British-born Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, has been called the patron saint of backpackers.
In 1972 he drove a $100 car from London to Kabul and then sold it for a $5 profit. He parlayed that adventure and his love of off-the-beaten-path, close-to-the-ground travel into Lonely Planet, where the motto is “we tell it like it is, without fear or favour.”
Lonely Planet, now wholly owned by the BBC, has been everywhere – even diplomatically isolated countries. Its guidebook for Iran, for instance, has been called a better source of information than media or government reports.
Wheeler told Here & Now’s Robin Young, “Anywhere you go is interesting.”
Wheeler is just back from traveling in Pakistan, where he said everyone was nice to him, even though he was there during protests over an anti-Muslim film made in the United States.
“We’d come into some little town and go into a hotel and everybody in the hotel would be crowded around the television watching a riot in Karachi or Islamabad and you know, it’s ‘death to Americans,’ and they’d turn around see us and say ‘Oh welcome, come in, sit down, have a cup of tea!’ I think very often what the reality is on the ground and what you see in the media are two different things,” Wheeler said.
In addition to Pakistan, Wheeler’s itinerary for this year includes India, Russia, Germany, Haiti, Bali, the Solomon Islands and South Korea.
Wheeler said there are still places he hasn’t visited yet, including countries in Africa and the former Soviet Union.
“One of the things about travel is you find the more places you go to, the more places you haven’t been to,” he said.
Wheeler said he immediately wanted to travel to the countries that President George W. Bush identified as the “axis of evil.” One of them, North Korea, turned out to be the weirdest place he’s ever visited.
“It was just very, very strange. You constantly thought you were on some sort of movie set and if you walked around behind the building you’d find that it was propped up and it wasn’t really real. It was a very strange place.”
Of all the places he’s visited that may be perceived as dangerous, Wheeler said he has never had a problem.
“Most of my great fearful moments in travel have been in the back of taxis,” he said. “I’m very cautious, and despite some of the places I go to, I’m a careful person. I’ve never been really scared. I’ve never been in a situation where I thought, ‘this is really getting out of hand.’”
Wheeler is in Boston to celebrate a new youth hostel, where he’s staying even though he’s worth millions.
- Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.