When Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen founded Lonely Planet in 1973, guidebooks for the traveler on a shoestring were an unheard-of concept. The couple’s first overland trip through Europe and Asia to Australia prompted them to fill this niche and now, 100 million+ Lonely Planet books later, adventurous budget travel is more popular than ever. Though the Wheelers sold their final stake in the travel empire in 2011, they remain involved as veritable brand ambassadors. As the company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Tony Wheeler chats with TIME about wanderlust, visiting over 150 countries and why “there’s always some new thing to investigate.”
How did you come up with the title Lonely Planet?
It was a mistake. It came out of a song, from Joe Cocker and Leon Russell when they were [touring] on the road. There’s a line in the song called “Space Captain” where [Cocker] sings, ‘Once while traveling across the sky, this lonely planet caught my eye.’ And I said, that sounds nice, why don’t we call the business Lonely Planet. And my wife Maureen said, really nice idea except actually he’s singing ‘lovely planet.’ So it was a mistake all these years. We’ve never corrected it.
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How do you feel that the travel industry has changed since you started Lonely Planet in the ’70s?
We all point to the obvious things—the fact that it’s cheaper, there are more airlines, more flights, all the Internet things that have come up. But I think one of the things that has changed the most has been the places that either were open and now are closed, or were closed and now open. I went to Ethiopia about four or five years ago; it’s a really fascinating place. But for 20-odd years, Ethiopia was totally closed off. Now it’s back on the tourist map again. All of China, completely closed off for so many years, and now it’s the biggest destination going. And the reverse happens as well. Syria, it’s got so much history and culture but at the moment, not a visitor at all.
Do you think the recession is still affecting the travel industry?
People who want to travel are going to travel no matter what. If it’s on their wish list, they’re going to do it. So that’s a factor in it. It’s up and down.
Where are the new spots where you can really stretch your dollar?
I think any place where times are tough, they’ll cut prices. Ireland’s an example—the economy’s in bad shape, they’d really love to have more tourists going there, and as a result they roll out the red carpet for you more. You’ve got to look at which countries your currency is strengthened against. Recently now in Japan, the yen’s been going down. Japan’s an expensive destination. But you always go to Japan and think, well it was expensive but I got value for the money.
What place do you think is poised to explode?
Last year I was saying the Solomon Islands. I’ve been there twice in about 18 months. It’s a quiet little Pacific destination that really nobody goes to. Last time I was there I stayed at a little resort and you could look across about a mile away, and there was Kennedy Island where JFK swam to after PT109 was sunk. I borrowed a kayak from the resort and I paddled out there. I thought, I’m landing on the place where JFK swam ashore. Who can say they’ve done that? It’s low-key, with good scuba diving, not many people. So it’s not the next hot destination, but it’s a destination that perhaps deserves to get more visitors than it does.
Lonely Planet has been criticized for popularizing certain destinations abroad, like Southeast Asia, which then tends to draw larger numbers of tourists and perhaps alter the character of a destination. Do you think this criticism is unfounded?
I do. There are all sorts of reasons why a destination becomes very popular. People say, Lonely Planet was there—but wait a minute, they’ve built an airport, all these hotels have popped up, there’s ten times as many flights going there. So we’re a factor in all that, but the airline didn’t start buying all those planes and they didn’t build the airport because we put a book out. We’re just one of the factors among many. And I think there are lots of destinations that would like to have more visitors. I don’t think in a few years’ time anyone’s going to say the Solomon Islands have been ruined because we did a guidebook to them.
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Do you think at some point in the future, traditional guidebooks will be eclipsed by sites like TripAdvisor?
I think that they each have their role. I don’t think guidebooks are going to disappear on the whole, because there are lots of things that they do better than anything else—including that you can drop them in the river and fish them out and dry them off, and they’ll still work. Your laptop won’t.
There was a profile of you in the New Yorker a few years back where you characterized yourself as a parachute artist—someone who can drop into a location and assimilate quickly.
We’ve got lots of writers who really know their place well—study that country as part of their university degree or are experts about it. I’ve never been that. I’ve always been pretty good at going in and feeling the pulse of a place quite fast. You can send me anywhere, and I enjoy doing that. I used to get fed up in places after I’d been there too many times. So I became a parachute artist.
Are there any places you’ve gone to where you felt fearful?
I’ve had some very scary taxi drives, even in quite reasonable countries.
You have an engineering degree. When was the point you realized, I’m not going to go back to this?
Really, when I did that first book. I thought, this is so much fun, I’d rather do this for a living than anything else.
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