Amazing Nomads: Tony Wheeler - The Godfather of Travel

Tony Wheeler co-wrote the first Lonely Planet book in a Sydney garage, with just 94 pages and hand drawn graphics. He then went on to create a publishing empire, inspiring travelers from around the world.

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Amazing Nomads: Tony Wheeler

Described as the godfather of backpacker and adventure travel, Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet, the world’s largest independent guidebook publisher. According to Tony, Chinese travelers are some of the biggest fans of Lonely Planet in the world. Kim and Phil hit the road to chat with Tony live in a Melbourne cafe.

What’s in the Episode

00:08 Kim and Phil are recording live in Melbourne, Australia

01:25 Tony's tips for traveling to the airport and saving money

02:33 Sliding doors

06:00 Building a life changing company

07:55 "Why is this place so expensive?"

09:11 Tony's DMZ story

12:31 Tony's thoughts on borders

13:47 Hands up who has owned a Lonely Planet?

17:00 Tony's focus since selling the Lonely Planet empire

19:10 Why Tony and Maureen settled in Australia

21:22 Tony's number one travel tip

22:09 Next week's podcast

Who is in the Episode

Described as the godfather of backpacker and adventure travel, Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet alongside his wife Maureen.

After traveling across Europe together, they arrived in Melbourne in 1972 and put out their first book, Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973. This would grow into the Lonely Planet empire.

“In 1975, we published our second book, South-East Asia on a Shoestring. From those early guidebooks, Lonely Planet Publications grew to become the world’s largest independent guidebook publisher.”

Tony and Maureen sold Lonely Planet in 2011.

“I keep busy with Planet Wheeler, the foundation Maureen and I set up after we left Lonely Planet …there’s the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas in Melbourne, Australia with something on most days (and nights) of the week. We also have a publishing interest with Text Publishing in Australia… and I’m on the board of Global Heritage Fund, a wonderful organization working to protect and develop archaeological sites in the developing world.”

Tony is the author of On Travel and Islands of Australia (due out in October 2019).


2007 - Namena Reef in Fiji
2005 - Taking a train from Hanoi to the Chinese border
2012 - At Admiral Yamamoto's crash site in Papua New Guinea

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Next Episode: Tonga.

About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

The World Nomads Podcast is not your usual travel Podcast. It’s everything for the adventurous, independent traveler. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today.

You can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected].

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Speaker 1: The World Nomads Podcast bonus episode. Hear amazing nomads sharing their knowledge, stories and experience of world travel.

Speaker 2: Welcome to the World Nomads podcast. If you think it sounds different, that's because it does. We are live on the streets of Melbourne. We've flown down from Sydney to interview who?

Phil: Perhaps the most amazing of amazing nomads. This is the man who started it all for many backpackers. If Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, then this man has launched at least a million backpackers. It's Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet. Let's do it.

Speaker 2: We are at The Moat in Melbourne, in Victoria, Australia, and we have traveled... In fact literally I have caught this morning, a ferry, a train, a plane, and a cab to speak to who the New York Times says is the Godfather of Travel among backpackers and the adventurous. Tony Wheeler, how do you respond to that description of yourself? Are you the Godfather?

Tony Wheeler: No, no, no. I'm just another traveler basically. But that was a good trip this morning and I'm immediately thinking you took the train from somewhere in central to-

Phil: Circular Quay.

Tony Wheeler: Circular Quay to the airport. Now last time I was in Sydney I tried to evade that because you know they charge you $14 or something to get off the train at Sydney airport, which is absurd. So I thought how long does it take to walk to the first station where they don't hit you for the $14. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to Mascot station.

Phil: We have a friend who lives nearby to the airport. This is-

Speaker 2: [Tilts 00:01:33]

Phil: Tilts. And he does that when you give him a ride to the airport. He walks.

Tony Wheeler: The other thing you can do is... You don't say $14 but you can save $6 or something by going to Mascot, getting off the train and getting on the train again.

Speaker 2: Okay, thank you.

Tony Wheeler: Which is completely absurd.

Speaker 2: Are these, the sort of tips that you like to provide?

Tony Wheeler: No, it just annoys me so much. You know and this is how the books were born.

Speaker 2: Exactly. Well, I paid $18 for your information, plus [inaudible 00:02:02] on the ferry.

Tony Wheeler: When it should be $2.67 or something.

Phil: Well it should be free. I mean public transport should be free. More people would use it and people would get out of their cars.

Tony Wheeler: Some countries are doing that. You know, I guess Estonia has just started doing that.

