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Fast Talk: Tony Wheeler

As a professional backpacker, Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler has scoured the globe ever since he was a college student. But it wasn't until he met and traveled with his wife, Maureen, in the early 1970's that he decided to put his adventures in print. At a time when guidebooks stuck to a banal formula featuring typical travel destinations, Wheeler's lax business model and far-flung ideas broke all the rules, making Lonely Planet books the bible for backpackers worldwide. Although he's about to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary, Wheeler has yet to settle down—well, at least in the traditional sense of the word.

1. Where are you now?
Home in Melbourne, Australia, because I've got to be home (and at the office) from time to time! I've just been overseas for a month, trekking around the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. We were so far out of e-mail and other contact range that it was a week after the bombing of Afghanistan started before we knew about it.

2. How often do you travel?
I travel for about six months of each year, and it's a real mixture of business and pleasure. The pure pleasure trips end up with some business in them (even at home I cannot eat out at a restaurant without taking notes), and the business trips end up with some pleasure. It's hard to separate the two.

3. How did you get into the travel business?
In 1972, at the height of the Asian "hippie trail" phenomenon, my wife, Maureen, and I traveled across Asia (to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—all those amazing and wonderful places) and realized, afterwards, that it was time somebody wrote a book about it. We went on to discover that it was time somebody wrote a book about all sorts of places.

4. Is there anywhere in the world you haven't been?
Sometimes I think I've hardly been anywhere! Some of the "must do it sometime" places on my list include traveling the Karakoram Highway, riding the Trans-Siberian Express, going to Timbuktu, visiting Leptis Magna in Libya, visiting Ethiopia, traveling on the Aranui from Tahiti to the Marquesas. See, I'm a mere beginner.

5. What's usually in your suitcase?
I hate traveling with a suitcase! I do have a standard Samsonite, but on the occasional trip when I take it there's this nagging feeling that I'm not really going anywhere. I'm much happier with a backpack or travel pack. My Balinese sarong always goes in. A thousand different uses—from something to wear to a bedcover. It's just been around the Annapurna circuit with me. So was my Palm Pilot with its folding keyboard. And my current favorite toy—my GPS, which I must admit I drive everybody crazy with.

6. Are there any spots in the world you see emerging as a hot new travel destination?
Afghanistan will be top of the list when it re-opens.

7. How have your books changed through the years?
Our books have always been written for us, so as we've changed over the years the books have "matured" with us. Obviously we're not penniless, shoestring travelers anymore. I've seen all the bedbugs I ever need for this lifetime and I prefer to fly business class rather than economy/coach, and the books reflect that. But on the other hand, we're very conscious that there are lots of travelers for whom money and economy is very important, and our books will continue to cater to that market. My son is probably in some five-dollar-a-night hotel somewhere in Southeast Asia right now. Plus there are lots of places in the world where you're going to be staying in a cheap place no matter how much money you've got because that's all there is. In the last 12 months I've spent nearly a month sleeping under canvas, a number of nights sleeping on the deck of an inter-island ship in the Pacific, and a number of nights in dollar-a-night hotels.

8. What, if any, changes are you going to make in the publications to coincide with the new climate of travel?
We certainly expect travel patterns to change, and our books will reflect that. If people want "safe" destinations, then we'll do our best to cater to them. But I'm not planning to forget that there are lots of people who are willing to get out there on the edge, and we're not going to neglect them, either. I've had e-mails from people who were in Damascus and Baghdad when the bombing of Afghanistan started. Both of them reported being treated with courtesy and interest and not feeling in any danger.

9. Does your staff have any tricks for finding sights off the beaten path?
Walk. Look. The only way you really find new things is with your own ingenuity and inquiries. Simply following what somebody else has already done isn't going to produce anything new.

10. What's your travel motto?
Go with an open mind, and always look for the upside.

- Interviewed by Hillary Geronemus

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