Sharing the World –Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s Travel Story

Maureen and Tony Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet travel books.
Maureen and Tony Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet travel books.

By Renee Estey

Tony and Maureen Wheeler, authors of Across Asia on the Cheap and the creators of Lonely Planet have become extremely successful doing exactly what they love, traveling.

Tony and Maureen Wheeler on a beach in Australia
Tony and Maureen Wheeler on a beach in Australia, where they published their first guidebook

They started off as two offbeat twenty-something year-olds in a park, Regent’s Park in central London to be exact. They met at a park bench on a sunny afternoon on October 7, 1970. They soon began dating and traveled a few places around Britain during their first year together.

At the Taj Mahal
At the Taj Mahal

In the summer of 1971, they decided to take a bigger trip across Europe, heading first to Czechoslovakia, and then through Austria, Yugoslavia, and Venice and finally back up through Switzerland and France.

Tony Wheeler finished his second segment of college schooling and was about to begin the 9-5 job, but he and Maureen decided against it, insisting that they go on a one year trip around the world and then settle down.

“It Was the Time to Go”

Regarding their decision to travel across Asia, Tony Wheeler says, “Both of us loved travel. We’d talked about travel in the first hours after we met and we’d made a number of shorter trips including, the first summer after we met, a foray into what was at that time ‘behind the iron curtain.

‘ The ‘hippy trail,’ although I don’t think it enjoyed that name until later, was very much the trip to make. So we made it.”

“There were strange tales drifting back from Morocco and Afghanistan,” he said. “It was the time to go.”

Tony was listening to a Matthew Moore song called “Space Captain” recorded by Joe Cocker. The actual lyric is, “This lovely planet caught my eye,” but Tony thought it was “lonely planet.” They liked the sound of it, and the rest is history.When they arrived in Australia, they were asked so many questions about traveling in Asia that they decided to write a guidebook, which they published themselves. They decided to call it Across Asia on the Cheap. Then they needed a name for their publishing company.

Unlikely Destinations is a book about Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s lives from penniless college students to successful travel book publishers. A huge moment for Tony and Maureen was when they crossed the Bosporos by ferry. Tony says, “It was a definite feeling of transition from Europe to Asia.”

Time and Money

The lonely planet taxi
The lonely planet taxi helped promote their guide books.

Concerning the success of Lonely Planet, and their initial trek across Asia, Tony said, “Once upon a time every penny counted. If there wasn’t a cheap place to stay it was a big problem. Now it’s not a problem anymore.”

“Once upon a time we had time but no money. Then perhaps we had more money, but less time. Now we have both.”

The success they had from the first book was something unexpected. Of course they anticipated it being sold locally, but the incredible success that it enjoyed worldwide and the continuing success certainly were a great surprise. They decided to wait on those silly 9-5 careers and travel and soon enough their career found them.

It is very inspiring, because most people won’t travel or do something so outrageous, because they are afraid, so they wind up with jobs they hate. But, what they don’t realize is that if their big dreams do not work out, they can always go back to square one.

Tashi and Kieran
Their children, Tashi and Kieran did a lot of traveling.

Big Dreams

Tony said, “Having less money does keep you closer to the real world, more in touch with things. But it’s artificial to think you can keep doing things the same way forever. I’ve tried poor and I’ve tried rich and I know which I prefer.”

“Of course there are many places in the world where all the money in the world isn’t going to insulate you from the experience, because there’s nowhere to spend it. If the only way to get there is a beat up bus and the only place to stay is a fleapit then that’s what you’re going to have to do if you want to go there.”

Family Travel

Tony Wheeler has a good attitude about the way tourism is now as opposed to ‘back then’ and he seems to think that while things may not be up to par with how they are remembered before tourism became so popular, people visiting places for the first time will still find them fantastic.As Tony and Maureen’s company boomed, their family life boomed, as well. After the birth of their two children Tashi and Kieran, they continued to travel, but children were suddenly part of it and it became a whole new kind of travel. Maureen even wrote a guidebook about it called Travel with Children.

A Huge Success

After 30 years in business, Lonely Planet now publishes more than 500 different guides to destinations around the world, and they have more than 500 employees in offices on three continents, as well as 300 writers out combing the world for information.

To date they have published more than 80 million copies of their guides.

The company also offers digital travel guides and hosts an award-winning website, as well as producing television programs.

The Wheelers with their first guidebook
The Wheelers with their first guidebook

Tony and Maureen are both still active in the business. Tony writes travel guides for selected destinations, as well as other books including Chasing Rickshaws, a pictorial essay on the rickshaw in Southeast Asia, Time & Tide: The Islands of Tuvalu, a snapshot of life in the South Pacific and more recently Rice Trails: A Journey Through the Ricelands of Asia & Australia. His 2005 guide to East Timor won the Gold Award for best travel guide from the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

The company also offsets all travel by their staff by funding environmental projects through ClimateCare.org.Maureen works with the Lonely Planet Foundation, which directs five percent of the company’s profits to a wide variety of conservation and social programs all over the world.

Sharing the World

The Wheelers have ensured that Lonely Planet maintains a total commitment to responsible travel, right down to using recycled materials in publishing. And through the tremendous impact their guides have had on travelers around the world, they have certainly done far more than their share to make this “lonely planet” a better place.

“Today, more than ever,” they write on their website, “we’re utterly convinced of the incredible importance of travel. It’s only through traveling, through meeting people, that we begin to understand that we’re all sharing this world. We are all coming along for the ride, despite the barriers which governments, religions and economic and political beliefs often seem to build up between us.”

UPDATE: Lonely Planet, the storied travel guidebooks publisher, has been sold by its parent company BBC Worldwide in 2013 for US$75 million to NC2 Media — a significant decrease on its original purchase price. The buyer is a doozy: NC2 Media’s primary shareholder is reclusive Kentucky billionaire Brad Kelley. Kelley spent the 1990s selling discount cigarette brands like USA Gold, Bull Durham, and Malibu, then sold the company for almost US$1 billion in 2001, and parlayed that money into becoming the one of the largest land owners and conservationists in United States.

Renee Estey

Renee Estey is a former intern at GoNOMAD.com. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Read an excerpt from Unlikely Destinations by Tony and Maureen Wheeler.

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