Not-so-Lonely Planet: after 30 years, guide opens world to masses

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The Independent Online

Maps from the 13th century clearly showed the way to Paradis, an island east of India so inaccessible no one could prove it was a myth.

The fanciful destinations medieval scholars inscribed across the Mappa Mundi appear ludicrously unsophisticated to the modern traveller. Yet, more than ever, we continue to naively seek our ideal paradise lost.

Today, as the backpackers' bible, Lonely Planet, celebrates its 30th birthday, the quest for adventure has never been more widespread.

Exotic destinations, out of reach to the average Seventies' family, are now easy to reach. In its inception, the guide was a helmsman to the penniless and audacious youngster - an antithesis to the luxury of more conservative holidays.

Yet, by virtue of opening up such remote destinations, Lonely Planet led the way for the mass market. "We used to put 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 call Wayan, and he'll take you'," said Maureen Wheeler, who co-founded the guide with her husband Tony. "We can't put that in now, because there might be 20,000 people all looking for Wayan."

If one needed proof the rebel had become the establishment, Mr Wheeler announced yesterday that the fate of far-flung travel lay in the hands of older, more affluent tourists.

While entrepreneurs using old warplanes offered the first package holidays in the Fifties, the concept did not really take off until the next decade. Britons were restricted in the amount of sterling they could take abroad and tour operators offered the perfect solution in the package deal.

By the Seventies, holidays to Spain began to boom, with other Mediterranean destinations following on. But it was not until the late Eighties that places such as Egypt and Thailand drew in the mass market.

With some now shunning the idea of being stereotypical tourists, more mysterious destinations - once the preserve of Lonely Planet readers - took off in the Nineties just as budget airlines were making the weekend trip to previously inaccessible continental destinations possible.

"In many ways, Lonely Planet has gone into places like Tibet or South American destinations in advance of the mass package market," said Richard Butler, professor of tourism at the University of Surrey.

"The pattern is that when nicer places become available and people buy holidays, almost nobody goes back. They go up and what is seen as up is further away and more exotic."

When the future Mr and Mrs Wheeler first met on a park bench in London's Regent's Park and discovered a mutual passion for travel, many Britons were still taking their summer break in Blackpool or Brighton.

The couple married in 1972 and, in a bid to shake off their mutual wanderlust, they bought a £65 van and headed across Europe and Asia towards Australia.

Arriving in Sydney with just 27 cents, they decided to see if they could make something out of the numerous questions friends asked about their trip.

Across Asia on the Cheap - a guide written and stapled together on their kitchen table - was published in October, 1973, and sold 8,000 copies.

For a company which was misnamed (Tony Wheeler misheard "lovely planet" in a Joe Cocker and Leon Russell song "Space Captain"), it has proved a phenomenal success.

The biggest break for them came with the 1981 guide to India, a country ideally suited to its cheap and cheerful format. It remains their best-selling book today.

Today, more than 650 titles are published in 17 languages. It sells more than 5.5 million books a year and now has a television company. The couple were lucky enough to be struck with inspiration at a time when the holiday market was altering dramatically.

While the notion of seeking out the unknown is as old as Marco Polo's travels, it has developed increasing importance in today's safe yet competitive society, UCL travel-writing expert Dr Neil Rennie said.

"It supplies peril at a low level. There is also an element of going away to places other people haven't gone, to display superiority."

There is no doubt that, with the turn of the century, Britons are seeking out increasingly alien destinations. Mr Wheeler said yesterday: "Over the past 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.

"The baby boomers will be retiring soon and we'll see more older travellers with money and time."

With less unknown destinations on offer, activities may become the new adventure and Mr Wheeler forecast their continued rise.

Ironically, while the average person wants a thrill, he or she would like it in a swift, tidy, manageable and comfortable form. The sophisticated tourist may class a ready-made tour as cheesy but the very act of picking up a guide with a print run of thousands ensures they will not wander too far off the beaten path. They will be steered away from the danger of being mugged or even simply appearing ignorant.

The Independent's travel editor, Simon Calder, agreed, saying: "People want soft adventure, thinking they are having an adventure while everything possible is in place to make sure they don't."