Skift Q&A: Lonely Planet’s Founder on Ethics and the Future of Travel
Wheeler in what's left of a Panguna copper mine in Papua New Guinea. / Tony Wheeler
The travel word’s biggest source of expert insight may be on to his second act, but he’s still giving stage directions to his first.
When Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen drove overland from Europe through Asia and on to Australia in the early 1970s, they weren’t planning on creating a global travel empire. But forty years later Lonely Planet, the company they founded, is the dominant travel media brand in English (and does well in Spanish, German, French and other languages, too) despite a few hiccups over the last few years.
Since completing his sale of Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide in 2011, Tony Wheeler has continued traveling and writing, as well as supporting his charity Planet Wheeler, which funds projects in the developing world, and joining the board of the small publisher Text.
Tony Wheeler: There were places that I really would like to have covered in the first one. But we’d filled up the book and it was time to call a halt to it. Also it was some places that really just didn’t fit the context of the first book and they were still very interesting countries.
Skift: What draws you to the opposites of the Parises and the Romes and the Londons of the world?
Tony Wheeler: I think these places are always interesting and they’re interesting for entirely different reasons, of course. We go to the Parises and Londons and Romes because they’ve got a lot to attract you there: the food is good, the travel is comfortable, and the hotels are nice. There are all sorts of good reasons for going to those places.
But these places, the hotels are often very un-nice, the food can be terrible, but God, they’re interesting.
I think that’s a large element of it. Some of the countries, I think the Congo for example, I compare that with Brazil and Australia — two big countries with lots of resources and everything essentially works in Brazil and Australia. The Congo, nothing has ever worked and you have to ask yourself, “Why”? I think really similar questions apply to every other country in this book.
Skift: How do you do your ethical best when you go to a place that’s clearly having troubles?
Tony Wheeler: I think it’s not a question of doing your ethical best, it’s a question of just doing it. The other one that struck me in this book, that was an entirely different situation than the Congo, was Pakistan.
We stayed in some wonderful places there. Here’s somebody who set up a very nice hotel or café or restaurant, or Internet café in one place. And they got no visitors.
Nobody’s visiting Pakistan at all, for very good reasons. So your turning up is definitely a good thing as far as they’re concerned. They’re delighted to have you there. It’s again an interesting question, why have they got themselves into this situation?
Skift: One of the things that Lonely Planet is notable for is not making judgements about whether somebody should go to place X or place Y. You’ve basically said, you can go anywhere and here’s how you can get around there to the best of our explaining ability.
Whereas other people make judgements, don’t go to Cuba because of this, or don’t go to Burma because of this. How did you come to that type of thinking?
Tony Wheeler: The place we’ve had that question — I keep saying we, of course it’s not been we for years now. The place that Lonely Planet had that question asked most often was with Myanmar, Burma.
I think it’s a genuine question to ask. My feeling was that people should go. Now everything’s fine, there’s no reason not to go. But at the time when the question was being asked, “should you go there?” my feeling was that, yes, you should go there.
There were lots of good reasons for going there. Virtually any country you look at, you can say, you shouldn’t go there for this reason or you shouldn’t go there for that reason.
If you visit the United States, you’re supporting the U.S. government’s Guantanamo Bay businesses and drones over Pakistan. If you go to Switzerland you’re supporting the Swiss banking operations which allow dictators and unscrupulous people of various sorts to salt their money away somewhere. There’s hardly a country where there isn’t some reason for not going there, and I think Burma is a perfectly good example of that. I think if we’re going to worry about these things, we need to analyze why we’re feeling one way or the other.
Skift: What’s the traveler’s ultimate responsibility to a place that he or she visits?
Tony Wheeler: I think that their ultimate responsibility is to go with an open mind about it. Not to just drift in, thinking this is all fine, not to realize that what you’re doing — even just by being there — does have some sort of impact. Whether you decide at the end it was 51 percent good and 49 percent bad, or 99 percent good and one percent bad. If your impact is 99 percent bad, then you definitely shouldn’t be there.
