Book Review of Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler
Who doesn’t like a rags to riches story? With 27 cents to their name after traveling through Europe and Asia, Tony and Maureen Wheeler arrived in Australia with no real plans or prospects. Through hard work and almost reckless perseverance, they brought their Lonely Planet travel books to the masses and created a company worth a quarter billion dollars its peak.
As origin stories go, that’s almost as good as it gets. However, Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story starts off frustratingly boring. As the couple embarks on their travels, pages are full of proper nouns and few details. Names come and go as quickly as the places they visit, and rarely do things slow down to get to know a place or a person. I’d perk up when I’d see a familiar location that I had visited, but in a sentence or two, the Wheelers would be off to the next place. It was like sitting in a hostel and listening to a backpacker rattle of a boring list of places. Some people enjoy that, but I don’t.
There are moments of colorful details from the 1970s, like the Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok. This hotel transitioned from a hotel full of prostitutes for American soldiers to the first main backpacker hangout in the city to a now non-descript hotel that goes for $20 a night. Hearing about the “good old days” of travel might be as boring as hearing an old person talk about the way things once were, but it has a lot of historical value consider how quickly tourism (especially to Southeast Asia) has become popular. These tourist places have blown up so much in the past decades that they’re almost unrecognizable to people who saw it in the 70s.
The business side was interesting but very little was written about their process for writing and their research techniques until much later on. I would have loved to read about their research and writing of the earliest, roughest guides. Later chapters are dedicated to challenges of the business, such as breaking into the European market and dealing with overly sensitive governments (Myanmar was the worst). The chapter on the history of guidebooks was especially interesting. To the book’s credit, the authors speak honestly about how a few books were poorly done and how some glaring editorial mistakes that slipped through the cracks.
Despite struggling to effectively combine the travel and business aspects into one cohesive memoir, The Lonely Planet Story has enough worthwhile material to warrant a look to mainly see how both tourism and the travel guidebook industries have changed. sadly, the book came out in 2007 before the most tumultuous time in Lonely Planet’s history. The company was sold to the BBC, with the Wheelers being bought out. The company was sold a few years to a massive $118 million loss. It would have been great to have this time period included as an addendum.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?