NEW YORK – Tony Wheeler wrote his first travel book with his wife, Maureen, in 1973 after driving across Europe and Asia. It sold 1,500 copies in a week and launched a guidebook empire called Lonely Planet.
The Wheelers made a fortune when the BBC bought the company in 2007 before the recession, but the BBC sold the company earlier this year at a huge loss. Meanwhile, Wheeler, 66, is still doing what he built the brand on: traveling the world and writing about it.
His newest book, Dark Lands, recounts his recent adventures in countries troubled by ethnic strife, drug wars, colonial history and fiscal ruin. His itinerary included Colombia, where he was mugged; Congo, where he was arrested for taking a photo; the Palestinian territories, where kids pelted him with stones; and Pakistan, where he visited the site of Osama bin Laden’s assassination.
He also visited Haiti, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a Polynesian island where the locals got rich mining guano (bird poop fertilizer) then squandered their wealth on an airline and other extravagances.
Dark Lands is a follow-up to Wheeler’s 2007 book, Bad Lands, which was about visiting “Axis of Evil” countries Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other notorious spots. In a phone interview, Wheeler talked about Dark Lands and Lonely Planet.
You were mugged, arrested and pelted with stones on this trip. Do those count as highlights?
They do count in a way. But I’d also say climbing up the Nyiragongo volcano in Congo was a highlight. It was like a children’s picture book of what a volcano should be. Smoke, dust, a big empty muddy hole, lava bubbling up. It was noisy; it smelt. It was perfect.
Also going into the jungle in Papua New Guinea to get to Admiral Yamamoto’s aircraft. (Isoroku Yamamoto masterminded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; his aircraft was shot down in 1943.)
A third one would be in Haiti, listening to music in the Oloffson Hotel on Thursday night. It’s such a buzz being there. Time flashes by and before you know it, it’s 2 a.m.
Would any of the countries in Dark Lands work for a conventional vacation?
All of those countries have trouble. Some you cannot see an easy solution, others, well, things are getting better. The best example is Colombia. On most measures, Colombia is doing far better (with the decline of drug violence) than it was a couple of years ago. It has a lot of attractions. People say it’s the best Spanish colonial architecture in South America, and Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities. OK, I got mugged, but you can get mugged anywhere.
Your father was a manager for British Airways. Where did you live growing up?
I lived in Pakistan from the time I was a year old to when I was 5. I’ve got very clear memories of it. Then I spent a year in England, then two in the Bahamas, then another year in England, then Detroit and Baltimore. I came back to England to finish school and went to university and did an engineering degree. I spent a couple of years as a car engineer.
Why do you still list “engineer” as your occupation on visas?
If applying for a visa or arriving in a country, the two things I always fall back on are engineer or schoolteacher. It’s really safe. The things you don’t want to be are a photographer, a writer or a journalist. And the worst thing possible – you don’t want to be a doctor. If you’re a doctor, immediately people will be ill.
Many places that were once off-the-beaten path have become overrun, and sometimes Lonely Planet recommendations contributed to that. How was this trip different?
You go back to places you really loved when you went there, that were sort of empty, and now everybody knows them. I think of Bali: Now everybody’s got an “I’ve been to Bali” T-shirt. But with Dark Lands, I showed that you can still go to places where people are having amazing adventures. The Congo, for example, I only met a half-dozen tourists the whole time I was there and all of them were writing a book about it.
How do you feel about the changes at Lonely Planet? Even before you sold LP, the brand had begun to shed its backpacker-budget image with more upscale guides.
People say, “Oh, that’s the shoestring budget, backpackers,’ young people guide” – but we’re not that any more. I’m OK with it, but it’s partly in a way why we thought it was time for us to move out. They were doing a lot of things I could see the reasons for doing, but it’s not my first love.
Looking back on the timing of the sale, don’t you feel incredibly lucky? You sold before the recession and before digital media started to outpace print.
There’s no question we sold out at the perfect moment. It wasn’t just the recession that hurt Lonely Planet – we also sold out just as the Australian dollar took off. (Lonely Planet is based in Melbourne, where Wheeler lives, and the surge in Australian currency resulted in foreign exchange losses.)
Where is the brand’s current owner, NC2 Media, headed?
We spent a bit of time talking to NC2. Maureen met Daniel (Houghton, NC2’s executive director and now LP chief operating officer) three or four times. He came out to Australia when the deal was being finalized, and I had dinner with him in London. What he’s doing, I have no idea. I think if he just sat there and did nothing, it might keep going wonderfully. But the jury is out. He says they’re concentrating on the digital side, and that was one of the things LP was putting a lot of effort into even before we left.
Are there untapped areas of opportunity?
One of the things about LP that the BBC didn’t really pick up on is that we look at it as an English-language brand, but it’s very big in other languages. I’ve been to Italy twice this year and we’ve got a huge following there. We’re the biggest seller of guidebooks in the Italian language. I get recognized on the street once a year in other places, but in Italy it happens a lot.
And in China, it’s just astonishing. ... You see hordes of Chinese tourists on those packaged tours, but for young people and university students, so many of whom speak English, they would love to be out there doing independent travel. LP is part of that image.