What do you do if at 26 you have travelled half the world and visited a hundred countries' For Tony Wheeler, co-founder and director of Lonely Planet Publications, the answer's obvious: 'Write a book.' The automotive engineer and management graduate recently made a whistle-stop tour of India's top cities to promote awareness about this country as a tourist destination. Says Wheeler: 'India has to aggressively promote itself. It must convince the world that it's a fun place and with all the Bollywood and software influence, it has only one way to go ' up!' During his trip, Wheeler revisited the sites he wrote about two decades ago in his path-breaking guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap.
Lonely Planet travel guides inevitably find their way into tourists handbaggage in countries as far apart as Bolivia and Khazakhstan. They're filled with information about the destination, its weather, history, politics, economics, religion, lodging and how much to bargain. They are, in short, a must-have for people who love travelling or reading about faraway places. With over 650 titles, Lonely Planet is among the world's leading travel publication houses, considered a 'Bible among travel guides'.
The brand's strength lies in its content ' practical, entertaining and unbiased information produced by independent travellers for independent travellers. Says Wheeler, 'A guidebook must say much more than how to get to your destination. The information must be comprehensive and include all aspects of the destination. I feel that anyone visiting a country must understand it not only geographically, but also emotionally and culturally. Hence, my books include all aspects including religion and its many conflicts.'
As a travel guide, the Lonely Planet series flies off the shelves at a remarkable rate, picked up even by historians, librarians and book-collectors. 'The comprehensive and easy-to-understand information is what attracts readers,' says Wheeler. He adds, 'I know many people, who buy the guidebooks just because they are a good read. Bhutan is an example. There are more Bhutan guidebooks in circulation than there are people visiting it.'
It's quite a change from 31 years ago, when Wheeler set out on a journey around the globe with his wife in tow. The only thought in his mind: 'Let's get travel out of our system', laughs the Australian, who was born in England but grew up all over the world. His father worked in an airline company and Wheeler's childhood was spent in places like Pakistan, the West Indies and the US. Says Wheeler, who is now based in Australia, 'Every few years, my father would get posted to some far-off place, so that's how I got to see the world.'
In the autumn of 1972, Wheeler and wife Maureen set off on an overland trip to Asia. A year later they arrived in Australia with 27 cents, a camera and a diary full of notes. 'We were bombarded with questions from people ' 'How did you travel' 'What did you see' 'What did it cost you' This inspired us to turn our diaries into a book ' Across Asia on the Cheap,' he says. The hand-trimmed and hand-stapled book sold 1,500 copies in a week. Eighteen months later, in a backstreet hotel in Singapore, the couple bought out their second guide ' South-East Asia on a shoestring. Published in 1975, the book came to be known as the 'yellow Bible' because of its distinctive yellow cover.
Starting off with just two people, Lonely Planet today is a 900-member publishing house with offices across the globe. 'Travel writing is hard work. One always has to be on the move, clarify the facts and update older editions but between Maureen and I we manage to fit in several trips every year,' adds the writer-cum-publisher, who insists on updating every title on a yearly basis.
Besides working on regular travel guides, Wheeler has also co-authored travel books like Time & Tide and Chasing Rickshaws, a pictorial essay of rickshaws in South-East Asia. Then, there's The Islands of Tuvalu, Snapshots of life in the South Pacific and Rice Trails: A Journey Through the Ricelands of Asia and Australia.
His travel guidebook on The Falklands & South Georgia Island and East Timor is yet to be published. 'It's been 31 years but I haven't got tired of travelling. Given the chance, I'll jump at it again. At last count, I have yet to visit another 110 countries. Most people don't believe it but I haven't yet visited Ethiopia, Mali and Mongolia,' he says.
Between his travels and publishing deadlines Wheeler reads a bit, watches movies, listens to music, visits the theatre and scuba dives. Adventure sports, another favourite hobby, too, is coming under the scanner and he's gearing for yet another travel guide on adventure sports. In short, he's one of the world's lucky few who've been able to turn their hobby into a business ' and ended up becoming rich.
Photograph by Gajanan Dudhalkar