TALKASIA: LONELY PLANET INTERVIEW
LORRAINE: Welcome to Talk Asia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week we are meeting a husband and wife team who have launched a million journeys. Tony and Maureen Wheeler may not have invented the independent traveler but they made it a whole lot easier to become one. They've founded Lonely Planet, publishing 29 years ago, after friends have been bothered them with questions about their treks through Asia. They responded by writing one book, and that book has now grown into an empire, with more than four hundred volumes in print, and an arm-load of awards. Tony and Maureen Wheeler are visiting Bangkok and thats where well catch up with them right now. Tony and Maureen, welcome to Talk Asia. Good to have you on the show.
TONY & MAUREEN: Good to be here.
LORRAINE: How did you two get together? Did you meet when you were traveling or what?
TONY: No, we met in London. I was at university at the time and that I have been there by only a week or so. Went across the road to the Regents park in the central of London, I sat down on the park bench, and about 15 minutes later Maureen, who I have not met at the time, came by and sat on the opposite on the park bench, and we were marry a years a day later.
LORRAINE: Sounds like love at first sight.
TONY: I think it was. I am a bit of a believer in that.
LORRAINE: Let me talk to you about the book itself. Was there a specific moment when either of you decided that, you know, Weve got to write this guidebook?
TONY: I think there was in a way. I think it was when so many people ask us, how did you do this? Where did you go? How much did it cost? I think although perhaps it wasnt a specific moment, it was just sort of a build-up, until eventually we realize somebody had to write something about the region.
LORRAINE: And did you both agree, Maureen? Were you all for the idea?
MAUREEN: Oh yes, I guess I could say that I was all for the idea of doing a guidebook because we really wanted the kind of guidebooks that we wanted, the one that we needed, when we were traveling we felt that there must be a demand for this. But it took a long, long time before we really believe that it was going to be a business.
LORRAINE: Why did it take so long do you think?
MAUREEN: We had no money, and so every book had to pay for the next. We would travel, and research the book, then we would come back and we would write it. We did all the production. In those days, you lay books up and stuck them down, and did all kinds of things you dont have to do now. Then we would actually put them into boxes and send them all the way around the world to wherever they were going. It was a very much a two-person business, and it takes a long time if you dont have any capital to actually build up to the point where you, theres a momentum enough to create a business.
TONY: Right. The other thing of course is that travel was much smaller, and this region, was much smaller in those days. This was the era when people were only just starting to see Asia as being close enough for you to go on a short holiday, here from Europe for example. It was the era when jumbo jet was first starting to come in. So it was really just a take-off time, and there really werent as many people traveling here then werent as many books being sold. So we got in at the ground floor to some extent.
LORRAINE: Who latched on to the idea of the name Lonely Planet?
MAUREEN: That was Tony, and its actually a line from the song, a Joe Cocker song from the film Mad Dogs and Englishman. And the song space capped, and the lines goes one spot traveling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye. And Tony can never remember the words of the song, so he kept singing this lonely planet caught my eye, and we were trying to think of the name for our new company, and I said, Its not lonely, its lovely. And Tony said, I like lonely, lonely sounds better. So lonely it became.
TONY: I think for a while we thought, why did we think of just a stupid name? Have we should have thought for slightly more business-like and sensible? But as a turn that people like the name and they dont forget it.
LORRAINE: Was there a point when you found that this business is really taking off that you could actually make a living out of it?
TONY: I think for a while it really was sort of hand to mouth. We were lucky that both of our first two books both did really remarkably well for the era, but it was still a very much a hand to mouth existence until we did our India guide in about 1980. And the India guide was suddenly a much bigger and more expensive book, and it just sold like hotcakes. And it really took us by surprise how successful that book was, and thats made a difference to everything else. The earlier books all started to sell better because of the publicity the Indian book given, and we also had the money to finance bigger projects after that. So India was a big breakthrough for us.
LORRAINE: We actually have an email, this one is from Ivan in Sydney. Ill read it to you, he asked, The popularity of the books means that some location gets swamped and that ruins the local atmosphere. How do the Wheelers feel about that?
TONY: I think its always a problem that if you do make a place too popular, that the place can get lazy, and the whole spirit of why people go there get swamped if too many people go there. But its like you cant help, places have to be resilient enough if they are going to attract tourists that they can stand it. Its certainly a problem.
