"How Did They Get Here?" Q&A with Lonely Planet Founder Tony Wheeler
By Matt Haber
Few people can claim they personally changed the way an entire generation sees the world. Tony Wheeler, who co-founded Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen in 1973 could easily take that sort of credit were he not such a modest and unassuming guy.
Last week, Wheeler stopped by T+L's offices to discuss Lonely Planet and other topics. For a man who sold millions of books worldwide and made a lot of money (The Richest, a site that tracks celebrities' net worths, estimates he and Maureen are worth $168 million), Wheeler, 66, comes off as an unpretentious guy with a backpack and comfortable walking shoes. If you saw him on the street, you'd never know he started an internationally-recognized publishing company based on the diaries he and his wife kept as they traveled from London to Asia in a van during the early 1970s. (The New Yorker's Tad Friend profiled Wheeler in 2005, which you can read here.)
He no longer has a stake in the guides he created, having sold his company to BBC Worldwide in 2011. Two months ago it was announced that BBC Worldwide was selling Lonely Planet at a loss to NC2 Media, a company owned by tobacco billionaire Brad Kelley. Since 2008, the Wheelers have run Planet Wheeler, a private foundation based in Melbourne, Australia that helps fund development projects around the world.
Wheeler may not be in the guide book business anymore, but he still travels widely and, as he showed during our Q&A, he still have a young man's enthusiasm for the world and the many adventures to be had in it.
What brings you to New York?
I'm on the board of Global Heritage Fund. They asked me to join because they've got lots of archeologists and people who know about ancient buildings, temples, and god knows what else, but it's no good having a site if you don't get tourists there. They've got sites which are not the big ones in the countries. I went to one they have in Cambodia called Banteay Chhmar, which was fabulous! But everybody in Cambodia wants to go to Angkor Wat. They want to attract more tourists there.
What's your role with Lonely Planet now?
I've got no role. I'm right out of it. I just finished writing a book for them and I'm often writing forwards for this or contributions to that.
It's obviously a difficult time for the brand you created.
It's a difficult time for anyone in media… Yeah, they're facing all sorts of challenges. But I think the thing that's intrigued me most in recent years is that it really is an international brand. I was in Italy last week speaking at a conference, and we actually sell more books per capita in Italy than we do in the United States. It's sort of nice having an Italian fan club. It's special. The same thing is happening with us in China. China's a big market. It used to be if you were Chinese and you had a bicycle and a transistor radio, you were lucky. Now you've got an apartment and a car and you want to travel overseas. There's a big change going on there and we're a part of it.
Do you regret that the BBC deal happened?
I don't regret that it happened, but they didn't do as good a job as they could have done, no question about it. I don't know what I could've done… They got criticized for buying it, and then because they were criticized, they sort of pulled back. Instead of jumping in the car and putting their foot flat down, they sort of drove very gently.
There's a particular kind of travel that Lonely Planet romanticizes. Does that still exist?
Yeah. I'm always amazed when I go somewhere off the beaten track. It's tough to get there, and you always meet someone else! There's always someone there and you think, 'Jesus, how did they get here?' Any time you're sort of patting yourself on the back for getting somewhere difficult, you get out of the 4x4 and then somebody pulls up on a bicycle and puts you in your place.
So, there's no special place that's just for you and your loved ones?
No, no. That's one of the things about being a travel writer. If you find some really good hotel or restaurant, you want to tell the world about it. Particularly if you think the competition hasn't got it. You want to reveal that stuff.
How do you feel looking back on what you created with Lonely Planet?
It's been a lot of fun! Maureen and I always say, if we ever get run down by a bus, we had a great go. I still enjoy travel, I still do interesting things, go to interesting places… It's been fun all the way, and it still is fun.
This interview has been condensed and edited.