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What’s with the Lonely Planet?

Sign in India (Sylvia Fanjoy, Riding the buses)Editorial: I’ve always felt a special bond with the Lonely Planet, probably because I travelled overland from Melbourne to London the same year its co-founders—Tony and Maureen Wheeler—travelled overland from London to Melbourne. Same trip but flipped. That was way back in 1972. One of my sisters said I should try to get my letters about the trip published but I ignored her suggestion. The Wheelers self-published a book about their experience under the Lonely Planet banner and before long the LP was the largest travel guide publisher in the world.

It really wasn’t difficult to travel through Asia at that time, even without a guide, because just about everyone was on the same path. All we had to do was find it and follow it. Local kids would be waiting at each bus station and take foreigners to the one or two places where all backpackers stayed. The next bus to catch was based on recommendations of fellow travellers.

What the LP publications did, though, was broaden and enhance the travel experience. As LP researchers spread out around the world, they found new paths to follow, places to stay, museums to visit, cultures to explore. They even informed us where we’d find a laundry mat. The information was trusted and the phrase “as recommended by the Lonely Planet” proudly displayed.

Seeing the world in 1972 (Sylvia Fanjoy, Riding the buses)

Seeing the world in 1972 (Sylvia Fanjoy, Riding the buses)

Eventually LP went on-line and it was the best website imaginable, the sort of place where you could spend hours combing through fulsome write-ups of destinations before going out and buying the book for the one you’d visit this time. In 1996, LP started the on-line forum called Thorn Tree where fellow travellers helped each other out.

So much has changed. The publishing world in general has been standing on its head and guidebooks are considered out-of-date almost as soon as they are released. Tony and Maureen, though, cashed in, selling their business for millions of dollars to BBC Worldwide. It was not a good decision for BBC as it messed around with an already diminished on-line presence before temporarily shutting down the Thorn Tree forum for “inappropriate language and themes” in December 2012. 2013 was not a more promising year: BBC Worldwide sold the company to NC2 Media for significantly less than they had paid for it and lots of staff were laid off.

The Chief Technology Officer of the Thorn Tree forum (who goes by the name gusb) just wrote about plans to recover “the trust we lost”. I don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not with the old timers. Some of them hang out in a sub-forum called Older Travellers (Spend the kids inheritance and hit the road). Many are unhappy that after years as members the LP took away their ability to send private messages to one another and that they haven’t restored most of their posts. Back when they shut down the site then restarted it with a ton of restrictions I got mad…No explanations, nothing. Big Brother alive and kicking,” writes one. The moderators “edited my post – and nary a swear word in it. But very sensitive to constructive criticism they are,” says a poster.

The Lonely Planet has indeed changed and will probably reinvent itself. I suspect it’s lost many of its old following though, especially the ones who travelled the hippie trail and inspired the LP in the first place. But maybe they don’t care, maybe it’s just about the money.

Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

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