Speaker 2: Well you're the founder. Let's get into it. You're the co-founder alongside of your wife of Lonely Planet, absolutely synonymous with anyone that has ever traveled. In fact, you got in at ground level, you pre-dated the digital era. Do you think your story, your life story would've been different had you thought of a guide, a travel guide say late '80s?

Tony Wheeler: Oh yeah, I mean, that was a sliding door thing. I could have done something entirely different. But I don't want to claim that I'm the first at all because you there were Baedeker's guides and Murray's guides a century earlier. And I always think of Arthur Frommer, who did Europe on $10 a Day. He was a real '50s pioneer just like we were sort of '70s pioneers.

Phil: So what was different then? I mean you weren't the first couple to travel [inaudible 00:03:03] south. You went the first couple to write about it, and you weren't the first people to publish about it. So what was different?

Tony Wheeler: I'm going in a few days' time to a Hippie Trail tour. And of course there were lots of people on the Hippie Trail. The only difference is that we made a business out of it, that's the only thing really. And I guess it was that you know. We were there at the time... It was the baby boomers were traveling. The Hippie Trail was taking them further than they'd gone before. The jumbo jets were taking off. There were all sorts of things that made things work, and we just happened to be somebody who jumped on the wagon.

Phil: What was the moment where you go, "I like this on-the-cheap book that we've written." When was the moment where you said, "Let's make a publishing empire?" [crosstalk 00:03:55]

Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:03:55] book too by the way.

Tony Wheeler: It was a cheap book. Yeah. Yeah. I mean at first book was an accident. We didn't set out thinking of set out thinking, "We're going to do this trip. We're going to do a book about it. We're going to create a business." It was just we did the trip, then we thought we should do a book about it. And then when the book was successful, which it was, we thought, "Hmm, here's an opportunity.

Speaker 2: I know why you were, you're so across spending money in Sydney because you, when you first arrived there, you had 27 cents [crosstalk 00:04:23] so you would have been looking.

Tony Wheeler: That wouldn't have got me... I would have to walk all the way from the airport.

Speaker 2: So what did you do when you arrive in a city with 27 cents?

Tony Wheeler: Look for a job. You know what you do is if only have 27 cents, you're stuffed. But you know, if you've got a camera, which I did have, or something you can flog, you walk up to the cross, as we did, and you find a loan shop and they give you 25 bucks for your camera.

Speaker 2: What does $25 buy you?

Tony Wheeler: Well, this is a long, long time ago. It's bought us a room for a week for $16. You could, you could get a room in Sydney for 16 bucks.

Phil: I'm just thinking... Do you know the movie Dr. Strange Love? You know when the plane is flying over Russian territory and they're going through the emergency rations. It's like two packets of chewing gum, a packet of nylons, $25 in cash, 25 rubles. And the actor goes, "Shoot, a guy could have a good time in Vegas on this."

Tony Wheeler: Very much that way. We had a few dollars left to buy some food, but then Maureen got a job that afternoon working in a milk bar. And you know milk bars, you get to bring the food home at the end of the day if it's perishable and isn't eaten.

Phil: And so what year was that?

Tony Wheeler: '72. Right at the very last couple of days or '72.

Speaker 2: I'll just point out again, we are live at The Moat in Melbourne with Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, not yours anymore.

Speaker 2: As Phil said at the start, you built a multimillion dollar empire, so you haven't had to fill out an application for a job or knock on the door of a milk bar. How's it changed your life?

Tony Wheeler: Enormously. I don't have to. It kind of worries me that maybe it makes you lazy because I do write articles and do this and do that. But I don't have to. I sort of think maybe if I was, "Oh shit, I need another $500. I better write a story for somebody and get 500 bucks." That it would push you to do more if you had a little bit of financial urgency. I don't have to do anything.

Speaker 2: When you first sat down and grabbed your coffee, Phil asked you what you're doing these days and you were able to reel off seven or eight things [crosstalk 00:06:40]

Tony Wheeler: No, I'm not getting bored. I'm not getting bored no.

Speaker 2: And not bored of travel?

Tony Wheeler: No. I still really enjoy travel. In fact, if I had more time, I'd do more of it.

Phil: Do you travel differently then? Or do you still like traveling the old way?

Tony Wheeler: Well, you know, I talk about the other standard questions I get asked. One of them is, "What is your favorite place?" Then the next number two is, "What is the most dangerous thing that's ever happened to you? And the third is, "Is there somewhere you never want to go to again?" And then the fourth usually is, "You used to travel on $5 a day. Do you still do that?"

Phil: I wasn't talking about $5 a day, but I was talking about the things that [inaudible 00:07:25] says for like connecting with the locals and getting out there and getting off the beaten path.

