As The Lonely Planet turns 50, Thomas Bywater takes a look at the guidebook’s impressive five-decade journey, from backpackers to boomers.
It was sex, drugs and outer Anatolia.
Their first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, was published in 1973, less than 12 months after they arrived in Melbourne at the end of a globetrotting odyssey. It was the guide that launched a thousand trips and the Lonely Planet as a trusted resource for travellers exploring the harder-to-reach parts of the world.
The guidebook was aimed at young, “right on” adventurers like themselves. It contained tips on faraway places; everything from jumpstarting a minivan in Jalalabad, to sourcing weed and travel funds on the road.
“If you have really got nothing worthwhile to flog, and are really short of cash, you can always unload an armful.” Selling blood for travel cash in Kuwait is a tip that has since disappeared from the guides.
The modern-day Lonely Planet is unlikely to go into the intricacies of smuggling cannabis into Australia, though it was clearly something the 26-year-old Tony Wheeler put some thought into:
“Australian Customs are definitely the most drug paranoid in the world, easier for the camel to go through the proverbial than a few grams into Australia,” he wrote. Afghanistan meanwhile was “the potheads’ paradise”.
Despite dedicating an entire entry to the topic of “DOPE”, this was just a tiny aspect of the books’ anything-goes attitude to travel which would come to characterise the off-beat guides.
“You miss a lot if you see everything from 9 miles up,” they cautioned readers.
That maxim could summarise their entire approach to travel. The Wheelers shunned air travel for bus, bike or rickshaw. The Lonely Planet began as a guide to the places in-between for travellers who didn’t want to miss anything.
It’s telling that the guides emerged in the decade that gave us the Jumbo Jet and mass commercial air travel. The Lonely Planet was a gateway to travel’s emerging counterculture.
Travel writer and Lonely Planet contributor Brett Atkinson said they were often the only source of information on some places.
“All these earlier guidebooks were a must-have back in the 70s if you were going on the overland to Sumatra,” he says. “They were full of colourful details.”
For young travellers in Australia or New Zealand, they offered a “travel bible”, at the reasonable price of $1.80, around $20 today.
While there was plenty of competition, Lonely Planet thrived in the places that other guides never reached. The South Pacific provided rich pickings, such as Aitutaki and Niue - Atkinson’s first commission with Lonely Planet in 2005, which he described as “beautifully sleepy” and “one of the easiest guidebooks to write”.
The Kiwi writer has now contributed more than 50 updates for 15 countries.
“My first experience of the guides was as a user, in the late 80s and 90s. Travelling to Vietnam in 92, the book we used then was a first edition.”
So, when he was asked to return in 2012 to update the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, of course Atkinson said yes.
“To be back in Hanoi as a writer was something really special. As a country, it has really changed in so little time and opened up.”
Being asked to write about parts of the country and islands that were still off-limits to international visitors 30 years ago was a thrill. Today the pleasure beaches of Ha Long Bay see around 4.5 million visitors a year.
From overlanders to overtourism
The guidebooks helped to put many of these places on the tourist map. Vietnam, Bali and Croatia - then part of Yugoslavia - are today the victims of the guide’s success. They are definitely not the mysterious nodes on the overland network that the hippie trail tourists would have known.
Over-tourism is an issue that current Lonely Planet editions deal with and guidebook writers can’t avoid, says Atkinson.
As a writer, the only responsible thing to do is to suggest off-peak times and alternatives. However, he says that today, the real culprits of over-tourism are not following a guidebook but a phone screen.
“In Asia, in particular, there are a lot of places which have become a lot more ‘insular’,” he explains.
“There are a lot of places like Hoi An where people are being led by Instagram and Tiktok.”
The social media traps concentrate crowds at photo-ops and familiar sights. These are surrounded by plenty of other restaurants, sights and experiences that are as good, if not better, but starved of custom by the social-media star of the hour.
“The value of a guidebook is to show the places in between,” says Atkinson.
Boomers and the Banana Pancake trail
The countries that began appearing in the Country Guides of the 1980s have had mixed fates. Some off-beat destinations are now battling over-tourism. Others, sadly, have become actual war zones.
The 2007 edition of Lonely Planet Afghanistan was called “not the typical guidebook for the typical tourist” in a New York Times review, cautioning against anything but armchair travel reference.
Tony Wheeler, who returned to write about the Hindu Kush mountains in 2010 said that even “the most drug-addled hippie sweating through a cold-turkey nightmare” couldn’t have foreseen the fate of Afghanistan and its 20 years of war.
As the places the original guides were written about became increasingly dangerous the audiences the books were written for became more risk-averse. From backpackers to Boomers - floating around Asia following the pages of a little blue book lost its edginess around the new Millennium. Probably around the time the reader applied for their first mortgage or, possibly, a hip replacement.
The emergence of budget air travel and backpackers’ hostels across Southeast Asia meant the overland route was no longer being followed cover-to-cover. The guidebooks became reference books, to be dipped in and out of, at the end of cheap passenger jet fares.
Lonely Planet became the unofficial guide of the “Banana Pancake Trail” - a tongue-in-cheek name for the well-trodden tourist route, on which Western comfort food was never hard to find. The guides also mellowed in their tastes, swapping Southeast Asia on a Shoestring for country reference books with a few more creature comforts.
Some contributors felt that after the company was sold, first to the BBC and then again to private publishing houses, the focus was less about printing guides to the lesser-known in-between places, and more on printing guides that followed the crowds.
Tony Wheeler reflected in an interview for Reuters back in 2014, that Lonely Planet was changed beyond recognition.
“As we got older and wealthier and had kids, the books changed with us.”
But the 50-year story is not all doom, gloom and tourist boom.
“There is still a loyal LP user,” says Kiwi guide writer Craig McLachlan. “Especially those who were in their 20s in the 1980s and 1990s and never travelled without an LP guidebook!”
Having lived between Japan and New Zealand, writing guide updates since the 1990s, McLachlan says he has seen the two countries take radically different directions.
New Zealand - one of the best-selling guidebooks - is much changed since the first edition of “Discover New Zealand” in 1977.
The one-time mecca for youth-hostelling, freedom-camping and backpacking has matured into an international - and quite expensive - destination that is attracting those first-wave visitors back, “now in their 50s and 60s and still buying guidebooks”.
The “Land of the Rising Sun” on the other hand was prohibitively expensive during the first editions of the Lonely Planet.
“Japan wasn’t interested in attracting foreign tourists as their economy was so strong,” he says, but that has been turned on its head. The country now wants to attract 40 million tourists a year, versus New Zealand’s paltry 4 million. Freshly opened up after a long-pandemic closure, there’s an excitement about the more remote corners of Japan that is not unlike the early overland route.
There is definitely a generational divide over travelling with a paper guide, but there’s no shortage of appetite for the destinations in between from younger travellers setting off today.
“That Lonely Planet spirit of adventure is still out there, even if youngsters are now doing everything on their phones,” he says.
There’s nostalgia both to travel and the travel guide that future-proofs the books, like a well-loved vinyl collection. There’s no better souvenir than a well-used guidebook, says McLachlan.
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