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Tony Wheeler: Lonely travellers' best friend

All avid tourists are familiar with the Lonely Planet guides. But not many know the man behind them. He is Tony Wheeler, 66, who was recently in India, to launch a new edition of the Lonely Planet India guide.

Anusha Subramanian        Last Updated: October 2, 2012  | 20:02 IST

All avid tourists are familiar with the Lonely Planet guides. But not many know the man behind them, who has also written many of the guides himself.

He is Tony Wheeler, 66, who was recently in India, to launch a new edition of the Lonely Planet India guide.

"Travel to unknown places can be uncomfortable, even scary at times, but never dull," says Wheeler. "There is always something to learn."

It all began after Wheeler and his wife Maureen travelled the then much-taken Asian 'hippie trail' in 1972. They set out with very little money, driving from London to Afghanistan in a beat up Minivan. When they finally ended their journey in Sydney, Australia, they had just 27 cents left between them.

The outcome of the trip was their first travel guide Across Asia on the Cheap.

"The first book was an accident," says Wheeler. "We didn't set out to do it. After doing the first book, we realised that people liked it. So we thought: 'Let's do another one'."

An engineer from the UK's Warwick University and an MBA from London Business School, Wheeler says he always keeps a small notepad with him when he travels, jotting down details of every place he visits, how he got there, the restaurants he eats at, and so forth. He says he always felt that somebody out there would want to know about this place or the restaurant.

How did the name Lonely Planet come about?

"I have an embarrassing confession to make," he says. "When we finished our first book in Sydney and it was all set to go into print we realised we still did not have a title for it. We had just watched a film called Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It was about a rock and roll band travelling around America. There is a song in the film sung by Joe Cocker, one of whose lines goes: 'Once I was traveling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye'. I misheard it as 'Lonely Planet' and decided it would be a nice name for a guide. That's how the guides came to be known as 'Lonely Planet'.

Which are his favourites among his books?

He names South-East Asia on a Shoestring, the second guide he wrote after a year's travel around South-East Asia on a motorcycle. It was put together in a backstreet Chinese hotel in Singapore in 1975. The 'yellow bible' as it became known because of its distinctive yellow cover, soon became the guide to the region.

"I really enjoyed writing it," he says.

Two other favourites are the Burma guide and the first India guide. The latter, published in 1980, proved a major growth milestone for Lonely Planet.

"The India guide is very special as it was a big success," he says. "It was a pioneering guide and sold three times more than anything we'd done before. Thanks to this guide the company doubled in size."

What was so special that made it a bestseller?

"There was something pioneering about the book. There were other India guides back then and the one I really liked was 'Marie's Hand Book to India'. But it had been published in the 19th century. Though it had been updated several times, it was still so outdated".

For Wheeler, the India guide was a big risk that paid off.

"When we did the first India guide we were just five or six years old in the business. We had done much smaller books. This guide was a big book and there was lot of investment in it. But, it came out well and so it is special," he adds.

India is special to him for another reason too. His wife and he celebrated their first wedding anniversary on October 7th 1973 at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Since then the couple tries to be at a different location every year on this special day. This year he will be in Morocco for his 40th anniversary.

So what changes does he find in India?

"Nothing actually from the last guide I wrote 30 years ago," he says. "But, some things like getting around here have become so much easier now... buying a ticket, getting a hotel and so forth are now only a click away."

The success of Lonely Planet bemuses even its creator.

"People don't realise how international it is," he says. "In Italy I saw more guides in Italian than anywhere else." Part of the success could be because Wheeler always reinvested all he earned back into the business. "Every penny we earned was used to hire more people and write more guides," he adds.

Last year, however, Wheeler sold Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide for $207 million. Why?

"I was getting old and this was certainly not a family business," he says. "My children were not going to take it forward. Also the whole world was going digital. But my first love is books and the area the publishing business is moving into is not one I am absolutely passionate about."

Lonely Planet has continued to expand into digital publications and TV productions. Although Wheeler no longer has a formal role in Lonely Planet he continues to contribute to the books, writes regular columns for international editions of the Lonely Planet Magazine, as well as a travel blog on the Lonely Planet website and plays the role of Lonely Planet's spokesman.

The one country Wheeler says he is fascinated by but has never visited is Yemen.

"Yemen has a fantastic culture and history. The purest form of Arabic is spoken there.  Yemen is high up on my list of places still to be seen. The other thing I want to do is take the 'Trans Siberian rail all the way across Russia. And in India I have to yet see Hampi," he says.

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