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Lonely at the Top: Maureen and Tony Wheeler
Two ex–Hippie Trail backpackers turned travel-industry icons explain how they took over the planet. Their book Unlikely Destinations (Tuttle) is due out in May.
Text by Mary Anne Potts   Photograph by Greg Elms

Photo: Maureen and Tony Wheeler in Australia

Maureen and Tony Wheeler on the roof of their Lonely Planet headquarters, in Melbourne, Australia.

The People: Indie-travel trendsetters and founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook empire, Tony Wheeler, 60, and Maureen Wheeler, 57

The Plan: To continue touring unlikely places and seeking out emerging destinations that, despite skyrocketing global tourism, remain as yet untrammeled.
Tony and Maureen's Travel Tips:


"Learn to speak the language enough to say "yes," "no," and "thank you." Being able to say, "one cold beer" in the local language can suddenly make you the best person in the bar."

"Go to the place that is the noisiest. If it's crowded and people are shouting and enjoying themselves, then, of course, the food is good."

"Always try it, but if you can't, politely say it's against your religion. Most religions have some rules regarding eating, so it's a culturally acceptable excuse. I've had fried grasshoppers in Japan and these delicious baby eels in Bali. Go for it."

"Touch wood, I've never had any really serious situations. We've had stuff stolen, but I've never had a gun pointed at me (again, touch wood). Any time I've had something stolen, I think, Well, that was stupid of me. But if you are going to travel you are going to have those blips along the way."

"We traveled a lot with our kids when they were small. Our advice now would be don't do it. It's hard, and particularly when you have to carry all this equipment … and carry them as well."


"Just sling everything in a bag and buy what you forgot when you get there. And use a lot of plastic bags so bottles don't break or leak onto your clothing."

"An Ulster Fry, a Belfast breakfast, is a hideous thing, but it has always tasted good to me—especially if you have a hangover. It's fried potato bread, soda bread, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, sausages, and black pudding (but I draw the line there)."

"I love a hammon. It's a Turkish bath, but they have them all over the Middle East. There's one bath for women, another for men. First, a woman will scrub you down until you nearly bleed. Then she'll sling lots of hot water on you, wash your hair, and give you another scrub. Then she coats you in oil and wraps you in hot towels. Finally you have mint tea. You've never been cleaner."

"With teenagers, there's no trick. They just solemnly follow along behind you. Afterwards they'll tell you they had a great time. But try to involve them. With younger children, give them little things they can play with that will draw other children over. When I'd take my kids to the beach, I'd carry tiny cars or dolls, or whatever. Then you'd see that they'd soon get a group of people around them."

"I love helicopters, I don't do it much, but I love it. We went up in one around the mountains of Nepal; it's a fabulous view."

In 1972 after driving, hiking, and hitching from England across Asia, you ended up in Australia with 27 cents. Now you've sold more than 80 million books and visited more than a hundred countries. Quite a dream come true.

We had no idea what we were getting into at the time. Our first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, was something we wrote for fun on evenings and weekends at our kitchen table. At that time there were a lot of young people interested in traveling in Asia, which was just a blank on the map as far as guidebooks were concerned. We thought we might sell a few copies, but it surpassed our expectations.

At first we were travelers who published books. We did everything ourselves, from stapling the pages together to peddling them to bookshops. Then we'd go off and travel for three months and everything would stop. Gradually we became publishers who traveled. We also remained independent, which affects who you are and how you do business. But Tony and I are still people who love to travel; it's why we do what we do.
The guides no longer offer as much irreverent political commentary or tips on scoring hash. Has Lonely Planet lost its edge?

Lonely Planet's approach is more mainstream now because more people are traveling. But if you want to go find your own journey, there are still plenty of places you can go and plenty of ways you can do it.

Our big sellers—Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, and India—may make money, but it's destinations like Mongolia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iran that are the heart and soul of the company.
How have you seen technology change the way people travel?

