Readers from Asia the next chapter for travel icon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

The world has come full circle for Tony and Maureen Wheeler, a once-hippy couple whose homemade book on Asia laid the foundations for a travel guide empire.

While Lonely Planet held the hand of western backpackers exploring exotic new climes, people in the places most written about are now being targeted as the next generation of readers.

You only need to count the number of Chinese - and other Asian faces - at today's top tourist spots to get an idea of why BBC Worldwide last week paid an estimated A$200 million (HK$1.36 billion) for a majority stake in the iconic publisher. The opportunities for informing burgeoning Asian middle classes are not lost on Maureen Wheeler, who will remain on the board of the company she co-founded.

She recalls a poignant conversation with a young man in China.

'For years I watched all these travellers coming to China with their Lonely Planet,' he told her. 'I don't know if I will ever be able to travel or go overseas, but now I can buy a Lonely Planet in Chinese and dream of being like everyone else.'

Back in the mid-1970s, only 200,000 international visitors crossed China's borders each year. Last year the figure jumped to more than 20 million, and a lot of them came armed with one of Lonely Planet's guidebooks. If current growth rates continue, China is set to become the most visited country within a decade.

That many of those visitors will come from other Asian nations has not been lost on companies like Lonely Planet, which is already producing guidebooks in Japanese, Korean and, of course, Chinese.

Today the company targets the rising number of Chinese travelling abroad - last year 34 million of them did so.

But Maureen Wheeler envisages regional guides aimed at the exploding number of domestic Chinese tourists.

It is just one ambitious strategy the commercial arm of Britain's national broadcaster hopes to capitalise on.

BBC Worldwide's international director, Ian Watson, describes the potential as 'phenomenal'.

Although Lonely Planet has offices in London and Oakland, near San Francisco, Mr Watson will spend the next three months 'bedding down' the new business at its headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray. Tony Wheeler is at pains to point out that his company has always been a global entity, although it will remain based in Australia.

'One thing [the BBC] will not do is buy in and ship it back to England,' he says.

For the Wheelers, the sale marks the end of a journey that began in 1973 after a honeymoon spent travelling overland from Britain to Asia and then on to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney with just 27 cents, they wrote Across Asia on the Cheap at the kitchen table of their basement flat. Then they persuaded bookshops to stock the account - which was trimmed and stapled by hand - and used the proceeds from the 8,500 sales to go travelling again.

Lonely Planet now publishes more than 500 travel-related titles in several languages, and last year about 7 million books were sold. But with sales of traditional guidebooks starting to slip in established western markets, online content emerged as the key area of growth.

In recent years the company has set up the popular Thorn Tree travel forum, a TV series and even a hotel booking service.

But the Wheelers recognised a new partner was required to fully exploit the internet's potential, and were more than happy when the rapidly expanding arm of the BBC came calling.

Initially, enhanced video content looks set to transform Lonely Planet's web presence, but Mr Watson is excited by the prospect of providing a new generation of Chinese and Indian travellers with must-have printed information.

'Both of these markets are incredibly important,' he says, acknowledging that piracy and 'political sensitivities' - or censorship - continue to present challenges for global investors in China.

Talks will be held with Lonely Planet's mainland publishing partner, aimed at increasing the company's 13 per cent market share in China.

The Wheelers, who retain a 25 per cent share in the business, started out by showing westerners Asia. 'Now we want to help those in Asia to come and see a bit of us,' says Maureen Wheeler.