Review of Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story

Many multi-million dollar empires have humble beginnings. In the case of Lonely Planet, it all began with 27 cents. That is exactly how much money Maureen and Tony Wheeler, the founders of Lonely Planet, had to their names in 1972, shortly after arriving in Australia from their overland journey through Asia. The Wheelers discuss the early, nearly penniless days of Lonely Planet as well as their route to prosperity in Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story

Lonely Planet began after the Wheelers completed the overland trek from Europe to Asia, and were met with a constant stream of questions about their travels, from “How much did it cost” to “Are the trains in India as bad as they say?” to “Can you really get all the way to Europe by land?” In response to these fascinated inquiries from friends and acquaintances, they printed their first guidebook in 1973, Across Asia on the Cheap

Their early publishing days were far from glamorous, with the Wheelers working full time (living on one salary and saving the other for their next trip), and working on their first Lonely Planet guidebook in the evenings.

Without an interested publisher and with material that was getting more dated by the day, the Wheelers decided to publish the guidebook themselves. Long before the days of internet pay-on-demand publishing houses, they arranged to have 1,500 copies of the 96-page book printed. They assembled the books themselves, borrowing equipment to staple and trim each copy.

Lugging suitcases full of books around Australia, the Wheelers peddled copies to bookshops, making the rounds with more copies once the first books sold out. The Wheelers soon set off on their next trip, leaving copies of the book with friends who would distribute them in their absence. After their trip, a new guidebook followed, two books turned into three and the enterprise kept expanding, publishing more titles and hiring more staff, including research teams.

Every traveler knows how this story ends: the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guides can now be found on every corner of the globe. Venture to any far-flung outpost, and one can generally find someone huddled in a corner, trying to inconspicuously reference the guide to find a bed for the night or the quickest route to the local train station.

Unlikely Destinations is an interesting read for anyone in the backpacker community; it shows how traditional backpacker characteristics such as ingenuity, resourcefulness, diligence, perseverance, and of course dreaming big, have a way of paying off.

This book appeals to a wide variety of readers because it has a touch of everything. For the business-minded, there are inspiring tales of entrepreneurship side by side with the challenges of running a business. For the family-oriented, there are accounts of traveling with the Wheelers’ two children, Tashi and Kieran, as well as discussions of parenthood, along with a healthy dose of teenage angst. For the travel lovers, there are plenty of travel anecdotes including the exasperating tale of facing an astounding import duty after their motorcycle was stolen in Thailand, serendipitous meetings with old friends on the road, and the account of when Tony Wheeler showed up on the doorstep of a man who had been causing trouble in the on-line Lonely Planet forum.

The Wheelers’ lives are many things; boring they are not.

Posted by | Comments (2)  | June 7, 2007
Category: Travel Writing

2 Responses to “Review of Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story”

  1. Reymos Says:

    Your review provided me the basic understanding on how this travel guide became the popular source of travel info around the world. Unfortunately, I dont really buy this guidebook but everytime I go to bookstore, I always have time to browse it especially for places I want to go or explore. Ive heard from my friends that old editions were still helpful, instead of buying new one which is quite expensive. Regards

  2. Karen Bryan Says:

    The book does sound very interesting and inspirational to budding travel entrepreneurs like myself. I have mixed feelings about guidebooks, they can be useful for a general background to a destination but I wouldn’t use them religiously when I arrive. Better to spend time wandering around and discovering the place for yourself.