The whole Internet-travel phenomenon has made making your arrangements easier than ever. But there are some improvements that I occasionally regret. It used to be if you wanted to make an overseas call in India, you'd have to go to a phone office and wait in the queue all day. Now you can have the same cell phone you use at home in your pocket, and it will ring in the middle of a meal in Bombay. Also, I recently went from Singapore to Shanghai by land, entirely on public transportation, using just my ATM card for cash. Though I do enjoy when the receipt tells me how much I've got left in the local currency. Sometimes I'm a billionaire.
Do you ever find yourselves longing for the early days, before the travel boom?

I think it's very dangerous to say, You should have seen this place then, when there were no crowds here. Thailand, one of the largest destinations in Asia these days, is now getting 13 million tourists a year. And yet, people go to Thailand and think it's wonderful.

Lots of places are exploited by tourists, but it's a two-way exploitation. Bali, for example, may not be the beautiful place that I once saw, but people are a heck of a lot better off now. Tourists think that places should stay beautiful and green and quaint. They think, Isn't it lovely that these people don't have electricity or cars? Twenty years later they have motorcycles and are sending their kids to school. They're learning to be doctors, teachers, nurses, and running their own small businesses. It's easy to look at a place and say, Oh, it was so much better back then. But for whom?
Your Lonely Planet Foundation donates five percent of the company's annual profits to humanitarian groups. What motivated that mission?

The Ethiopian famine in the 1980s kicked it off. For the first time we were making a real profit. We thought, We've got a very popular book on Africa that's making us money; we should put some of it back into the region. And it has continued that way ever since.
What are some up-and-coming hot spots you're tracking?

South America is one area in the world that has very few problems. There are many places where you can go and not be one among thousands of tourists. I think we're also going to see relatively unknown African countries emerging. We went to Mali recently and it was very exotic. Traveling in Libya is fantastic, with amazing Roman ruins in the Sahara and the Mediterranean coast.

There's also Eastern Europe. Poland and Albania could very well get on the map because they've been overlooked for so long. Regions that don't have the same tense political situations that they once did are just waiting for travelers—like Algeria, which has beautiful buildings and great food, wine, and bars.
Do you have a favorite country?

We return to very few places, but the destination we've gone back to most has been Nepal. We've probably been there ten times. Our first trip across Asia, in '72, ended up in Kathmandu. For months it was just this magical name at the end of the road. Even today it feels magical, despite the crowds and pollution. We both really like walking. Nepal has the best walking in the world—the Annapurna Circuit, Everest Base Camp, and lots of others.
Do you feel any guilt for contributing to places being loved to death by travelers?

I actually do a lecture called "Places I Have Ruined." There are certain parts of the world where Lonely Planet has a lot of influence, like Vietnam. You can go into a restaurant and there's copy of our guidebook on every table—which is alarming. We definitely have a hand in determining what becomes popular, but we'd also never keep a place a secret because it was good.
Tony, your new book Bad Lands covers your travels to nine blacklisted nations. How did you compile your short list?

It's an interesting prospect to go to pariah countries, places that other
governments disapprove of for some reason, and evaluate them as a traveler. The place that kicked it off initially was Burma. We've had a Burma book now for 25 years. In the late nineties we started getting a lot of flack about how we shouldn't be doing a Burma guide, and how by doing one, we were encouraging people to go there, which was fueling the government. And when Mr. Bush listed his "axis of evil," I thought, I've got to go to all those places! There are two sides to every story. You tend to see the second side when you're there.

You've been on the ground where history was being made, which you write about in your book Unlikely Destinations, due out from Tuttle in May.

Yes, we've always found it appealing to be in places at times of transition. We were in Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War ended and in Afghanistan just before it fell apart.
Are there any global adventures left for you to tackle?

We will be driving from England to Gambia on the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge. You buy an old car, drive it through France and Spain, into Morocco and down the coast to Gambia. Once we get there, we'll give the cars away. Most end up as taxis.
If all goes well, will you be bringing home a trophy?

It's strictly noncompetitive—given the old clunkers we're driving, simply getting to Banjul, Gambia, will be a victory. Incidentally, the other 44 entrants are from England, Barbados, Belgium, Dubai, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, and the U.S. The American couple has entered with a school bus. We plan to hitch a ride with them if our 1989 Mitsubishi doesn't make it to the finish line.

Cover: Adventure magazine

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