August 2011

Lonely Planet Guides

The Lonely Planet is known for being the most helpful source of information for those who want to travel off the beaten track. But with an ever increasing prominence and influence on the travel scene, the critics have become more vocal.

By: Jessica Eastwell
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hexham - England

Photo: Lukas Heuberger
Lonely Planet guide book

The Lonely Planet was one of the first travel guides aimed at backpackers, and even today, it remains the most iconic. They have been helping travellers all over the world for thirty eight years, with books on everything from European cities to rural South East Asia. It is far more unusual to find a location without a dedicated Lonely Planet guide than with one.

The series, founded by Britons Tony and Maureen Wheeler, began in 1973 with Across Asia on the Cheap. This title, often known as “The Yellow Bible”, was particularly groundbreaking, as low budget (or indeed any) tourism did not really exist in this area. The route that they had taken, Turkey to India, via Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, became known as “The Hippy Trail”, due to the amount of young travellers who visited the area, encouraged by the guidebooks.

The series, founded by Britons Tony and Maureen Wheeler, began in 1973 with Across Asia on the Cheap, also known as the “Yellow Bible”.

The guides have come a long way since the seventies. The first Lonely Planet book was only 94 pages long (despite the fact that it covered all of South East Asia). It was written at the Wheelers’ kitchen table and self-published. Now, the guides cover every corner of the globe, with suggestions for everything from camping to five star hotels, and the Wheelers have sold their shares in the company they founded.

Tony Wheeler himself puts it simply: “Those vivid colours of the early books, once they get blended with so many other authors and editors and concerns about what the customer wants, they inevitably become grey and bland. It’s entropy, isn’t it?”

There is much debate in internet traveller communities as to whether the guides are still a good thing. Many people complain the Lonely Planet guides have ruined previously unknown places, or as Richard Bangs, of Mountain Travel Sobek, expresses it, Lonely Planet guides “can turn an out-ofthe- way secret place like Lombok into something that’s loved to death”. A user on the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum has a suggestion for why this is the case: “the problem I see when I travel is that I see lots of people using Lonely Planet as a sort of bible”. Speaking as a backpacker, I have observed that the vast majority of travellers still use Lonely Planet guides. This means that everyone ends up in the same places: a sort of backpacker ghetto, if you will. While this does mean that you are always going to be able to meet new travelling friends, it doesn’t feel like you are really experiencing the place that you are visiting. There seems to be a lot of truth in Richard Bangs’ observation that people who use Lonely Planet guides “like to think they’re out there on the edge, but they’re all reading the bible and moving in big flocks.”

Lonely Planet guide book

Lonely Planet has a devoted following amongst travellers, but there does seem to be a growing backlash. Looking around online travellers’ forums, for every enthusiastic comment, there seems to be several complaints. A lot of these are focused on specific problems. “Most maps are incorrect,” complains one user of the Bolivia guide. “A 1054 page guide could have more than seven short pages about the Great Wall,” suggests a traveller using the China guide. On the other hand, the positive comments are more than complimentary: “the Paris guide served me perfectly” and “the folding map is brilliant” are typical comments.

However, Lonely Planet has not been without its controversies. The most notable was probably the publication of a Lonely Planet guide to Burma (Myanmar) in 2000, despite the fact that nearly all the profits of tourism go to a regime with a history of undemocratic behaviour and human rights abuses. In addition to this, a lot of the facilities for tourists are reported to have been built with forced labour The democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San SuuKyi, who was only recently released from house arrest, has asked tourists not to visit Burma for this reason. Lonely Planet defended the guide, saying that it drew attention to the ethical issues surrounding a visit to Burma. Despite this, many pro-democracy organisations called for a boycott of all Lonely Planet titles. While the military regime remains in power, Aung San SuuKyi, has the following to say about tourism in Burma (from an interview with Lonely Planet, January 2011): “We are not in favour of group tourists, but we don’t mind if individuals come to Burma. Foreign tourists could benefit Burma if they go about [their travels] in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government. If [tourists make the effort] to meet people working for democracy, then it might help.”

“Lonely Planet guides can turn an out-of-the-way secret place like Lombok into something that’s loved to death”

With the growing demand on the forums for more translations of guides currently available in English, one thing is certain: Lonely Planet’s influence is only going to get stronger. But are they a force for good or evil? Should they be considered so authoritative that US army chiefs use them to draw up a list of sites not to be looted in occupied Iraq? That remains up to the market.

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