Tony and Maureen Wheeler wrote their first guidebook at a kitchen table in a tiny apartment in Sydney, Australia, in 1973. The couple had just completed a six-month journey, starting in England, following the "hippie trail" across Europe and Asia and hitching a yacht ride to Australia. "We weren't hippies," says Tony. "We just didn't have any money."
Maureen had grown up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and hadn't traveled until she crossed the Irish Sea at age 20 to take a job in London in the wine import business. Tony had had a peripatetic youth—his father was an airline pilot, and the family lived in Pakistan, the Bahamas and the U.S. before returning home to England—but he was intent on becoming an automobile executive. He enrolled in the M.B.A. program at the London Business School. He and Maureen met on a park bench. "It was a love-at-first-sight type of thing," he says.
When Tony received his degree, the couple decided to embark on a long trip. "The plan," says Maureen, "was to spend a year roaming about, then return to London and get on with our careers." They paid $150 for an old van and drove it through Europe, Turkey and Iran and into Afghanistan. They pitched their tent next to the van or slept inside the vehicle. They sold it in Afghanistan for $5 more than they had paid for it and continued traveling, by bus and train, through Pakistan, India, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. After they arrived in Australia, they found jobs to save up for the return trip.
"In Australia," recalls Tony, "people were constantly asking us, 'Where did you go?' and 'How did you get there?' and 'How much did it cost?' There were no guidebooks for inexpensive travel in Asia or the Middle East at that time. So we wrote one." It was called Across Asia on the Cheap, and it covered the Wheelers' journey in a mere 96 pages. "It was primitive and simple," says Tony, "but there was nothing else—it was the best thing going."
A friend had a printing press in his basement, so the Wheelers typeset the book and printed it. They collated and stapled the pages by hand. Tony thought of a name for their new venture. "It came from a Joe Cocker song," he says, "except I got it wrong. The lyric was, 'Traveling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye.' But I thought it was 'lonely planet.' Good thing, too. I never would've called the company Lovely Planet."
The Wheelers made 1,500 copies of Across Asia on the Cheap and sold them around Sydney for about $2 each. Within a week all the books were gone. The Wheelers printed more. Again the book sold out. Eventually more than 8,000 copies were sold. "All plans were called off," says Maureen. "Forget going back to England—we'll spend another year in Asia and write another Lonely Planet guidebook. Then we'll go home."
So off they went. This time the book, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, was written in a $3-a-night hotel in Singapore. The Wheelers returned to Australia and promptly sold 15,000 copies. Then people with their own manuscripts started to contact the Wheelers. How about a guidebook to Nepal? What about India? Momentum built. Twenty-five years later the Wheelers' venture is still going strong.
Lonely Planet has offices in Paris; London; Melbourne, Australia; and Oakland, and has 201 employees. The company offers 232 different travel books, which cost readers between $10 and $30. Lonely Planet sells more than two million books a year and grew by 35% in the past fiscal year. The guides cover nations from Argentina to Zimbabwe. There are phrase books to help with Mongolian, Swahili and Fijian. Last year Lonely Planet became the first company to produce a guidebook to Antarctica. Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is now in its ninth edition (it's 1,024 pages long) and has sold 500,000 copies.
The Wheelers have become the unofficial godparents of a generation of high-enthusiasm, low-budget adventurers. Lonely Planet books speak the language of youthful, independent, tourist-trap-avoiding travelers. The tone is often smart and wry, clearly the work of people who have gone to astounding lengths to find the truth behind the brochures. Among the few photos are some that are laughably bad, buffing Lonely Planet's anti-slick-and-glossy image.
Irreverent observations can be found on most every page. A hotel in Kenya is described as "very clean, though the architect ought to be shot." Another hotel, in Central America, has hot water "only after midnight in the first floor shower stall." The Tahiti book warns against rampant taxi rip-offs and mentions the best places to hitchhike. Lonely Planet guides give advice on how to do your laundry in Antarctica, what to do if you've been arrested in Iran and how best to avoid a bear attack in Alaska. The Greenland book relates that the best way to get from one town to another is by a five-day walk. The Bolivia book points out that "magic mushrooms are not illegal in South America—but make a positive identification before partaking."