Courtesy of Tony Wheeler / Simon Caldwell

How the Lonely Planet Founder Thinks Travel World Might Change Post-COVID

It turns out you can be the founder of Lonely Planet, and still have trouble making airline status, year after year.

Recently, we caught up with Tony Wheeler, known as the ebullient founder of Lonely Planet, at his home in Melbourne, Australia. Though he normally splits his time between England and Australia in BC times,1 in this lockdown, everyone is the same.

In 1972, Tony, and his wife, Maureen,2 bore and founded the guidebooks during their globetrotting travails. For 35 years, they built and ran the company, until they sold it to the BBC in 2007. Though Wheeler has not been at the helm of one of the most eponymous names in the travel industry for a bit, it’s clear Wheeler’s infectious enthusiasm for discovering and exploring has not waned since his departure.

(Did anyone ever see that movie The Loneliest Planet? Terrible plot, great cinematography. Skip the movie, go straight to the country. Talk about transforming the cultural lexicon, though.)

In our brief chat together, we dug deeper into Wheeler’s thoughts about traveling back in time, curbing overtourism, and simply, how travel may look like after restrictions lift around the world. Here is what is clear: Travel is going to change. Some of it is going to change for the better; some of it is going to change for the worse.

[For brevity, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

How has the lockdown affected any travel plans you may have had?

I should be in London right now. The first of September, I’m still booked to be turning up in Athens in Greece with some friends to go on a trip around the Greek islands. Now, the current situation in Greece is that they’ve they’ve reopened to a certain extent, except they haven’t reopened to Americans… and they haven’t reopened to Brits, and most of our friends [are American and British]. The worst countries! They can’t go there at the moment to meet us. And we can’t go to meet them because we’re not allowed to leave our country.

This year, in March, I was planning to go to South America via London, Paraguay and Uruguay, two countries in that have somehow managed to avoid, well, you know. Uruguay, in particular, which is bordering with Brazil, had a really good program there. The infection rate is quite low. At any rate, now I’d be in my third month in London, and I would have made a trip to Sicily, and I would have made a trip to Spain, both of which are canceled, of course. I would have been in the countryside in Britain staying with some friends this week.

I would be going to Greece in September, and after Greece coming back to Australia… but if I had to bet on it, I would say that is canceled as well.

[For 2021] I was planning on meeting some Americans in Morocco, and then Uganda, and some schools in Somaliland, but now, everything is all up in the air.

It’s certainly an interesting point in time. If you really think about it, it’s the first time since people really started traveling, where everyone’s all back home, where they originally started. I think I don’t think we’ll ever have that again.

It’s certainly a one-off you know. Certainly in my lifetime, you’d have to be pretty old enough to remember World War Two. During which, World War Two was that, people and everything was shut down, not able to go anywhere. Yeah, so, it is interesting times.

So what preconceptions do you think people have of you as the founder of Lonely Planet?

The story I sometimes tell about Lonely Planet, is that once upon a time, when we started the business, all we’d say is we’re doing is guidebooks to places that people don’t go to. Because, you know, we were a small business, and we couldn’t compete with the big people doing guidebooks to France, and that sort of thing. So we would have to explain what it was.

Then later on, 10 years, 20 years, everybody knew it, you know, everybody you met used a Lonely Planet guide and they were all very familiar with them.

I still use them if I’m traveling. I will always take the relevant Lonely Planet guidebook with me. Although I take them digitally on my iPad rather than the physical hard copy. I also use the web as much as anybody else, and I use other things as well.

Our society, it’s going backwards right now, but in general, our society advances all the time. More computers, and more this, without going back. And then there are places in the world⁠—the Congo is one example—where things have gone backwards. People, places, where the roads don’t go to anymore, where people used to have cars. And where their parents used to have cars, but they don’t. It’s strange. That’s interesting.

Are there places in the world besides the Congo that you think are like that? I mean, Cuba and North Korea comes to mind but those places have been just mostly just isolated. It doesn’t seem like they have gone backwards, more like stay static.

When North Korea finally opens up, it’s going to be very interesting. I have been to North Korea and traveled through a little bit, but traveled through with somebody looking over your shoulder. It’s not just traveling through, since there are lots of other players. TK[Tony did mention previously a little bit that the the Solomon Islands is one of these places.]

I’ve always been fascinated by dystopias, and there’s lots of them around the world. Chernobyl, I think [is one of them] and it’s not just the reactor that is amazing. But it’s the abandoned town, Pripyat, which was the next town. It’s there as if they just stood up and walked up one day and you go around and you go into the school, and there are all the desks and there are still books scattered on the desks. The gymnasium is there, and the swimming pool that’s empty, another empty swimming pool.

So Chernobyl, and the island of South Georgia, which is in the Antarctic, and where the Norwegians had whaling stations there. When they killed all the whales, they upped and left. They thought, well, we’ll leave, we’ll give the whales a year or two off, and they’ll all breed lots more whales, and we can come back and take up killing whales again. Of course, it didn’t happen, and now it’s been empty for more than 50 years. They left them as if they were going to come back tomorrow.

Is this part of the reason that travel keeps you hooked?

Dystopias are amazing. Places that have gone backwards rather than forwards are amazing places.

The last place I went to before all this closed down was to the islands of Socotra, which is in Yemen. It’s been described as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. It has got lots of plants that you find nowhere else. The Galapagos has animals, whereas the Socotra has plants. That’s a really interesting set of islands.