Skift: A few years ago there was quite a lot of discussion about the carbon footprint of travel.
Tony Wheeler: That’s still the discussion isn’t it. I think every time we get on a plane, or any time we get in a car and drive somewhere, we need to be aware of what we’re doing. I think I’m as guilty as they come, I do a lot of flying. You have to sometimes ask “Why are you doing this”? and if you’re doing it for no good reason at all, then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it.
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Skift: Switching gears a little bit, but also speaking of petrol: It’s the 40th anniversary of Lonely Planet this year and its origin story involves driving across Asia in the early seventies. What do you think the equivalent of that trip is these days?
Tony Wheeler: To my mind that trip was so fantastic, it was probably the best trip I ever did. I’ll never get an opportunity to do that sort of trip again. Part of that is because when you’re young and it’s the first big trip you’ve done it has an impact on you that you’re never able to duplicate later on.
I think that if someone wanted to set out now and have a mind-blowing experience doing some big trip, they could do it. Perhaps Asia could be the theme, go to Singapore, make your way up to Beijing, go on across Asia and look for a weirder route, rather than an easy one.
I just did the trans-Mongolian train, just a few weeks ago, which is relatively easy. You get on a train in Beijing and you get off the train in Moscow. Anybody could do it, the trains are regular and it’s all safe and secure. But instead you could go across China, go to the old Russian ‘Stans. I think you’d have a pretty good adventure and go down to the Caucasus countries. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and then into Turkey. You could do all sorts of interesting things.
I think Africa is still wide open for adventure if people want a chance at that. I looked at some of the things — going back to the Congo again — some of the best travel writing in recent years has been books about traveling round the Congo. I’m blown away by some of the stuff that people do.
There’s a book called Radio Congo and it was this young guy who decided he wanted to try and track down this Belgian mining town from the ’50s, or when the Belgian Congo was still operating. He had a little brochure or something, with photographs of the town and suburban houses and people’s Renaults and Citroens parked outside. He just thought if that town’s still there, could I find it? Yes, the town is still there, yes, you can find it. You certainly can’t drive to it in your Renault or Citroen any more. You have to beat your way through the jungle to get to it.
You can even find the houses that appeared in the brochure, the buildings are still there, but the place has been cut off. We’re so used to progress in the West and we get these places where things have gone steadily backwards, of course there’s always Detroit, isn’t there?
Skift: You’re obviously still quite busy. Has there been anything you’ve done since leaving Lonely Planet that made you think, “Hey, I should’ve got out of here earlier”?
Tony Wheeler: Yeah, maybe. I enjoyed Lonely Planet right up until the end, but it was definitely time for me to go. It wasn’t the place for me to be anymore.
Travel is still an important element of my life. I still enjoy it very much, and I enjoyed writing this last book. I hope it sells enough copies that I can do another one, because I’ve got ideas for several more books.
Skift: Is there a third in this series? Like, Naughty Places or something like that?
Tony Wheeler: There could be a third and a fourth. We were in eight countries in this book, and really the one that should’ve been in it as well, if there was going to be a ninth one, was Syria. I’ve been to Syria before, so it’s really a question of going back to Syria, but of course, everything went totally wrong in Syria just about the time we were doing this.
I wouldn’t go to Syria. I’m not about to try to travel around, and look the bit of the traveler. It’s a war zone, unfortunately. But there are other countries I could have easily added into it.
Skift: There was a 20, 25 year history of really fantastic guidebook innovations that took place. Whether it was, Europe on $5 a Day, Asia on a Shoestring, or what the Rough Guide guys did. Where do you see travel innovation coming from now?
Tony Wheeler: Well obviously, it’s digital. I don’t think that there’s going to any pioneering starts in print anymore. It’s unimportant whether people read it as a paper book or as a digital book. I don’t think that the medium the information comes over on is important.