MAUREEN: We do have a policy with our books. If our authors discover a place and its particular fabulous and off the beaten track, if theres no infrastructure there to support a large influx of tourist, we will mention it, but we will mention it in such a way that only the most highly tuned travelers will actually find it. I think thats sensible because a place that cant support a lot of tourist will become swamped, and it grows so fast that it cant control it.
LORRAINE: Okay Tony, Maureen, we are going take a short break but Talk Asia will be right back.
LORRAINE:This is TalkAsia. Were talking with the husband and wife founders of Lonely Planet Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Theyre joining us from Bangkok. Tony, theres so many people who dream of being travel writers, is this a good idea?
TONY: It is a romantic occupation. People have this vision of going to new places all the time, finding the best spas, enjoying the best food, sitting by the swimming pool ad the cocktail at sunset and going to an interesting hotel and everyone being nice to you. And of course the reality isnt like that at all, and its hard work and youre operating on a tight budget. You often dont even have the time to sit and enjoy the great meals that youd like to be able to afford and enjoy. So it isnt necessarily as romantic and as fun as people might think that it is. But on the other hand I dont think Ive ever met a travel writer who doesnt just love doing what theyre doing. I know that personally because we started doing these books by doing them ourselves and I still like the whole mechanics of putting a book together. Going to some place you didnt know before, finding how it works and learning the history about it and finding out what the attractions are tracking down the hotels...always as a travel writer youre delighted when you find things that no one has ever heard about. Some really pleasant little hotel, or even a big, exciting one-something which hasnt really been seen before or written about before. Its a real thrill as a travel writer.
LORRAINE: Maureen what sort of qualities do you look for when youre actually hiring people?
MAUREEN: We do hope that theyve traveled. Its good if they come to us and they a background of travel themselves. Its GREAT if they have a really interesting language like Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Thai. Something that isnt the usual language.
LORRAINE: Now your headquarters are in Melbourne, Australia you have about three hundred staff...Is it a sort of 9-5 operation that you run?
TONY: Well for the in the office staff it is. But the writers, our writers are all freelance. They all go off on a project which probably has a horizon months ahead. They may be off researching a book for couple of months and then coming back and writing it up for 2-3 months more. Then maybe another month of going back and forth between the editor whos editing the title and the cartographer whos drawing the maps for it. And always as the books draws towards its conclusion theres always this mad rush to get it out and a lot of midnight oil and weekend work gets done.
LORRAINE: Sounds familiar! (laughter) To something a bit more serious with the change of world events has that made you have to make any amendments to you guide books as well? Maybe add warnings or what have you?
MAUREEN: I dont think that we have to add warnings. There are plenty of warnings in our books. And people do know, for example Kashmir is a place that we have warnings about, that there are places where it isnt safe for travelers to go to. And we would say that. But September 11th what would you warn people about? It would be getting on a commercial jet in America. It wasnt a strike against tourism, it wasnt a strike against visitors to America it was a direct strike at American capitalist system and the power that it has I think. I cant see that that is something people need to have expressed in guidebooks. For example I wouldnt say dont go to Syria, dont go to Lebanon, those places I think are perfectly fine to go except for what everyone knows from the newspapers.
LORRAINE: What about Afghanistan for example are independent travelers going to be making their way back?
TONY: Im sure they are (MAUREEN Absolutely) Maureen and I went to Afghanistan in the early seventies and one of the remarkable things is over the years every now and then wed get a letter or an e-mail from somebody whod been there. And we have letters from Afghanistan in September, in fact just before September 11th we had a letter from somebody who was there. You think thats the outer edge of travel but definitely there are people going to these places. I would imagine that in a year or two Afghanistan will become a travel destination.
LORRAINE: Any plans to both of you to actually head back to Afghanistan?
MAUREEN: I would love to go back to Afghanistan. I still remember it as one of the loveliest places that I visited on the overland trek. The landscape was very gorgeous you know, very austere landscapes, wonderful colors and fantastic lights. The Afghani people we met were very laid back, very cool I guess. And very interested in people, interested in the travelers that came by but not to the point of hassling you in any way. We enjoyed being there and I would love to back. Its always a place I regretted that I didnt see more of before the Russians came in/
LORRAINE: Lets take another e-mail question, this one from Gemma in Hong Kong. She asks, How has the internet changed the travel writing business?
TONY: Its changed it in all sorts of ways. One thing is of course we do have quite a big Internet site. And we put a lot of effort in putting a lot of information on the Internet. But its also made it more interesting and more challenging in many ways to research things. Theres a lot of misinformation as well as correct information out on the Internet. So writers have to be very careful that information they gather from the Internet is actually correct.
