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Asia travel

Lonely Planet founder reprises original trip - on budget airlines

Tony Wheeler, who started the travel guides in 1973, took 22 different budget airline flights from London to Melbourne, recreating the first epic journey that inspired it all

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:34pm

Tony Wheeler famously started the Lonely Planet series of travel guides in 1973 after embarking from London in a minivan, driving through the “hippie backpacker trail” in Asia and finally arriving in Sydney, where he and his wife Maureen had 27 cents between them.

After selling the Lonely Planet enterprise for US$133 million in 2007 to the BBC, Wheeler, 66, no longer needs to travel on the cheap. Nevertheless, there he was taking 22 different budget airline flights earlier this year from London to Melbourne, Australia, in a month-long reprise of his first epic journey.

It wasn’t nearly as romantic – the cramped airplanes seats, tedious airport security and delays - “but I enjoyed it, I really did”, Wheeler said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on the Indonesian island of Bali at the weekend.

His new book, which is not yet published, also looks back at the history of air travel in the region, and chronicles the startling growth of budget airline and the characters who started them. Tony and Maureen started the guidebooks based on the diaries of his original trip. The books, originally pitched toward the young baby boomer backpack generation that was discovering Asia, changed over time. 

“The early books we wrote for ourselves. And then as we got older and wealthier and had kids, the books changed with us. It wasn’t a deliberate policy. We changed and the books changed, too.”

Wheeler said he was bitterly disappointed with how BBC handled Lonely Planet, which sold the franchise to Kentucky tobacco billionaire Brad Kelley in 2013 at a steep loss. “It was a total disaster. They bought the Lonely Planet car. They should have put some fuel in the tank, and put it flat to the floor. Instead they got in the car, and said ‘what do we do?’ Let’s drive slowly.’”

In any case, the travel guide industry has matured, he said.

“No one’s going to do what we did all those years ago. If you’re going to be doing something now, it will be entirely different, something nobody’s foreseen yet. I don’t know what that is. If I did, I’d do it myself.”

What he continues to do is travel and write. When Wheeler first heard U.S. President George W. Bush speak of the “axis of evil”, his first thought was “I’ve got to go there!”

The result was a 2010 book called “Bad Lands”, which took him to the three “axis” countries of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and another half-dozen countries with unsavoury reputations. He followed that with a book called “Dark Lands”, in which he visited an array of dysfunctional countries.

The common criteria for these places: “It’s got to be edgy”, a challenge to get into and risky to be in, he said. 

Reuters