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  • Writer's pictureBy Quinn Bender

On a lonely atoll with Tony Wheeler

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Deep in the South Pacific, Lonely Planet co-founder reflects on his influence in where and how we travel

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. Image courtesy The Talk

Deep in the South Seas on the edge of the Great Atoll Valley, a peculiar archipelago rises just a two meters above the lapping waves. At low tide the tiny island nation ranks fourth among the world’s smallest countries, and at high tide falls to third. So removed are the atolls from regular ocean traffic, until a century ago even the London Missionary Society ignored the group repeatedly until the islanders themselves demanded their inclusion to the Christian conversion of Pacific cultures. The mixed Polynesian and Micronesian enclave hangs on the mind not unlike an image of Timbuktu in a watery desert; a bastion of civilization thriving amid the wave swells and marauding weather systems. 

This is the constitutional monarchy of Tuvalu. If, like so many explorers, writers and historians have said, this was the edge of the world, then it was the most befitting place to have bumped into Tony Wheeler. Zigzagging a scooter toward me, he wore a baseball cap emblazoned with world map. Although he hadn’t visited all the counties depicted on it he could recite a list from A to Z as easily as introduce himself, the founder of Lonely Planet.

In 1973 this non-conforming English youth and his wife Maureen left for Southeast Asia to shape their a-typical wanderlust into a few "better-than-horrible" travel guides. Today their work has evolved into a library of frank reference material entrusted to a staff contingent of over 500 journalists, editors and cartographers straddling all but the very violent political borders. Many travellers call these works Bibles, others treat them more realistically as books of good advice, but few of the 5-million people who buy them every year will refute what has become the catch phrase of modern travel: don’t forget your Lonely Planet.  In a country yet to see the sails of commercial tourism, I sat with Wheeler over steamed snapper and Victoria Bitters to talk about his influence on how we travel, and into what creature modern tourism might evolve.

Quinn: In Malaysia I once saw a sign in a restaurant window that read, ‘The Lonely Planet is NOT the Bible.’ I suspect the restaurant didn't get a good mention in your guide. Is there such a condition as guidebook abuse among travellers?

Tony: Sure. A guidebook can be very useful: you arrive at the station; it’s dark; you don’t know which way to turn; the guidebook says ‘turn that way for hotels.’ That’s what it’s there for, but everyone uses it differently. I get letters that say, ‘I look at the places you recommend and think I’m not going to any of those because I don’t want to be stuck with everybody else.’ That’s good—because, a guidebook is not a bible. We say that in the front-pages now: ‘This is not a bible; it’s not a blueprint, so don’t follow this like they’re instructions. It’s just advice.

Q: Yet you still have a huge influence on where people travel.

T: Well, we like to think that to some extent we come along after the fact; it’s often said the reason there are all those new hotels and restaurants somewhere is because we’ve written about a nice beach nearby. But it doesn’t work that way. If we find a nice beach, what do we say? We say ‘it’s a nice beach.’ If we come back a few years later and there are ten hotels, we can only say that too. We don’t invent it, but we do report it.

Q: There are good travelers and bad travellers. What are two ways a traveler can optimize their experience?

T: Yes, there are bad travelers. So I’d have to say: research. The more you know about a place the more interesting you’ll find it if only you understand. I’ve heard of people who have got off the plane in India and had their bags stolen by a taxi driver, and that’s it! They’ve had it with India and they never want to see it again. That’s an artificial way of looking at things, but we’re all guilty of it at one time or another.

Maureen and I were in Nottingham a few years ago during winter; it was really wet and cold and miserable, and we had to run through the rain to restaurants we never found—we just thought ‘who would want to live in this horrible town?’ And the next summer I came through again while working on a book and everyone was on the streets, standing outside the pubs drinking beer and enjoying themselves, and there were indeed lots of restaurants.

Q: And the second?

T: Well, I think one of the mistakes that young travelers make is always worrying about money. If you’re constantly thinking about ‘how much is this costing me’, trying to push the price down to the last dollar—that’s a mistake. Because later on you get back home and you think of what you missed out on for a lousy dollar.

In many ways getting the most from a trip is about being open minded. In the last year or two I stayed in some lousy places that were a dollar or two a night, but they were the only things available. You get stuck someplace sometimes and that’s the way it is; look around, have a rest! The Papua New Guinean Commissioner [visiting Tuvalu for a state funeral] told me today that the secret of going to PNG is to ‘start slowly and wind down.’ [laughter] That’s good advice for anywhere, especially here!

