Not So Lonely Planet

Published in the Jakarta Globe. View PDF of publication here.

For a publishing empire that has lasted 35 years, spawned more than 500 books on travel and is now heaving into the digital age, Lonely Planet began rather modestly, on a London park bench in 1970.
A 20-year-old woman named Maureen sat on the opposite side of a seat occupied by Tony, 23, who was reading a magazine. He remarked that it was a good place to read on a Thursday afternoon.
“That was a good pick-up line,” says a now 61-year-old Tony Wheeler, who got the girl in the end. Maureen became his wife and the co-founder of Lonely Planet.
But had they been seated on the same bench sometime this decade, their exchange might never have happened. Maureen, who had just arrived in London at the time, might have been too engrossed in downloading the latest travel tips from her cellphone to listen to the person sitting next to her.
Lonely Planet is now flexing its technological biceps, recently working with Nokia to provide travel information on cellphones, for $13.99 per download. But does instant information on mobile phones change the nature of travel? Of taking on the world with a backpack and a dog-eared guidebook?
“I think it’s scary on one side, and interesting on the another. I’ve been saying for a long time that the guidebook of the future is here, it’s my GPS, plus my phone, or a small laptop of some sort,” Wheeler says.
The father of modern backpacking is no Luddite in this Internet age — he continues to keep a blog on the Lonely Planet Web site, even after the couple sold a 75 percent stake of the company to the British Broadcasting Corporation last September.
Wheeler acknowledges that the company has changed since the first guidebooks came
out in the 1970s.
No longer will you find headings like “drugs” — offering discreet advice on where to get the best stocks of said product — as you might find in some ancient editions. Instead, that kind of advice on various licentious practices is likely to be found in blogs, the new unpolished gems of travel information — a replacement for the old-style of Lonely travel guides themselves, perhaps?
“In a way they are; they are written off-the cuff,” Wheeler says. “The dangerous thing is that people are going to spend all their time in Internet cafes writing down what they think about the world, rather than going out and meeting the world.”
He’s wasted no time waxing lyrical in Internet cafes — he’s visited Indonesia alone “around 10 to 12 times.”
“It’s a huge country and I wouldn’t in any way say I’ve more than just scratched the surface of it,” he says.
According to his blog, Wheeler did a bit more scratching around the country after speaking at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October this year, renting a scooter to ride up Mount Batur in Bali.
There were no instant updates of Wheeler’s travel habits back in 1974, when he took a similar motorbike journey on the island. You would have had to wait for the printed word, in the form of his original guidebook.
But in this age of self-revelation through blogging, there’s still a few chapters of Wheeler’s travel tomes he hasn’t shared: thirty-five years’ worth of his personal diaries. Will he ever publish those?
The man who ­— at last count — has traveled to 138 countries, just laughs.
“I don’t think anybody would be interested,” he says. “It’s just for your own interest.” A pause. “Who knows?”