Ahead of the crowd: Thirty years of Lonely Planet in India

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Lonely Planet's first travel book on India was published 30 years ago. It transformed perceptions - and the company's fortunes, says co-founder Tony Wheeler

The Lonely Planet book list now stretches to more than 500 titles, but if there's one title with a real resonance for me it's the India guide. India was about the 20th different book we'd published and we "bet the shop" on it.

Back in 1980, when we set out to research India, Lonely Planet was a tiny company, operating out of an old shop-front office in a questionable corner of Melbourne, and with only half a dozen people. I was still Lonely Planet's principal author: life seemed to be a juggling act between two conflicting jobs. I had to stay at home to mind the shop, but at the same time I had to be on the road researching new guidebooks. As a result, it was difficult to get away for more than a couple of months at a time. In late 1979, a new business partner joined us and we finally had somebody to run the show while my wife Maureen and I travelled.

We'd made a lengthy excursion around southern India in early 1979, a proving run for putting together a guide to the whole country, and a year later we kicked off researching the first real doorstop LP guide.

For a paltry US$1,000 each in expense money, two other writers set off to research the north and south of the country while Maureen and I took on the middle. The north, comprising everything from Uttar Pradesh to the Himalayas, was the responsibility of Prakash Raj, who we found when he self-published a book with the encouraging title Nepal on $1 a day. Southern India was handled by Geoff Crowther, a bushy-bearded Yorkshireman who lived in a rainforest commune in northern New South Wales. His previous job had been as a stalwart of BIT, the "underground information centre" based in Notting Hill, west London. The outfitfinanced its Sixties-era activities from sales of the "BIT Guides" to Africa, Asia and South America. BIT Guides were what travellers used before Lonely Planet and Rough Guides came along.

Once we'd finished researching the book, Geoff moved in with us in Melbourne to put it together. Nearly all of the maps in that first edition were hand-drawn by Geoff. It was a crazy project; we felt like we were putting together an encyclopedia of India rather than a guide book – and at times only Geoff's beer-fuelled mapping mania kept it going.

The book grew and grew as we worked on it. Back then Lonely Planet guides were organic entities; they simply expanded to whatever size felt best. However, from books of around 200 to 300 pages in length, we suddenly leapt to producing a 700-page monster.

We finally got the first books on the shelves in late 1981. Fortunately for the financial health of Lonely Planet, it was an instant hit, and our sales doubled almost instantly. India: A Travel Survival Kit became a critical success as well as a popular one when I shook hands with Lord Hunt, leader of the successful 1953 Everest Expedition, and took home the Thomas Cook Guidebook of the Year award.

Now, 30 years on, we've arrived at the 14th edition of the India guide – and these days it's an ongoing battle to keep the length from straying too far beyond 1,000 pages. Sales passed the million mark quite a few editions ago. Its publication kicked off a period of frenetic growth, and before long we were sending out a stream of writers to cover other "big" destinations. It's no wonder I still love that book.

India has gone through even more changes than Lonely Planet in those 30 years – although I'm often surprised how much of it, from the point of view of the traveller, has simply stayed the same. You may be able to book train tickets online, but taking a train north from Mumbai to Surat in Gujarat on a recent India trip, I was astonished to be asked to fill out a scrappy paper form, in duplicate, before I was permitted to buy a ticket. Coming back from Surat a couple of days later, I was even more surprised to find that seating lists were still pasted up on the carriage side.

These days as you fly around India, you're no longer restricted to the vagaries and discomforts of flying Indian Airlines. Standards at some Indian airports have made great leaps forward. However, plenty of airports are still stuck in the past. As I checked in at the tiny airport at Khajuraho, south-east of Delhi, last year I had to thread my way through a herd of goats to get to the terminal door.

A few days later, I had another "back to the Eighties" experience with a flight from Kolkata to Thailand. Thirty years ago, I noted in my diary that the short flight to Bangkok came with huge culture shock. This time the destination was Chiang Mai rather than the Thai capital, but the end result was the same. There was tediously slow paperwork upon departure from India, then a lightning-fast entry to Thailand; a filthy toilet in the Kolkata departure lounge, followed by a spotlessly clean one on arrival in Chiang Mai.

On the other hand, so many things have changed – not least Calcutta's evolution to Kolkata. India always had style; we simply didn't recognise it. Now mention Bollywood and we think of the music, the dance, the choreography. India is also now part of the global economy.

