In 1972, Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled overland through Asia, all the way from England to Australia, arriving with just 27 cents in their pockets. On returning to England, people kept asking for the details of their journey, so much so that the Wheelers decided to make a guidebook. In 1973 they worked at their kitchen table to write, type and staple ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’. (A free editions is available on Kindle) They needed a company name, so took Lonely Planet from a song called ‘Space Captain’ by Matthew Moore – although later learned that the actual lyric was ‘Lovely Planet’.
The guide book was evangelical about the idea of making the overland journey, explaining that for the price of an airline ticket between England and Australia, one could travel overland for two or three months. Only a few guides were being written at the time and 1500 copies of their guidebook sold in the first week, launching an empire. Another, more complete guide followed, establishing the reputation of the company.
The first Lonely Planet guide took 94 pages to explain the months of travelling through Asia – still finding time to discuss each country’s history and offer a quirky guide to the religions that would be encountered. It explained how to navigate embassies, how to receive post on the way, and some of the organised tours that were available – although you could make the journey alone if you were brave. It even listed countries where you could sell blood if you ran out of money (“Price for Blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke”). The guidebook has a ramshackle charm, with just enough information to work with: “The most useful source of extra info will be your fellow travellers. People coming from the opposite direction will have all the latest on the hassles coming for you.”
This first guidebook describes a very different experience for travellers. It suggests signing ‘passing-through’ books at embassies, to leave a trail in case one disappears. It advises carrying a good set of clothes for embassies and borders, even going as far as to recommend haircuts or ‘short-hair wigs’ for getting into Singapore without hassle. That book also has a troubling sense of ethics; talking about the Iranian carpet industry it says that “Strict child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry, so buy now while children are still exploited!”
At this point there were too few travellers to have much effect on Indian food, and Wheeler is disparaging about it. “Can be miserable. India is where you lose weight on this trip.” The Wheelers claim that street stalls and cafés might be unsanitary; the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place is described as ‘Delhi’s freak bottleneck’; The best food is said to be found on the railway stations. While the book is dismissive of Indian food, it does better than Pakistan’s, which is dismissed in three curt words – “As for India”.
Over the years, the Lonely Planet went from a scrappy publication, giving you just enough information to survive, to something comprehensive and authoritative. The latest editions of the guide to India are around 1200 pages, compared to the 94 which covered the whole route from England to Australia. The Lonely Planet is in the strange position of being by far the most successful tourist guide company in the world, worth $77 million in 2014, while also being denigrated for its effects on the world. Even the first guide was aware of the effect of travellers, complaining that “the charm of Bali shows every indication of being rapidlty eroded by tourists”.
For someone like myself, who is not a natural traveller, the Lonely Planet guides have proved invaluable. They gave me the confidence to explore places I would not have gone to otherwise. At times, they’ve mislead me in entertaining ways – some of the city maps have little value beyond showing you that there are locations within a city and they are in different places. But, while there is much debate over the problems caused by guidebooks, in my life own they have been a power of good.