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My life: Tony Wheeler

The Lonely Planet founder tells Tim Pile how it all started, how it's all changing and where's next on the itinerary

 

ON A SHOESTRING In 1972, when we had been married for only six months, my wife, Maureen, and I bought an old car for £60 and drove from London to Kabul. When we got there we sold it for a small profit and from Afghanistan we continued through Southeast Asia and ended up sailing from Bali to Australia by yacht. While living in Sydney, we found people were interested in where we'd been and how we'd done it so we decided to publish Across Asia on the Cheap and that's how Lonely Planet started. The book sold well and inspired us to write Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, so we spent 1974 back on the road. Ours was the first guide to a region that wasn't well known as a tourist destination at that time.

 

CHANGING TIDES We were definitely shoestring travellers. We wrote guides for young people like us, who travelled slowly and lived on a budget. There's a lot of talk today about how tourism damages the environment but I think there are compensating factors. Shoestring travellers have more contact with locals and tend to put money into local communities rather than multinational companies. Lots of places rely on tourism and would be in far worse shape if people stopped visiting. Travel has changed: placing an international phone call used to take hours, if you could get through at all. In the days before e-mail you would go to post offices en route, sift through a pile of mail looking for letters from home and sit on the steps of your hotel to read them. Some of the romance has gone and I'm glad I had those experiences. It's still a habit of mine to note down the hotels I stay in and how much they cost. Earlier this year, I paid US$12 for a room in a church mission guesthouse in the Solomon Islands.

 

BACK FOR MORE I always enjoy coming back to Hong Kong. I've stayed in Chungking Mansions quite a few times and I wouldn't feel I'd been to Hong Kong if I didn't go in and change some money or have a curry. I don't stay there any more, though. In the 1970s, one of the first things you did when you came here was to go up to the border and look into China, which was inaccessible to tourists at the time. Far more places around the world are open for travel than there used to be. I've recently been to the Congo, Colombia, Papua and New Guinea, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Israel, Palestine and Pakistan researching my next book, which I think might be called Travels in Fairytale Lands. I'd really like to get to Yemen and I haven't been to many of the "stans".

 

GUIDING PRINCIPLES Guidebooks help you get to grips with places quickly. They help you find your way from the train station to a hotel when you arrive in an unfamiliar town. They educate, explain things and make sure you don't miss the highlights. I really like it when someone gets a kick out of using one of our guides, particularly if it takes them to places they wouldn't normally consider visiting.

There have been a few Tony Wheeler impersonators over the years but people are more likely to try and pass themselves off as Lonely Planet travel writers. We received a phone call from a company in New Zealand saying, "We've got one of your guys here and he wants a free bus pass. Should we give it to him?" This was a surprise - we weren't updating the New Zealand guide for another year.

 

SOME YOU WIN, SOME YOU LOSE A few Lonely Planet projects weren't managed as well as they should have been. Our attempt at publishing maps didn't go well and we brought out a series of diving guides approached in the wrong way. We ended up pulling them off the shelves and having a rethink. Our phrasebooks are much more successful. When we started them I never thought we'd be able to compete with Berlitz. They covered major languages like French and German while we had Indonesian and Thai. We continued adding titles and at some point I realised we were producing more phrasebooks than they were.

 

AN EMPTY BUCKET LIST One of the things I've promised never to say to people is, "You should have seen it back then." That said, I do have fond memories of our first visit to Bali. I still enjoy the island but in a different way. I returned to Phuket last year and thought, "Never again." I spent time in Croatia, which was very nice, and I couldn't work out why it was less overrun than Phuket. Nepal has long been a favourite, but it's constructing a road that will run alongside the Annapurna Trail. Build the road by all means but not right next to the trail. A few years ago, I made a bucket list of places that I was keen to visit. I've knocked most of them off now, including the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan, which I got to this year. The only one I still haven't done is a Trans-Siberian railway journey.

 

THIRTY-THREE TO GO I've met [BBC travel-show presenter] Michael Palin a few times but I don't know whether I've been to more countries than he has. I'm at 160, although my wife says it's nerdy of me to know the exact number. I count Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong in my list. According to the UN there are 193 member states but I prefer [rock musician] Frank Zappa's definition of a country: you need an airline, a football team and a beer.

 

 

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