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

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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].

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