers for several years now, and we felt we were no longer doing as good a job as we wanted. So the time was right to bite the bullet and make a change. And just at that moment, BBC Worldwide popped up.
In many ways my role hasn’t changed that much. My wife and I are still shareholders in the company, so we’re still bonded with Lonely Planet. I go to meetings and I do a fair amount of travelling and talking about the company and I’m still very much the face of the company, but we’ve given up the day-to-day role.
I’ve always enjoyed road-testing the guides, you know, seeing if they work and seeing if they do what they should do. I also write a lot myself – articles and blogs mostly – but I’m not doing the big guides any more. I’ve had enough of that.
We’re happy to have more professional people doing it, and we’re only going to stay as long as they want us around. Likewise, if the BBC does anything we’re not happy with, which they have every right to because they own it, I’d be out the door. But so far, it’s been very good. We’ve been very happy.

Is Lonely Planet going to continue to publish books on Burma?
Yes, that would be a deal-breaker. If the BBC succumbed to pressure and decided to drop the Burma guide… it wouldn’t be the Lonely Planet that I started, and I wouldn’t want to be involved with it.
While I respect [Burmese opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi as much as you possibly could, I don’t think anyone’s going to go to Burma for the beaches; I think anyone who goes there is going to be very aware of the situation there. Overall I think there are positive reasons that outweigh the negatives.
We did the Burma guide for 20 years before anyone complained. I think it was around the late ‘90s before we became a target of protests, portrayed as an evil company along with TOTAL oil and so on. So I went back, purely because of the complaints. I was thinking, you know “Have I misread this? Have I missed something?” But no, there was nothing to make me think I had misread the situation.

Some people say Lonely Planet is partly responsible for destinations losing their magic and creating a “banana pancake trail” — the so-called Lonely-Planetisation of the world.
Oh, there’s no question we are responsible. It’s true. But on the other hand, we didn’t expand Thai Airways’ fleet from ten aircraft to 100, you know. We didn’t build 50 new hotels in Bangkok. I don’t think you’d find many Thais saying, “Oh, let’s go back to the days when I didn’t have a motorbike, and if I had a job I was lucky.”

How do you think Thailand has handled the tourism explosion?
I think in many ways Thailand has managed tourism very well. But on the other hand, the industry here is now a lot bigger and a lot more competitive. I doubt that if you had a little hostel on Khao San Road, back when there were only three or four places to stay, you would like to think that in five years time there would be so much competition.
But, overall, I think it’s a country that’s done amazingly well out of tourism. In ’72, it was an incredibly exotic destination. I only really knew about the musical The King and I and Siamese cats before coming here. If you wanted to eat Thai food in 1972, you had to come to Thailand.
There weren’t many Thai restaurants outside Thailand. I was in San Francisco in ’85 when the first Thai restaurant opened and we all went.
Now it’s a justifiably loved destination. It has its problems like anywhere else but I think it does most things well and some things exceptionally well.

Citylife, July 2008

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