Tony Wheeler: At the end of every year I looked back on the... I'm terrible. I keep boxes for everything and note everything down. I can't stop doing that.

Tony Wheeler: So I can look back over the year and say, what was the most expensive hotel I stayed at? And there's usually something. You've gone somewhere and it's way over $500 a night. There was one in Miami, a year or two ago that was over a thousand dollars. And I said to them at the end, "Why is this place so expensive?" And they said, "Oh it's you know, [inaudible 00:07:58].

Tony Wheeler: But equally there will be somewhere in the year where there has been somewhere for five bucks because that was the only place in town. And that year it was an a mission guest house in the Solomon Islands.

Phil: All right, well which one was better? 1000 bucks a night or-

Tony Wheeler: They were both great.

Speaker 2: You are a living, breathing version of my favorite saying "Look after the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves." So it doesn't matter how much money you've got, you don't just blindly pay $12 for a bottle of water at a mini bar in the hotel.

Tony Wheeler: I hate doing that. I don't mind, you know if I was somewhere where you really need to try this wine and it's $50 a glass. So I would say, "Yeah I should try it." And I pay the 50 bucks. But if it was $12 for a bottle of mineral water out of a bra, that's terrible. There's a tap over there [inaudible 00:08:48]

Speaker 2: It is a major rip off. Okay. This question I want to ask you because it's just an example of how determined you are I guess and a little bit... For me it's a little bit crazy. Tell us about what happened, not necessarily in North Korea, because we've spoken to people that have told us that it's not real and they've described their experiences. But you went to the DM Zed, the DMZ, and I would like you to share that story because-

Tony Wheeler: I think I've shared it too many times-

Speaker 2: It' be the first time for us.

Tony Wheeler: But yeah, I went down... So it's a wonderful name, isn't it? The Demilitarized Zone where you've got two armies facing each other off, ready to launch nuclear war if Donald Trump lifts the phone on each other. It's it's so far from DMZ or DM Zed as you can possibly get. It's just ridiculous.

Tony Wheeler: But they've got two buildings facing each other across the ceasefire line and the South Koreans are backed up by the Americans are on one side and the North Koreans are on the other. But then right in the middle they've got this little hut and the hut is where they meet to discuss putting off World War III. And there's a door into the hut from both ends, one door from the North Korean end and one door from the South Korean end. And in the middle of the hut is a table with chairs around it that they can sit around and the dividing line goes right through the middle of the table. So one end of the table is in North Korea and the other end of the table is in South Korea.

Tony Wheeler: I went going into the hut from North Korea. I've come down from Pyongyang and I go into the hut and there's two North Korean soldiers guarding the door into South Korea. So you cannot escape into South Korea, but you can walk around the table and you can go from North Korea, South Korea, North Korea. You can sit on the dividing line and have one leg in North Korea and one leg in South Korea. It's completely absurd.

Tony Wheeler: And there was an occasion some years back, back when the Russians were still around, when some Russian tourists came in there and one of them decided to make a break for freedom, pushed the North Korean soldiers aside, the door's not locked, opened the door and burst out into South Korea. Well then the North Koreans and South Koreans started shooting at each other. And I think five people died.

Tony Wheeler: Not for your [inaudible 00:11:13] the Russian woman got away, but five North and South Koreans killed each other.

Speaker 2: You were determined to walk through that door though.

Tony Wheeler: Oh yeah. I thought, "Geez, I have to come in that other door." But you can't walk around the hut and come in the other door. The only way to get from the North Korean door round to the South Korean door without dying is to go back to Pyongyang. Go back to Beijing, go from Beijing to Seoul, take a tour from Seoul up to the Dm Zed again, DMZ, and come in from the South Korean door. Then you're in the same hut, but now you've got a South Korean guy doing this sort of TaeKwonDo pose, stopping you escaping into North Korea.

Phil: And that's when the North Korean soldiers said, "Not you again."

Tony Wheeler: There were no North Korean soldiers, but they can look in the window, they can look in the windows from the North Korean side.

Speaker 2: "[inaudible 00:12:09] come here. I think it's that Tony bloke [crosstalk 00:12:12]

Tony Wheeler: The South Koreans photograph you. It's just wonderful.

Phil: Borders fascinate me.

Tony Wheeler: Me too.

Phil: And the fact that you can step over a border, which seems to have some sort of political significance, but in actual fact is an imaginary line in the air. I love borders.

Tony Wheeler: I do too. They're completely wacky and there's all sorts of them. The Indians, the Pakistanis have that one that they close every night and do all the marching back and forth. And you know that's an absurd border.