LORRAINE: Talking about misinformation Tony I had to bring this up but we read that you were suppose to have died in 1986...in India!
TONY: I had a spate of dying. I died a lot of deaths...and I never a dull death! It was always an interesting death. It was almost always in some form of transport. I had buses that went over the side of cliffs, I had head on train collisions in India, Cargo ships that sunk in the China Sea. Generally all on land I dont think I had any crashes. I think I got run down by a train once on the subway in Tokyo. But it was all just rumor, all greatly exaggerated.
LORRAINE: And you can laugh about it right?
TONY: Well I can now, but there was a time when it was really sort of spooky. When it first started to happen we started getting letters of condolences...
MAUREEN: I got letter of condolences...you were dead!
LORRAINE: Is there any place to you havent been to in this world?
MAUREEN and TONY: Oh gosh yes!/Absolutely TONY: I did actually ten or twelve years ago made up a little list and it was just when Cambodia was re-opening to visitors and Id never been to Angkor Wat. And Id always wanted to go there and Angkor Wat was sort of at the top of my list to go to. We first of all made a list and then two weeks ago we did go to Angkor Wat. But Ive still got two things on that original ten year old list. Weve still not driven the Karakoram highway and weve still not taken the Trans-Siberian express. So theres still sort of two travel experiences that we still havent done.
MAUREEN: For me I guess it would be West Africa, Its a place Ive wanted to go to in a very very long time. And weve come up with a couple of new routes recently that wed like to try. You know I think thats what keeps you going in travel, The more you travel the more you realize how much theres actually to see out there. And even if you go country and your appetite is wetted to go to another part of the country because theres always something more.
LORRAINE: Sounds like an addiction .Were going to take another break well talk to you more a bit more about your travel experiences when we come back. Stick around.
LORRAINE:Were in the final moments of our conversation with Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Theyre the husband and wife founders of Lonely Planet Publishing. Tony and Maureen it is now time for our Question of the Week. This one comes from Heather in Kuala Lumpur, She asks: What is the worst trip youve ever taken together?
MAUREEN: I hate that question...(laughs) because we havent really had that many really terrible ones uhm...
TONY : I guess we travel a lot with our kids. Travel experiences...when things go wrong and its just you then thats one thing. But if things go wrong with your kids its always a little more frightening. And weve had-I guess any parent does-weve had certainly some scares...none of which ever came to anything. But when your kids sort of wander off and you think where are they? We lost our son once in the middle of Katmandu and actually found him quite easily. Everybody was pointing, hed gone that way and telling us which way to go. We lost him once near the top of the Niagara Falls and had this vision (Maureen That was much scarier) of him falling over the top of the falls. We had Tashi (their daughter) go off on a subway in Paris once ....
MAUREEN Thats right. She was just a little girl, it was our first day in Paris and she got in a subway ahead of us. The door shut and she took off ! She had no idea where she was going nor had we and we had to try and follow her and hope she got off the train! She was really small.
LORRAINE: Thats right! You took your children traveling when they were just a few months old I mean...in hindsight was that a good idea?
MAUREEN: No...(laughter from both sides)-It was a terrible idea. I dont think you should travel with children under the age of three.
TONY: I think its made them quite good travelers. We actually arranged to meet our son here in Bangkok yesterday. Hes 18 years old now...hes been traveling around South East Asia the last five months with his girlfriend and seems to have had a fantastic time.
LORRAINE: So they have inherited your genes have they the love for traveling.
TONY: Oh I hope so!
MAUREEN: I think they have!
LORRAINE: Coming back to your personal experiences hasnt there been an incident when your lives were in danger maybe whether it was mother nature, or disease...
MAUREEN: I think the only time when we were possibly in danger, really in danger, was we actually hitched a ride on a yacht from Bali to Australia. And it was suppose to be a six to eight day trip, but it turned into a sixteen-day trip. We ran out of food and ran out of water and the engine didnt work and all kind of things happened. The usual yacht stories. The worse thing was it was cyclone season and just coming into Australian waters we had a huge storm. And the little boat was sort of going...you could feel it. It would just sort of sail at the top of a wave and then come crashing down. You could feel it falling through thin air and hitting the water. And when you looked behind you it looked like a building twenty stories high. I mean it probably wasnt but thats how it felt to me. And then the main sail split and the boat started turning circles and it was pitching crazily I mean the mast was hitting the water and coming back up again...and it was very scary. And then we got it under control. And we limped onto a northwest cape . And really had that little boat gone down I dont think-- you know thered been a couple of wreckage floating around a couple of weeks later, but there would have been very little trace. Nobody would have found us there was no islands around we were nowhere near land-there was no way we could have survived. We didnt have enough life belts we didnt have any safety equipment on board....you know if was a disaster really.