Coming out of this pandemic, what do you think you would like to see come out of this in terms of traveling?

There’s a lot of discussion going on around about that.

The places that have suffered from overtourism don’t have any overtourism at all. I think that the ones who have gone back from over tourism to currently under tourism would like to, if they reopen their doors, to reopen them in a more measured way. The Barcelonas and Amsterdams and Venices (and New Zealands) of this world are looking at that, and how to have have more manageable tourism.

There’s certain aspects of tourism, like the cruise ship business, is definitely going to have a major rethink. One question is, are people even going to be willing to get back on cruise ships? I suspect they will. But the places like Venice, where they hadn’t had these monster ships plowing through the canals, are they going to accept them back in? Will there be such outrage so that, if we complain, we complain, we complain, and say, finally, no, we’re not going to have them back.

There was [also] a lot of dirty business with cruise ships dumping waste where they shouldn’t have been. A lot of them use a very unclean fuel and I [hope] cruise ships will be on a much tighter and shorter leash when after all this happens.

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The Faroe Islands has been struggled with overtourism in recent years. (Ævar Guðmundsson / Flickr)

There was also the question if some places were just too cheap. In Europe, there’s this particular idea of, “Oh god, it’s Friday, where should we go? Let’s go to Prague.” Prague, for example, was the place that got this really bad reputation of let’s go to Prague for the weekend and get drunk. That may be on a tighter leash afterwards. Maybe not.

(I have flown Ryanair lots of times, both Ryanair and EasyJet.)

We don’t know how these things are going to come back, but I suspect there’s going to be tighter controls on it. I mean, at first, some people are not going to be willing to fly. They’re not willing to go to these places. But at the moment, we’re just not seeing things opening up at all. Nobody is jumping on the planes and flying off here and flying off there without a second skip.

Even in Europe, places are opening up, but I don’t know where you would go, you have to wait another month or so.

Usually, the questions I ask revolve around more which alliance you are, if you participate in any airline alliance.

I’ve got a card with, you know, Star Alliance through Singapore Airlines. I fly OneWorld with Qantas with British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and yes, with American Airlines.

I’ve got very good status with Qantas. And my status comes and goes with Singapore Airlines, you know, it’s up one year and it’s down the next.

Whereas, my Qantas status is sort of permanent. It’s been gifted by the gods, as it were. Remarkably, it wasn’t anything to do Qantas recognizing that I was in any way important at all; it was that I knew somebody and they opened the door for me, so…

So basically, it wasn’t anything to do with your contributions to the travel industry at all.

I do a lot of miles. I’m ashamed to say, I’ve got a really bad carbon record. I do put money into green things, but it’s no answer. What I always tell people I said, it’s like a Catholic Church, you know, you committed a sin, right? You say the Hail Marys and the sin is forgotten. But that’s not true.

If you committed a sin, you committed a sin. You cannot you cannot say Hail Marys and wipe it out. It’s the same with flying; if you’ve flown, you’ve flown. Putting money into planting trees doesn’t change the fact that you flew.

So you think about that often, the environmental impact of travel?

I think about it all the time. I’m going to the gym as soon as we finish talking, on my bicycle. My wife who’s actually out in the car right now says, what good does that do? You go off to the gym on your bicycle but then you jump on a plane and fly across continents and all the good you did on your bicycle! All those bicycle trips are wiped out by that one flight! I still come back on my bicycle, so there you go.

I mean, I guess you do what you can. I really don’t think about traveling by cargo ship often but there is what Greta Thunberg did, but she has a point. Maybe what comes out of this pandemic is there all those things like status runs3 that will become impossible. In terms of people going to Prague, heading off to Barcelona, and just basically sleeping and drinking their way through Barcelona, to me, that’s not a trip. That’s not traveling. Maybe if you go there, you should learn something.

One of the things we were talking about is how it’s going to come back. One thing that may happen is it comes back, it’s going to be more expensive, because there aren’t so many flights and there are smaller aircraft and because of the social distancing. Travel’s gonna become a thing only for the wealthy. That doesn’t bother me because I’m wealthy… But I don’t like to think of people, young people who want to travel.

I think it’s opening up their eyes to the world. There’s all sorts of really, really good reasons. So is it that, or are we going to say, okay, you can go to Venice, if you’re a student of Italian history? Now, here’s the exam, you have to sit through the architecture of many evil Italian churches. If you don’t pass the exam, you don’t get to go.

So on the one hand, only the wealthy can do it, or another, the deserving can do it. I don’t really want to see either of those things. I don’t want to see us having to sit in the exam before we can go somewhere, nor do I want to see travel restricted just to the wealthy.

For some people, travel is the only experience they have to talk to someone who is different from them. But, I think when you look at your immediate social circle, most people are relatively segregated. It’s not until they’re outside of their box and outside of their comfort zone, they actually interact with someone who’s not like that.

It’s going to be very interesting looking, that’s for sure. The books haven’t been written yet about it, of course. 🚴

3 footnotes

  1. Before COVID-19 times.
  2. So many of the great companies started and sold over the course of history have rarely been a solo effort; Lonely Planet is no exception.
  3. Tony interjected here, saying “Those are ridiculous!”
How the Lonely Planet Founder Thinks Travel World Might Change Post-COVID via @maphappy
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