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How Lonely Planet helped shape travel culture

How Lonely Planet helped shape travel culture

Brendan Sainsbury looks down the 50-year trail travelled by the famous travel guidebook company

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first Lonely Planet guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap, a 96-page manual of hippy-era budgetary advice which ultimately grew into a multimillion-pound publishing phenomenon covering practically every country in the world from Egypt to East Timor.

The Wheelers and first guidebooks 

Founded in the pre-backpacker days of the 1970s, the company’s beginnings were inauspicious. Conceived almost by accident, the wheels were first set in motion when Tony and Maureen Wheeler—newly married after meeting on a bench in London’s Regent’s Park—decided to embark on an ambitious overland journey from the UK to Australia in an old Austin minivan they’d bought in London for £65.

Selling the car in Afghanistan for a small profit, the couple switched to alternative means of transport, zigzagging in buses, trucks and trains between Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore, to Bali where they hitched a ride on a yacht to Australia. They arrived in Sydney just after Christmas in 1972 with only 27 cents between them. Thirty-five years later they sold Lonely Planet to the BBC for an estimated $133 million.

Bangkok

Lonely Planet was born from an overland journey from the UK to Australia

Across Asia on the Cheap wasn’t a pre-planned book. Rather, it was written in retrospect to parry the incessant “how-did-you-do-it?” questions of people the couple subsequently met in Australia. Cobbled together in a basement flat in Sydney and relying mainly on memory and rough notes, the thin, stapled-together tome covered over a dozen countries and was stuffed with indispensable, if sketchy, baby boomer advice on where to buy a forged student card and how to score cheap marijuana (“In Afghanistan in particular you can get stoned just taking a deep breath in the streets”).

"Across Asia on the Cheap was written in retrospect to parry the incessant “how-did-you-do-it?” questions"

In the days of tumbling airfares and increasing global connectivity, the book filled a gap in the market and gained a cult following, resonating amongst an emerging cohort of time-rich, cash-poor travellers with a lust for adventure and a desire to replicate what the Wheelers had done.

Encouraged by the book’s success, the couple set off again in 1975 to research a follow-up. Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was put together in a backstreet hotel in Singapore with more detailed research and better planning than its predecessor. Young wannabe globetrotters lapped it up and soon the fledgling company—christened “Lonely Planet” after the misheard lyric of a Joe Cocker song—began to grow profitable, enabling the Wheelers to give up their day-jobs and hire extra staff.

India and success  

The real game-changer came in 1981 when Lonely Planet released India, A Travel Survival Kit, a 696-page epic that became the first definitive shoestring guide to a country then on every youthful free-spirit’s radar. It sold in droves and a successful new brand was born. 

For the Wheelers, who were always more DIY travellers than businesspeople, the success was a question of right time, right place. Most guidebooks up until that point had been formulaic and dull, covering and re-covering the same old places with the predictability and staidness of a glossy tourist brochure. Lonely Planet books, by contrast, were casual, chatty and curious. They talked to their readers directly. They were always looking for what was around the next corner

India

Lonely Planet was a new, friendlier style of travel guide

New country followed new country. Within two decades, the company had remapped the world cataloguing places that no one else bothered to write about and tapping into a new travel zeitgeist, led by a generation of itchy-footed inbetweeners known as “backpackers”. 

As amateurish as the early books might have been, they struck a chord. To anyone who travelled in the 1980s and 1990s, buying a Lonely Planet was like purchasing a much-sought-after piece of vinyl. There was something exciting and transformative about it. Stacked alongside your Pink Floyd and David Bowie albums, the books were tangible, reusable objects, put on your shelf to be referenced, admired, and shown off to friends. You wore them like a badge, a mark of who you were and where you’d been.  

Travel “bibles” 

As the company spread its tentacles around the world a powerful new influence was unleashed. The books became known as travellers’ “bibles”, essential reading companions for a fast-growing demographic of restless twenty-somethings on gap-years. It was as if the Wheelers had unwittingly crossed Which? magazine with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Readers followed their recommendations religiously. A mention in the Lonely Planet could make or break a local business. From Vietnam to Varanasi, struggling independent entrepreneurs would desperately clamour to be listed.

"Readers followed their recommendations religiously"

In time, the books gave birth to what became known as the “Banana Pancake Trail”, a network of cheap guesthouses and cafes in Southeast Asia crammed with comfort food-seeking LP devotees whose unofficial hub was Bangkok’s Khao San Road.

Hostel

Lonely Planet gave rise to a network of cheap hostels for budget backpackers

They also attracted notoriety. In the 1980s, Africa on the Cheap was banned in Malawi for its criticisms of the country’s then president, Dr Hastings Banda. Not to be put off, diehard travellers would turn up at the border with either the offending pages ripped out or the real guide sequestered beneath the cover of another book. 

Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the US military apparently used Lonely Planet’s Middle East guide for information on the economy and government buildings. 

From Asia to the world 

Asia was Lonely Planet’s original stomping ground, but the company quickly spread its wings. A debut Africa guide was commissioned in 1977 written, astonishingly, by just one person, the late Geoff Crowther who also researched the entire continent of South America on his own before the advent of the internet and the mobile phone.  

"Asia was Lonely Planet’s original stomping ground, but the company quickly spread its wings"

By the 1990s, Lonely Planet was publishing all-budget guides to Europe and specialist diving and snorkelling books. A decade later, a new generation of “city guides” included five-star hotel listings and kids’ activities, while the ever more encyclopaedic Africa book was being researched by a team of over 20 writers.  

Survival in the internet age 

Travel has changed exponentially in the 50 years since the company was founded in 1973, but while mobile apps and the internet may have marked the death knell of letters and postcards, they don’t appear to have killed off Lonely Planet. The business, now owned by American-based company Red Ventures, still produces a library’s-worth of guidebooks, as well as offering apps, videos, phrasebooks, and a comprehensive website.   

Its survival, in many ways, is down to its ability to adapt to the ever-changing vicissitudes of international travel, to attract an audience of Millennials and Gen Z-ers without alienating the gung-ho baby boomers of yore (who, these days, are as likely to be wearing a pacemaker as a tie-dye t-shirt). It’s a tricky tightrope walk.

Modern Lonely Planet guides won’t tell you how to forge a student card or sell a car in Kabul, but they still somehow manage to embrace the inquisitive travellers’ spirit epitomized in Tony Wheeler’s original call to arms: “All you've got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go!” 

Brendan Sainsbury has written or co-written 62 Lonely Planet guidebooks

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