LORRAINE: Another question to ask you...what is your idea, of a holiday?
TONY: (laughs and turns to Maureen) You know what those are I dont think Ive had one of those in years!
MAUREEN: (laughs too, then says) When our daughter was twelve years old, we decided to go to a beach in the North of Australia. And we rented a house with some friends. And we went up there and we stayed. And on the third day our daughter said Mom, do we just stay in this house for the next two weeks? and I said yes and she says do we go to the same beach every day the next two weeks? and I said yes. And she said And thats all we do and I said yes And she said is this what people call a holiday? So shed travel the world with us but we never stayed anywhere for more than two nights. We always are moving on. We spend every day running around seeing what ever there is that has to be seen and for her just being on the beach for two weeks, with nothing else to do but play with her friends she suddenly realized what her friends meant when they talked about a holiday! And I guess thats a little bit the way Tony and I see it. We dont often just go somewhere and just do nothing. Every now and then we do. We will spend three or four days some where where its a very nice hotel and we just relax. But usually we get so bored by it that we have to put something in on the way home to make up sort of make up for the four days of lying around. I guess a holiday to us is just going some where new and just finding something different. Having time to explore it.
LORRAINE: You can now obviously afford to travel a lot better than you did before...
TONY: Yeah thats absolutely true, and people often ask us because we started out dong these dollar a day books and travel on the cheap and tough hard travel people think were still doing that. The fact that that was thirty years ago and we really had to do that because we were in our early twenties and we were writing books for people who were also in their early twenties and we were broke...our readers were all broke as well. And some times people think that were still doing that and of course were not anymore. We can afford to stay in nice places and we very often stay in VERY nice places-and had some wonderful experiences that are expensive. But equally theres lot of places you can go to in the world today that if you want to go to youre going to have to do it the hard way. The best hotels in town are going to cost a couple of dollars a night theres no choice about it. Youre there with the bed bugs and the cockroaches.
LORRAINE: What other trips are you planning for the year 2002?
TONY: You know Ive still never been to Korea and Im thinking that maybe this is the year I really should get around to going to Korea so thats definitely on the list. And Ive got to go to Dubai later on in the year so theres a trip to the Gulf states. Therell be a few more trips lined up yet.
LORRAINE: Is there a lonely planet guide that isnt out yet of a particular place that you would like to have out?
TONY: Recently the idea thats been intriguing me is the idea of routes. Going from one place to another by land. One of the things you can do these days which you certainly couldnt do ten or fifteen years ago is travel safe from Singapore to Shanghai by land. And the idea of getting on a train in Singapore and getting off in Bangkok and taking a bus through to Phnom Penh in Cambodia across to Saigon. And then the train up to Hanoi and across the border into China. Carrying on by land all the way from Singapore to Shanghai-that sort of trip really intrigues me. The idea of going all around the Himalayas. Going across China one-way down into India and back the other way-those sort of trips have a..theres a certain something about traveling by land which is very different from going by air. The problem with traveling by air is you get on a plane and its too easy. You get off at the other end and all the hard miles you should have put in in between have just been disappeared. The experience really isnt the same.
LORRAINE: Is there a next big travel gem out there untouched?
TONY: Theres lots of places in Myanmar because of its politics...it just hasnt attracted as many people as it should do. And when finally the political situation is sorted out people will flood in there. And there are lots of places that really havent had any visitors at all...Small islands in Indonesia. All sorts of places.
LORRAINE: Well Tony and Maureen thank you very much for your time-and enjoy Bangkok. We appreciate you coming down and chatting with us,
TONY& MAUREEN: Thank you.
LORRAINE: Thats TalkAsia for this time around. You can up to date on our guest list on our website. Youll find an archive of transcripts from my past conversations, and a phone number you can call to get your voice on the air. Thats all at CNN.com/TalkAsia. And e-mail me a note if you get a chance at firstname.lastname@example.org. Im Lorraine Hahn, lets talk again next week.
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