Tony Wheeler
Photo by The Talks

Tony Wheeler: “I want to try somewhere different”

Short Profile

Name: Tony Wheeler
DOB: 20 December 1946
Place of birth: England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Entrepreneur, author

Mr. Wheeler, as the creator of the travel guidebook Lonely Planet, how many countries have you been to?

It’s a bit embarrassing but I actually keep track of it and I counted it up recently. There are 194 countries in the world; I’ve been to 147. But I have friends who have been to every country on earth. I met an Australian once who did it in one year! So, although it might seem like I’ve been to a lot of places, any trip I’ve done, someone has done it longer or in a more exciting fashion. I haven’t been everywhere.

Where have you been that you think very few other people have?

A few years ago I was in Nauru, the island which Australia uses as a prison camp. It’s a terrible place. And there’s no reason for anybody to go there unless they’re interested in what the Australian government is doing badly.

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Were you the only tourist there?

Well, there was another guy there for that very reason at the same time as me, and he eventually did go to every country in the world. He wrote a book about it, and I ended up writing something for the book as well. I’ve also been to North Korea. This was about probably 15 years ago and it was the craziest country I’ve ever been to. I don’t believe anything about it at all, I don’t even believe that they really have nuclear weapons. The whole country is fake.

“Over-tourism is terrible, but there’s lots of places in the world that have under-tourism. Everybody goes to some places and nobody goes to other places.”

In what ways?

It’s like a movie set. If you go behind the building, you’ll find that it’s not real, that it’s not really there. The happy smiling workers, you know, Kim Jong Un leading them to the glowing future. You see things and you think, “This is not quite normal.” It’s a very strange place.

How did you end up there in the first place?

If you want to get in to North Korea, there are several people who can organize it. And one of them is this Englishman who lives in Beijing and he has the key to the backdoor sort of thing. You’re followed round everywhere, someone is watching over you all the time — but you still see a lot. There’s a lot to see, and not always what they intend you to see! I found it really interesting, I really did enjoy it.

Is there a Lonely Planet guide to North Korea?

(Laughs) We would cover it. I say “we,” it’s not mine anymore but… Yeah, there’s South Korea guides and there’s a little bit of North Korea at the back of it. And they didn’t send me there for that but they do send writers there to update it.

How difficult is it these days to get to places that are not super well-travelled?

There’s actually an academic book coming up on over-tourism: too many people in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Venice…

Bali, as well.

Bali, yes, although there hasn’t been any protests in Bali like there has in Barcelona so it’s a different situation in that respect. If you’re someone who lives in one of these cities, you can’t drive and buy food or go to a pub or a shop or do any of those everyday things… It’s terrible.

Rent is also becoming more and more expensive as a result.

Right, the whole AirBnb thing. But there’s lots of places in the world that have under-tourism. I read somewhere about the 15 counties in the world that have the fewest tourists per capital… How many tourists go to Bangladesh? It’s a very interesting country and it gets no tourists. Pakistan and India, as well, compared to somewhere like Thailand. Thailand is a much smaller country and gets far more tourists, but you can go to lots of places in India where you just don’t see tourists at all. And Pakistan, no tourists whatsoever. They’ve chased them all away, I mean, it’s their own fault, but… My point is that everybody goes to some places and nobody goes to other places.

Do you prefer to go to places that are more untouched?

Last year I went to Cyprus — there are lots and lots of tourists in Cyprus. I went to Azerbaijan as well, which also does not get a lot of tourists. So I like to go to places that I’ve never been before.

“There were many things I enjoyed about them but I especially loved meeting young people who, you know, you’ve sort of been part of their first trip.”

What does your travelling look like these days?

One of the things I’m asked often is do I still stay in those places that are five dollars a night? Well, if you go to the Solomon Islands or another very remote island, the five dollar a night place is the only choice. But I was in New York a few weeks ago and if I’m going to New York, I’m going to stay in a hotel because they’re interesting! I like interesting hotels. I want to try somewhere different every time.

So you don’t miss those early experiences travelling “on the cheap,” as you put it in your first book?

(Laughs) I look back at the early books and… We always just said, “Go and do the book, whatever it takes, do it.” These days, I don’t miss it, I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore because now it’s all changed so much with the Internet. I’m glad that isn’t my problem, that’s their problem! But I did have a great time running it and I enjoyed Lonely Planet, I enjoyed doing the books. I still get a kick out of them. There were many things I enjoyed about them but I especially loved meeting young people who, you know, you’ve sort of been part of their first trip. That has been really nice.