Tony Wheeler: The Woody Allen of travel
April 12, 2005 9:59 AM   Subscribe

The Parachute Artist. In the New Yorker's Journeys issue, Tad Friend explains how Lonely Planet's founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, changed travel. Tony Wheeler has a travel blog.
posted by matteo (12 comments total)
"The series’ authority is such that the team accompanying Jay Garner, the first American administrator of occupied Iraq, used “Lonely Planet Iraq” to draw up a list of historical sites that should not be bombed or looted."

*head asplodes*
posted by The Dryyyyy Cracker at 10:17 AM on April 12, 2005

I think the assertion that George W. Bush would not have invaded Iraq had he been better-travelled is an interesting one, but I don't see much to back it up. It's a nice one-line dig to make people who travel a lot feel better than the President. But are we really to believe that no one who was involved in the decision making process of the Iraq war was well-travelled? That just seems absurd.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:14 AM on April 12, 2005

I spent eight months traveling (sort of) recently on a variety of different guidebooks. I think people become imprinted and used to whatever guidebook they start traveling with and that becomes their favorite. For me, that was Let’s Go, which, at the time was very budget, oriented but had a nice amount of snark and personality to them. The Lonely Planet, I found, was more dry, and surprisingly catered to higher budgets. I also liked the Rick Steves books for their sheer enthusiasm.

It is amazing that no matter where you go and what guide you use, you’ll find yourself there with like-minded people who are reading the same book. I suppose the best way to really travel would be without a guidebook at all, but man, that could be rough.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:41 AM on April 12, 2005

But are we really to believe that no one who was involved in the decision making process of the Iraq war was well-travelled?

Who exactly was involved in this decision???

The Defense Policy Board was stocked with neocons like Perle.

Rumsfeld & the Pentagon proper has its $500B/yr budgets to justify (but Shinseki to his credit argued the occupation was going to 'need a bigger boat').

The House & Senate were made to abandon their constitutional duties by signing a blank check for war.

Plenty of people at State argued against the war. You'll notice they're no longer with the admin now.

So we're left with Condoleeza and her husband as the only possible counterweights to the march for war.

The buck stops with the President, especially in this case. Sell him on the idea, and you're golden.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:26 PM on April 12, 2005

What's mildly disturbing about the article is that, by the sheer volume of Lonely Planet and other travel guide sales, "independent" travelling has become as packaged as guided bus tours. And as a result cultures tend to rearrange themselves according to guidebooks' recommendations: “If they recommend the Resthouse Bangalore, then half the guesthouses there rename themselves Resthouse Bangalore.”

Which brings up the point that I often feel while looking at others' vacation photos: why even travel at all anymore? The unique cultural experience seems to be a thing of the romanticized past.
posted by sharkitect at 1:51 PM on April 12, 2005

sharkitect, not sure what your point is, but there's a lot to be said for talking and eating with people from a completely world than you. That's what travelling is about. People who go abroad and go down the sights checklists aren't travellers, they're tourists.
posted by nixerman at 1:56 PM on April 12, 2005

Go to the Thorn Tree over at Lonely Planet if you want to argue travellers vs tourists.

In reality, however, Lonely Planet has lost its edge, and Shakitect has a good point. When you show up in some "backwater" and all you find are the 19-29 year old "aren't I the cool backpacker" types haggling over the price of banana pancakes, then you've basically lost the independent traveller spirit.

The Wheeler's did do so much to make the world accessible to young people especially. And the spirit is still out there. Heck, I've been to four continents with Lonely Planet. Still, even loyal readers are beginning to sense that LP isn't what it used to be.

Amazing people, and a great article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by AspectRatio at 2:19 PM on April 12, 2005

Great post. I find the discussion on what equals tourism to what equals traveling to be pretty trivial and often a sign of snobbery. There’s so much to see and experience out there that I commend anyone who leaves their home for a while. I think the Canadian traveling in a rickshaw in Vietnam and the Montanan snapping pictures in Times Square in NYC are both having cultural experiences.

That said, I think there is a huge difference between packaged tours and independent traveling. There is a certain amount of immersion that goes into independent travel that is both challenging and rewarding. For example, figuring out how to use public transportation in a place where you can’t speak the language is very quickly going provide you with a cultural experience. Hell, just figuring out how to use a foreign phone can provide some good insights into a local culture. Packaged tours, on the other hand, do it all for you, make all your decisions, and surround you with similar people. That’s not a way to leave home and have new experiences.
posted by Staggering Jack at 2:33 PM on April 12, 2005

Rather than fall into the Lonely Planet rut, I took the path less traveled and quite enjoyed Mark Elliot's cryptic hand drawn maps in South East Asia: the Graphic Guide.

His book teaches you to think for yourself, and to explore your surroundings, as opposed to Lonely Planet which spoon feeds a lot of the obvious, leads to overcrowding at the first three guest houses listed in each town, and thinks it necessary to tell you where to eat in countries where food is constantly being served every few feet.

I avoided a lot of tourist yokels by avoiding Lonely Planet.
posted by furtive at 2:35 PM on April 12, 2005

Lonely Planet has changed and that was acknowledged (and seemingly rued) by the Wheelers in the NYorker piece. They sound like they are both a bit disenchanted with the directions LP has taken. Maybe it's time they flick passed management and just went on the road.

But LP has helped me enormously through a few years of travel and I've kept most of my well-thumbed asian tomes. People refer to them as 'the bible' but they are better perused as guides only - a bit of info to set you on the way for the day perhaps. Close followers of these types of books can have sheltered experiences, arguably going against their original intentions. Immersion in the local culture as Staggering Jack says, is a far more rewarding experience - but it comes with the price of not knowing what's to come - the most enjoyable part of being a traveller.
posted by peacay at 4:00 PM on April 12, 2005

My point isn't that I believe truly independent travelling no longer exists (although it is an interesting topic of discussion), but that the whole idea of the Cultural Experience isn't what it used to be. A better way of putting it would be that the Cultural Experience has become something entirely different from what we think, and it is not something can can be read about in travel guides and discussed in blogs.

I did the Lonely Planet bit in Eastern Europe and had the strange feeling that I was following someone, or being followed, or that every move was somehow expected by everyone...

maybe I'm just paranoid.
posted by sharkitect at 4:27 PM on April 12, 2005

hmm funny how the first article mirrors the Hitchhikers Guide's fate as per D.A.... that being said the lonely planet North India guide Was my bible for 5 weeks. I learned to trust it more than anything i was told, by friend or tout!
posted by ba3r at 6:49 PM on April 12, 2005

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