Skift: Is travel still something that you think takes an expert for advice?
Tony Wheeler: I think social media and TripAdvisor and so on — they’re all things that are an important element of it. I don’t think we’re going to see one thing eliminated in favor of the other, It’s going to be a mix of different uses. I think that the expert researcher-writer is still going to have a role.
If you look at what’s gone on with photography, user-generate content has decimated professional photographers because you don’t need to go to a photo library to download a wonderful image from there at a vast cost because there’s so much stuff available free. But a professional photographer is still going to take a picture better than the stuff you’d find for free.
I think it’s the same as a writer. Anybody can write now, but the people who win the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer Prize, or the Nobel Prize for literature are still going to be better writers than the ones who just put up their blog.
Skift: You talk about travel opening your experience. I know you’ve been traveling for a long time but is there some pre-conceived notion you had about how things should work and how things should be that was radically changed by your travels?
Tony Wheeler: Tourists and travelers: as far as I’m concerned they’re all the same, really. There are people who think, “Oh, I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler, I’m more serious than that.” Rubbish.
I think every trip you’ve got to look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Why are you going there. You’re going there to lie on the beach, and get a bit of a sun tan, and read some novels, and drink at night, and enjoy yourself? Fine. If that’s what you want to do, go there and do it.
Equally, if you want to go somewhere and you want to come away feeling you’ve learned something about the place, you’ve got a better understanding, or you’ve tested yourself in some way, good as well.
Skift: If you had to do it all over again, concerning Lonely Planet, would you have sold to BBC, seeing the things that they did over the last few years?
Tony Wheeler: It was a sad story. I don’t blame them totally for everything that didn’t work out. It was a factor of UK politics, and the time it happened. Had it happened a year or two earlier, or a year or two later, it might have been a different situation.
At the time they bought Lonely Planet they’d been doing a lot of things and John Smith, the guy who was leading BBC Worldwide was the golden-haired, blue-eyed wonder boy and you’ve got to hand it to him, he was sent there to go out and make lots of money so we don’t have to be so dependant upon the taxpayers to run this operation. He did exactly that, and then suddenly it was, “Oh, we didn’t mean be quite that aggressive about what your were doing.”
He got rapped on the knuckles for it. Then BBC began to pull back, and say, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be doing that.” We just happened to come into the picture at that time.
It was an unfortunate situation at the time we came along. Then, of course, the BBC didn’t do a good job with it. I think they could have, in many ways, done things better. I don’t think they were a bad partner but they weren’t as good a partner as they should have been.
One of the things I’ve said a number of times since then, if you team up with the BBC the one thing you think is going to improve better in your spectrum of things you do is television. We had Lonely Planet television. I’ve said it a number of times, in the five years prior to the BBC we made more television than the five years after the BBC, which is just ludicrous.
I really cannot believe that that’s the situation that has prevailed. In fact, I’m just reinvesting in what was the old Lonely Planet TV operation. They’re still going. The people who used to run LP TV, they walked out of the office. The whole group just set up a new TV operation. I’m, hopefully, going to be investing in that.
Skift: The new owners are very bullish on TV and very excited about video. What’s your first impression so far of the choices that the new team is making?
Tony Wheeler: I’ve really got no idea what they’re doing. I’ve met Daniel Houghton a couple of occasions, but only very briefly. He’s a nice guy. I won’t knock them at all. If you’re in the media situation today, whatever the media is, whether it’s television, or radio, or newspapers, or magazines, or guidebooks, anything you care to name at all, you cannot just sit there and think, “Oh, the world’s going to either cruise along wonderfully or it’s going to go back to where it used to be.”
You’ve got to accept that you’re in a field which is going through huge changes, and you’ve got to make changes as well. If he’s making lots of changes, well, good on him. Whether these changes he’s making are going to be good ones or bad ones, I really don’t know.