Tony Wheeler: But there's crazy borders all over the place.

Phil: And that horrible little no man's land in between border posts, where horrible things can happen if you gets stuck in there.

Tony Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah. The other one that I've seen just recently is the border between the two Cypresses.

Phil: Oh right. But she's starting to calm down a bit though isn't-

Tony Wheeler: It's sort of calmed down. It was totally closed off for many years and you know. Now it's... I've only been there once. I went there late last year and I stayed on one side. And there were a couple of nights I was staying on the south, the Greek, the Republic of Cyprus side, and I used to wander over into the Turkish side to have a beer and a meal and then come back. So you cross this border. And the border is a boodle line of places, but there are some places where it's a couple of hundred meters wide and it does actually... There is one place where it's the whole airport wide. The old airport is in this no man's land.

Speaker 2: Can we get back to the books? Anyone that has ever traveled has had a Lonely Planet book.

Tony Wheeler: Yeah, probably.

Speaker 2: I'd like to do a survey.

Tony Wheeler: There's six degrees of separation. Here in Melbourne, everybody you ever meet, has had to work for Lonely Planet, their brothers worked for Lonely Planet, or sister, their schoolmates, they're flatmate... You know, there's six degrees.

Speaker 2: Well in my early days of travel it was the go to book. "Okay. I'm thinking of going to Japan, better going by the Lonely Planet book on Japan." And wouldn't do anything outside of what was featured in the book as our bible.

Tony Wheeler: And that was a big advantage that LP heard is they had a book on everywhere. So you know, if you go into the [inaudible 00:14:20] I'm going to go somewhere. "Oh your Lonely Planet will have one." Rough Guides used to complain about that.

Phil: Which leads to this question, how did you feel about people ripping the appropriate chapters out? [crosstalk 00:14:31] Because that's what everybody did, right?

Tony Wheeler: Year tear them up. Then you need to buy another one next time. Now you can just download the chapter you want, which is what I do.

Speaker 2: I know you're not part of Lonely Planet anymore, but I had a look at some of the books on the weekend and there are a lot of hard copy now, so almost more like coffee table books.

Tony Wheeler: Oh yeah, yeah. That's been the biggest... I mean the two areas that have, it's been 10 years now since I left and we did travel with children books. We did, I think there might've been a couple before I left. But I was never a great believer in it, but now it's a whole separate division for all these children's books.

Tony Wheeler: You know, they've got a children's book publishing. And the other thing, as you say, is all these coffee table books. Every time I turn around there's another one. Unbelievable.

Speaker 2: You say that with a little bit of disdain.

Tony Wheeler: Yeah, maybe I do. It's fine. You know that I think it's a really good thing they're doing if it makes money. What I used to really like about it to some extent... And that's just the world has changed. When I set about staying at our $5 a night mission place in the Solomon Islands a couple of years ago. And you know, I found that in the old Lonely Planet, Solomon Islands Guide, but it wouldn't be there today because that whole sort of island group gets a paragraph where I used to get 10 pages. And that's justifiable because nobody goes there. We used to do it cause we were stupid.

Speaker 2: It's beautiful, the Solomon Islands.

Tony Wheeler: It is lovely. I've only been there a few times but I've really enjoyed it. But there aren't enough people going there. You know, you can do lots of things. A small audience would absolutely love it, but you can't do it just because small audience loves it. You've got to sell it to lots of people. And that's realistic. And I can totally understand that. It's not a charity, it's a business.

Phil: Nice segua though, speaking of charity, after you left Lonely Planet, you set up a foundation.

Tony Wheeler: Well we didn't actually because that was there. That was there at Lonely Planet.

Phil: Oh right. Okay.

Tony Wheeler: It was called the Lonely Planet Foundation and it was there within Lonely Planet and it had office space, a desk or whatever at Lonely Planet and a couple of people who were Lonely Planet employees working for it. But we couldn't very well sell Lonely Planet and say, "Oh, and by the way, you've taken over philanthropy." So we pulled that out and set it up separately.

Tony Wheeler: So essentially the Planet Wheeler Foundation is the old Lonely Planet Foundation.

Speaker 2: And explain what it does.

Tony Wheeler: It does really the same things it did as Lonely Planet. It does education and health in developing world. And that's mainly in Southeast Asia and Africa and it's really, the balance is shifting more to Africa and less to Southeast Asia because Southeast Asia can look at yourself in many ways.

Phil: We're not pioneers in guidebooks, but were you on the leading edge there of setting up these sorts of foundations for [inaudible 00:17:32] people as well?

