"We get hundreds of letters from our readers," says Tom Brosnahan, an author who has contributed to nine Lonely Planet guides. "I get 25-page letters going over everything in my book in exhaustive detail—what's changed, what's new. Our readers feel an incredible involvement." At many international border crossings, an informal exchange springs up as travelers going one way swap annotated Lonely Planets with travelers going the other.
Lonely Planet, not surprisingly, has dozens of competitors—among them Let's Go! and the Rough Guides—but none have significantly cut into the Planet's overwhelming market share. "The difference between our company and our competitors," says Maureen, "is that travelers run Lonely Planet. We aren't owned by a large parent company. We don't have lots of accountants and business-people running around. And there isn't a lot of bottom-line, penny-pinching stuff going on. We started the company because we like to travel, and we keep it going because we like to travel. Tony and I do a book simply because we're interested in the place.
"Look at Yemen. How many [Western travelers] go to Yemen? Maybe 130 a year. Well, we have a book for them. Mongolia? People aren't beating down the doors to go there. But what's more fun to do—a book on Florida or a book on Mongolia? Well, for my money, it'd be Mongolia."
Maureen, 46, and Tony, 50, have two children: Tashi, 17, and Kieran, 15. The family lives in Melbourne, but Tony travels upward of six months a year and Maureen only slightly less. "You'd think that after traveling for 30 years you'd get kind of blas� about it," says company director and co-owner Jim Hart, who started working for Lonely Planet in 1979. "But Tony will still have a meal at three different places. He'll have a drink here, a main course somewhere else and coffee down the road. He wants to try every spot. And he's equally happy moving to a different hotel every night, just for the sake of trying them."
New Lonely Planet books or updates of old ones are issued at a rate of four per month. Soon, says Tony, Lonely Planet will have a guidebook covering each nation on earth; they are working on books about Bhutan and Afghanistan. For some travelers this is a disturbing notion. Out-of-the-way places, critics say, are no longer out of the way. Travelers have spoiled hundreds of quiet places, disrupted local cultures and created greed and infighting in previously tranquil towns. Some hotel owners say that 70% of their clients are Lonely Planet readers. An unflattering sentence in the guidebook is enough to drive a restaurant out of business.
The Wheelers have grappled with these issues. "I still think that the more people who travel, the better," says Maureen. "Meeting other people, becoming aware of other cultures—that's what travel is about. I like to think that our books give people confidence to go a bit further, to try something new. The more people who set off, the more who discover that the world is a really friendly place. But huge numbers of people traveling to a country will have an impact. We have to make people aware of their impact and help them make that as positive an impact as possible."
"The danger of guidebooks," adds Tony, "is that some people use them too literally. They think the only places they can go are the ones mentioned in the book. That's not true. We're not selling blueprints—just guides. Travel is all about discovery. If you follow only us, you'll miss the serendipity of finding things on your own."