Q&A with Lonely Planet founders
- 1 October 2003
What have been the major turning points for Lonely Planet over the past 30 years and why?
MW: 1979 was the key year. We moved into an office rather than working from our house, we took on a partner (Jim Hart), and we took on the India book which resulted in the biggest book on India that was ever seen. Up until then, there were three of us – all the books were stored in this little tin shed out the back and under the beds and everywhere else. It was a very amateur, home grown business.
TW: I think the next turning point was when Maureen and I went to the States and opened up our US office (1984). Suddenly it was an international organisation.
MW:. Much bigger companies had tried it, so it was seen as an incredibly bold move by the industry. Looking back, it was probably one of the smarter things that we did.
You arrived in Australia with 27 cents and since built a global business empire. Do you see yourselves as mavericks?
TW: No. When we started other people were doing similar things.
MW: What’s interesting is why we’ve succeeded more than others; we’ve managed to be the biggest and stay independent. Most of the big publishers, especially travel publishers, have come to us at some time or another and suggested we sell to them. It just never really appealed.
You’ve travelled extensively in places that have since become well trodden paths. Is it still possible to have an adventure when so many places are overrun with tourists?
TW: Although many travellers stick together and go to the same places, doing hill tribe treks, full moon parties, or Interailing from one European capital to another, it’s still remarkably easy to escape crowds and have your own adventure.
MW: Everyone’s trip, especially the first trip, is an adventure. The people you meet, the streets that you walk down, the feelings and emotions that you get from that, they’re yours – it doesn’t really matter how many people are there.
TW: The world is a big place and there are still plenty of remote and beautiful places to experience adventure, if that’s the kind of adventure you’re after.
What do you think are the key changes and events that have effected travel over the past 30 years?
TW: Travel has become accessible, it’s cheaper, it’s easier, and people can go further. Also more places have opened up.
MW: China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Eastern Europe. There are very few places travellers can’t go now. Even North Korea and Saudi Arabia are taking tour groups.
TW: You look back 30 years ago and the number of people going to Thailand was minuscule, now it’s up there with major European destinations.
MW: Tourism wasn’t the huge industry 30 years ago that it is now. When we did our first books, we sold five to 10,000 and that was huge. We used to put in things like, ‘if you get to this Island in Indonesia, walk down the main street to the docks, turn left, there’s a house there and a man called Wayan, and he’ll take you…’ We can’t put that in now, because there might be 20,000 people all looking for Wayan.
What do you think stops people from travelling?
MW: Fear…lack of money…
TW: Because they’re boring.
TW: What we’ve seen this past year or so is that despite terrorism, war and epidemics, people still want to travel. The sales of our books very much reflect current world events. For example sales of books to the Middle East and Southeast Asia declined when SARS and Iraq were high on the news agenda, while sales of guides to South America increased. Travel patterns change but people are still going.
MW: Travel these days is a part of our lifestyles. People are more surprised by those who don’t travel than they are by people that do. Over the last 30 years travel has gone from being an absolute luxury, or something that only mad young backpackers did, to being something that everybody tries at least once. It would have been hard to imagine 30 years ago.
What is the future of travel?
MW: I think travellers are more security conscious since September 11 and the Bali bombing but people will continue to travel. We’ll see a growth in travel to South America and the short break/last minute trend will continue in Europe.
TW: The babyboomers will be retiring soon and we’ll see more older travellers with money and time on their hands. Activity based holidays are also taking off; hiking, surfing, cooking, yoga and so on. On the tech side, I can see a future with guidebook ‘terminals’ at airports where you swipe your card and download a PDF guide.
What keeps you travelling?
TW: It gets me out of the office! I travel about six months of the year and it never gets boring. There are always new things to see and the list of places to go gets longer and longer.
How has Lonely Planet affected your life?
MW: It’s impossible to work out who I’d have been without it. At book fairs people used to call me ‘Maureen Lonely Planet’ because they didn’t know what my surname was or whether I was married to Tony.
What do you think have been your greatest personal achievements?
TW: I still get a kick from people who use our books and come back and say that they wouldn’t have got there without it, and had a great time… and it’s great that we’ve been a part of that.
MW: I’m extraordinarily proud of our books. I think we’ve done a good thing, and I still believe that travel is the best way for people to understand the world.