Q: Modern tourism has proliferated; tourism for the mass-market—

T: A lot of that stuff I don’t want to have any part of, at all...

Q: Well, let's talk about it. Let’s say the definitions of a tourist and a traveler are opposite. Tourism for the mass market has many affects: too often, ecosystems suffer, the indigenous cultures are pushed to the back or exploited and the tourists themselves leave a place without the an honest interaction with the people. On the other hand, can you comment on any merits of tourism—tourism that Lonely Planet hasn’t ‘any part of at all?’

T: I think all those things you’ve said are quite true. You do go to places and see nothing at all of local culture, but there are some people who want to go somewhere cheap, they want a place where the phones and electricity are reliable, they’re not going to get sick eating the food, there’s a beach and a swimming pool. There are European resorts for that, Australia has places in Bali and there are places for Americans in Mexico—those places cater to them perfectly, and that shoves a large contingent of tourists out of the way so we can forget about them.

Tourism can cause damage, but it can also be a good thing. Jobs, for one. And what keeps elephants alive in Africa? Game parks for tourists.

You know, I think a lot of tourists are discerning. For example, they buy nice things and therefore nice things are made for them; there are places where handicrafts are only kept alive because tourists are putting money into it. I’ve got a house full of my own tourist stuff.

Q: We have eco-tourism, adventure tourism, package tourism and resort tourism, backpack tourism and now Richard Branson would like us to have space tourism. How do you envision the future of travel and tourism?

T: A lot of tourism crosses over; I mean, we used to call it walking but now we call it eco-walking. One thing we are going to see more of is people traveling for specific activities, like going to France to ride a bicycle from vineyard to vineyard. However, the population is aging so one thing we’re going to see a lot more of is older people. They have more money than their parents used to have; they also enjoyed travel when they were younger and they want to keep on doing it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more tourism coming to places like this [Tuvalu]. There will be ships small enough to enter the lagoon, and comfortable enough for people to want to do it.

Q: Tuvalu gets an average of 30 tourists a year. What do you think about mass tourism coming to Tuvalu?

T: I don’t think it will be ‘mass’, even in 20 years’ time. It’s still going to be a long trip and difficult to get here.

Q: Perhaps because of the information age people don’t feel the need to explore remote locations. Do you think the Internet has broadened people’s knowledge of the world?

T: On some level, yes. I don’t think it’s offered anything new, but it certainly has made the old information available to us much faster. Before I got here the best maps I found of the individual islands were on the Internet.

Q: Do you see a growing resolve in people to travel? For that matter is it important for, let’s say a Vietnamese farmer, to see Paris before he dies?

T: Well he’s not going to. That farmer is never going to see Paris. But on the other hand, there is a growing resolve. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen a difference in who’s traveling, and that might be partly to credit the Internet for. Traveling, once upon a time, really was for the English, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians, the Germans…but now you see every nationality of Europe traveling, and Asians—there’s a Singaporean travel adventure club. The Hong Kongers are big travelers and of course the Japanese. In the Outback if you meet some idiots riding across the desert on a bicycle it’s going to be the Japanese—there are road trains on the Nullarbor Plain that would knock you off with just the air they displace, but the Japanese are there, going from A to B for the sake of going from A to B.

If someone has the option to see the world they won’t give that up to explore it on the Internet—unless it’s another thing like those resorts that take a certain category of people and pushes them out of our way. That’s unfortunate for our farmer though, because there’s a smell of travel that no video, or no website can give you—One of the smells here are the pigsties isn’t it? I was riding down the runway today and there was that Pacific smell, the smell of pigs. Later on I’ll run across a pigsty somewhere and think, "Hmm, the Pacific." He laughs. "I can see the palm trees!"

Q: Where is a place that nobody else goes?

T: There’s nowhere in the world like that these days. But you can still find a gem once in a while—like I said, ‘It’s about being open-minded.’ I went to western Tibet last year. It’s a place that most amazed me for giving that feeling that nobody else goes there: Mount Kilash, a holy mountain. It’s about a week’s walk up from Nepal along the border into Tibet. They say it will wipe out all the sins of your lifetime if you walk around its base [laughter], so we did it twice.

Q: It’s not really a lonely planet then, is it?

T: No, I suppose not.

Q: Where did you get that name, anyway?

T: I got the words wrong to a Bob Dylan song, to tell you the truth. It was actually 'Lovely Planet'.

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