Covid-19 has changed everything. In particular, it has changed everything about travel. As a writer at Lonely Planet, you quickly learn that change is the only constant along the way. However, no one expected the changes announced last week: Lonely Planet will close its Melbourne production facility and its London offices “almost completely”, as well as its magazine, trade and reference department. Popular guidebooks will continue to be posted through the company’s offices in Dublin and Tennessee, but they will also face some job cuts.
As travel has outpaced the growth of the global economy over the past eight years, Lonely Planet has grown to become the world’s largest travel publisher, accounting for 31.5% of the global guide market. But with planes grounded, borders closed, and people quarantined, travel then goes to anyone’s guess. “[It’s] A sad and difficult day for all of us in the Lonely Planet family,” wrote Director of Publication, Pierce Pickard.
The closing of Lonely Planet’s original headquarters in Melbourne surely marks the end of an era. In Melbourne, co-founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler set up shop in 1973 after completing their epic road trip from London through Asia to Australia. They posted an account of the trip at Across Asia on the Cheap, a folder tucked together featuring hand-drawn maps and the nowfamous logo, designed by Tony. It sold 1,500 copies. Encouraged by her success, Wheelers followed her with guides to Nepal, Africa, New Zealand and New Guinea.
In 1977’s Africa on the Cheap, readers were advised to enjoy “Bunadir Weavers and Ancient Mosques” in Mogadishu, while a guide to the Middle East offered advice on hiking from Syria to Baghdad. But it was the success of the 1981 India Guide that put Lonely Planet in the backpacks of many young travelers hungry for foreign experiences.
“I remain proud of what Lonely Planet has achieved,” says Tony Wheeler. “I’m always happy when people say, ‘I wouldn’t have gone there if LP hadn’t given me a push and showed me the way. “
Veteran writer, one-time Lonely Plant publisher and author of 130 guidebooks, Ryan Fair Berkmus, describes the company under Tony and Maureen’s leadership as “the friend you’d want by your side at the pub in the country you just landed in. Filled with clever and clever advice so you can embark on a journey Fantastic. It was a wonderful and amazing place where I made friends all over the world.”
I signed up in 1999 to search for Ethiopia – as with millions of other travelers – subsequent Lonely Planet trips have provided essential life experiences. I healed a broken heart looking at the desert landscape of Namibia. Years in Italy taught me to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. When my mother died, my grieving father joined me in Sicily. A working-class man who had never traveled for pleasure, his consolation was followed by the swarm of treasures we saw. Last week, a friend phoned from Benghazi, Libya, to inquire about my health and safety — a poignant irony given that he now lives in a city run by militias.
While part of the company’s mission has undoubtedly been to introduce readers to off- or distressed nations, Ver Berkmoes emphasized the role Lonely Planet has played in promoting travel in people’s lives. “It was not just places like Libya, Burma (Myanmar) or East Timor, but there were a few handbooks that were prevalent and widely available in most parts of the planet,” he explains. “Lonely Planet has helped get aliens out of travel.”
The company was also a technology leader. There was a Lonely Planet blog in 1994, five years before the word “blog” was coined. A website follows, along with CitySync how-to brochures on PalmPilots. The most innovative of all was the online travel forum, Thorn Tree, which was launched in 1996. According to Jane Rawson, one of the early moderators: “A small web team was set up and asked to find out what the internet was and whether it was useful for travelers.” In 2016, the Lonely Planet online community crossed 10 million. It turns out that social media was a big thing.
But there was turmoil and anxiety as well, including sales of two companies, first to the BBC in 2007 for £130m, and then to US media NC2 in 2013 at the deeply discounted price of £51.5m. Challenged by challenging market conditions (sales of guidebooks fell 40% between 2007 and 2012, but have recovered 27% since then) and online companies, such as Expedia, TripAdvisor and Google, the company has sought to diversify into its multimedia business through television. Magazines, mobile apps, blogging platform and e-commerce partnerships. However, through all of this, Lonely Planet continues to fund multi-week research trips to update its guidebooks, and is now the only publisher to do so.
In many ways, the company’s fortunes reflect the development of mass tourism. In 1973, the year Lonely Planet was founded, the US budget airline Southwest made its first profit and demonstrated the reliability of low-cost air travel. Since then, tourism has increased as travel has become easier. In 2017, the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that the world could see 1.8 billion travelers by 2030. That was before Covid-19. Now, even Sir Stelios Haji Ioannou of easyJet, Europe’s second-largest budget airline, believes his company will feel like a startup again once the national lockdown is lifted.
When asked where the travel will now go, Tony Wheeler said, “I don’t think the current crisis will end the role of the traditional guide – whether it’s print or digital. I’ve already got the new LP guidebooks for the trips I’ve been planning to take later this year” .
Ver Berkmoes also believes that guidebooks will continue: “Once we start traveling again…a lot of old faces and brands will be gone. People will need that friend next to them at the bar with lots of smart advice.”
He should know, because during his time at Lonely Planet, he survived two disasters that devastated the travel industry – the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated large parts of Asia. The September 11 attacks had a profound impact on the company. People stopped traveling and bookstores brought back all their guidebooks,” says Ver Berkmus. “The company has lost dozens of talented people. It was sore for everyone. But travel is back and so has Lonely Planet.”
In turn, the tsunami spurred the company to aid in a massive humanitarian effort. Wheeler’s relief funds and substantial resources for assistance have been deployed wherever possible. “We had people on the ground in all the hardest-hit areas and we explored projects that would make a difference,” says Ver Berkmus. “There was a comprehensive part of the site that answered practical questions like: How can I help? Where should I travel How do I get home?”
It’s the same questions many people are asking now, which is why the company’s adherence to its guidebooks is reassuring. If the future of travel looks closer to the past — fewer trips with logistical challenges that are considered more carefully due to new risks and uncertainty — trustworthy travel information will be invaluable. As I write, there are Lonely Planet writers coming out of Beijing’s lockdown. They have a view of the road ahead.