Tony Wheeler: No I don't think so at all. I think there are lots of people who do lots of good things and keep a very low profile about it.

Speaker 2: What do you think of the modern day travel blogger? You know the couples that are in their twenties that decide "I don't want to sit in an office nine to five"

Tony Wheeler: I think two things. One is I'm speaking at a thing in Boston in June. A guy called up and he calls himself Nomadic Matt.

Phil: Matt Kepnes, yeah.

Tony Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah, so he's putting on something in Boston and I'm going over there to speak at that. There was a young couple, they were friends of friends, who stayed with Maureen and I last year for a couple of weeks when they were in Melbourne, and I think they'd be defined as influencers. That's the word isn't it?

Phil: Ah, yes it is.

Tony Wheeler: And I couldn't understand what the hell they were doing at all. It went right over my head. But bloggers, influencers, they're all all out there aren't they.

Phil: It's a living. Some people make a great living at it.

Speaker 2: One of the questions I often ask our bloggers, it's not my standard go to, but, when you're traveling somewhere and the reason why you're not behind the desk anymore is because you want to travel, what are your eyes doing? What are you looking for? Are you looking for the story? Are you looking for the photo? Are you immersing yourself?

Tony Wheeler: I think people who are doing that definitely are, looking at how can I flog this? How can I influence this? How can I take photographs, videos of it? And thank God I haven't got to do that.

Phil: Listen when we were just getting set up before you mentioned in passing that you... You've lived in Melbourne for a long time, but you said it was kind of by accident?

Tony Wheeler: Yeah, when I first turned up in Australia, it's the other end of the Hippie Trail. It starts in London. Katmandu is the midway point or the finish line in one direction or whatever and Australia is the other end. So we started off from London, we ended up in Australia and we intended to stay for three months. We ended up staying for a year and we stayed that year in Sydney as you do. And at the end of that year, we started out heading back to London and after a year we got as far as Singapore and wrote the second book.

Tony Wheeler: And then we sort of thought, "Now what we do?" And we thought, "Why don't we have not a year in Australia?" We'd left Australia thinking we'd left forever and we'd packed all our stuff up in a suitcase and mailed it back home and thought we were following after it.

Tony Wheeler: So we then U-turned in Singapore and came back to Australia and we thought, "Well we had a year in Sydney, let's have a year in Melbourne." So we came down to Melbourne for a year. Here I still am many, many years later. So it was a total accident.

Tony Wheeler: If it had been the other way around, if I'd gone to Melbourne first, we'd be doing this in Sydney today.

Speaker 2: Well, it would've been cheaper for me.

Phil: That train ride to the airport.

Tony Wheeler: I've lived in various cities for 12 months, long enough to say I lived in Paris for a year once. I lived in San Francisco for a year. And both of them at the end of that year, if someone said, "You can't go home. Your passport is being banned for... You've got to stay here in Paris or San Francisco. I'd have said, "Fine, I like this. This is good." It wouldn't have bothered me.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Okay. As the Godfather, not self-professed, this is what the, the New York Times said about you, The Godfather of... I'm looking for the violin case, backpacker and adventure travel, what pearl of wisdom or pearls of wisdom can you leave out our modern day traveler with?

Tony Wheeler: Oh, travel light. That's far and away... Every time I see someone dragging this enormous bag around behind them. Everyone starts off doing that. "I need this. I need that." The thing is you don't, and you soon find out you don't.

Tony Wheeler: I'm about to fly to Europe in 10 days time and I will have a lot of stuff with me for assorted reasons, but generally I travel everywhere with a carry on bag.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for taking time to chat to us.

Tony Wheeler: I'm glad I let you get some frequent flyer miles.

Speaker 2: And that would be worth the cab back, the flight back, the train back and the ferry all in reverse.

Phil: And the [inaudible 00:21:53] coffee here [crosstalk 00:21:55]

Speaker 2: Thank you.

Tony Wheeler: I'll pick the coffees up.

Phil: Thank you very much.

Speaker 2: Well, that wraps up our chat with Lonely Planet co-founder, Tony Wheeler recorded here live in Melbourne.

Phil: Yeah. Cheers. Thanks to the coffee Tiny. Next week we're back in the studio exploring Tonga. In the meantime, if you know someone who loves travel as much as you do, please tell them about us.

Speaker 2: Yup. You can find the latest episode through all the popular podcast apps and players, but one of the easiest ways we reckon to listen is just to go to worldnomads.com/podcast. You said that Tonga is next week.

Phil: Indeed. See you then.

Speaker 1: Amazing nomads. Be inspired.

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