Once upon a time, India tried to make everything for itself, even if zero imports also meant zero exports. So for years the most popular car in India – virtually the only car in India – was the Hindustan Ambassador, essentially an early 1950s Morris Oxford enjoying a spell of Eastern reincarnation. Today, the Indian roads are crowded with international marques; I even had a ride in a shiny new Jaguar XF (Jag is, after all, Indian-owned) on my last trip to Mumbai, although I can't see its cruise control getting much use on the dreadful road network.

Telecommunications are the cutting edge of India's technological change. Every time I try to decipher some computer or phone problem with a call-centre techie who is clearly somewhere in India, I think back to when I was researching that first guide. At the time, to make a call you first had to make a booking at a telephone office. The following day, you would turn up, but then wait hours for the connection. When it finally crackled into life, you were often unable to hear a thing. At the end of this frustrating experience, the bill would equate to the price of a whole day's meals or even more.

Today, my mobile phone works everywhere I go. It's a reminder of what a wonderful thing it was to wrench telecommunications out of the dead hands of government management, the useless old "licence Raj". The licence Raj may be on its last legs, but India can still win medals in bureaucracy and paperwork. Last year, I made two trips to India with tourist visas. But I didn't manage to make a third trip which required a business visa. When I turned up with forms, photographs, flight bookings and a company letter despatching me to the sub-continent, I was informed that my trip required "pull" as well as "push". In other words, I needed an invitation from India. Since there wasn't time to get one, the trip was cancelled.

Despite the trials and tribulations India can still throw at you, I never fail to remember that it has the same essential virtue a well-known gentleman tagged on London: when you tire of it, you tire of life. For all the advances, it may still be frustrating and exasperating, but no way is it ever boring. That "wow" feeling could always hit you at any moment.

Like many India fans, Rajasthan still comes way up towards the top of my personal India hit parade. It's India at its most colourful, most exotic, most alive. On my last visit to the state, I also caught the wonderful Jaipur Literary Festival, choreographed by that number one India-fanatic William Dalrymple. It's like Hay popping ecstasy. There could be no finer Indian moment than an assortment of Scottish authors – Andrew O'Hagan, Alexander McCall Smith, Niall Ferguson and William Dalrymple – bantering over Scotland's possible position as "the Belarus of Western Europe" – to the huge amusement of the standing-room-only audience.

The final hoot came from Ferguson who answered an enquiry about what Scotsmen really wear under their kilts with a tale of playing football in a kilt. Tripped en route to the goal, he claimed to have gone kilt over sporran to a spectator's cry of "great tackle!".

The 14th edition of the Lonely Planet 'India' guide is out now (£20.99)

India, then and now: how the 1981 and 2011 guides compare

Trains

1981: It's India for real on board the trains. In 2nd class, unreserved travel can really be a nightmare, since they are hopelessly crowded... The very popular Indrail Passes are available from the main railways offices.

2011: Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience... The best way of sourcing information is to use relevant internet sites such as Indian Railways ( indianrail.gov.in).

Anjuna, Goa

1981: Full moon is a particularly good time to be here when there's usually a mass party with psychedelics freely available.

2011: A central government "noise pollution" ban on loud music in open spaces between 10pm and 6am has largely curbed its often notorious, drug-laden party scene. Goa simply does not party the way it used to.

Bombay/Mumbai

1981: Bombay is the economic powerhouse of India. It's the fastest moving, most affluent, most industrialised city in India.

2011: Mumbai is a beautiful mess, full of dreamers and hard-labourers, actors and gangsters, stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and servants, fisherfolk and crorepatis (millionaires), and lots more.

Kovalam, Kerala

1981: This is undoubtedly one of the best beaches in India if not the best... The fact that it's a fairly popular, though still low key, beach resort hasn't radically affected the life style of the local people.

2011: Once a calm fishing village clustered around its crescents of beach, nowadays Kovalam is Kerala's most developed resort. It's a touristy place and the shore is built up with hotels.

Bangalore/Bengaluru, Karnataka

1981: Though a modern, bustling city which is fast expanding into an important industrial centre, Bangalore remains one of India's pleasantest.

2011: The hub of India's booming IT industry, cosmopolitan Bengaluru is the numero uno city in the Indian deep south.

Paragon Hotel and Modern Lodge in Calcutta/Kolkata

1981: Two of Calcutta's most popular rock-bottom establishments... they're ok, clean sheets and toilets, reasonable food. Dorm beds at around Rs8 [then £0.40].

2011: Some of the coffin-box rooms [at the Paragon Hotel] are so spirit-crushing that the graffiti is actually an improvement. Dorm beds from Rs120 [£1.65]. It isn't modern at all but Modern Lodge has a more homely feel than most other ultra-budget dives. Single rooms from Rs100 [£1.35].

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?