Where to now for Lonely Planet?

by Stu O'Brien

While making his way through West Africa, a traveler reflects on the path that Lonely Planet has taken over the past and ponders whether it might be time to leave his own copies behind on future journeys. A guest entry in our Recovering Backpacker column which explores how our perspectives on travel change over the years.

Johnathan and I have been waiting for hours. It is something all travelers must endure in West Africa: endless, excruciating, hour upon hour waiting. Be it for visas, at border crossings, or as we find ourselves now, at a bus station. The journey from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to Bobo Dioulasso is about six hours. Yet, in true West Africa fashion, the journey will devour our entire day. Finally, after nearly an entire morning of waiting, our group is hurried onto a bus and our luggage thrown atop, secured with frayed, weathered ropes. The engine, protruding from a hole in the floor, convulses and screeches, as if undergoing an exorcism. The driver revs the engine harder, while the conductor looks on, willing it to start. After several unsuccessful attempts, we are ordered off. We return to our concrete benches and are asked to wait once again. Johnathan has experienced this scene once too often and is having none of it.

“We’re not sitting here all day,” he tells me, “I’m going to ask for our money back, and we can find another bus to Bobo.”

“Ok,” I agree, happy to follow his lead as the more experienced traveler, particularly in Africa.

He successfully negotiates most of our money back, and we walk to a nearby café to plan our next move.

“Who wrote this?” Johnathan asks indignantly, holding up his Lonely Planet, the orange-covered Africa on a shoestring. “I mean, did they even visit this bus station? Did they try to catch a bus from here? Or did they just walk around the city and scribble down some names?”

In 2006, Lonely Planet was a must have for backpackers, and as a relatively inexperienced traveler, it had felt essential, despite its bulk. Yet the further Johnathan and I ventured through Burkina Faso, then Benin, Togo, and Ghana, the more our affection for the backpacker’s bible diminished. By the time I arrived in Cote d’Ivoire, it was practically useless, with the authors openly guessing about accommodation and transport.

Since 2006, the Lonely Planet journey has been a bumpy ride. Founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold 75% of the company to the BBC in 2007, and the remainder in 2011. Only two years later, the BBC offloaded the company at an estimated £80 million dollar loss. New owners NC2 Media promptly sacked around one-fifth of the workforce and announced a focus on growing the company in the digital space. In 2018, turnover fell by 5%, and when CEO Daniel Houghton announced his resignation, rumors of another sale circulated. The pandemic saw further job losses, with the closure of offices in Melbourne and London, the final edition of the Lonely Planet magazine, the archiving of the popular ThornTree forum, and finally, another change in ownership. In December 2020, current owner Red Ventures, a US media company, purchased Lonely Planet for an undisclosed amount.

These changes in ownership, strategy, and focus have seen Lonely Planet gradually drift from its foundation as a guidebook for and by budget travelers, to a brand, a product largely indistinguishable from its competitors. For some former writers and lifelong devotees, these changes have felt personal. Writing for Lonely Planet came with significant prestige, and for vagabond travelers, their dogeared guidebooks are amongst their most treasured possessions. For others though, our experiences in travel, coupled with frustrations and disappointments, saw Lonely Planet guidebooks fade from our consciousness. We noticed a dip in quality, and sometimes blogs provided more accurate and timely information. What was once necessary became superfluous, yet we still held hope for a resurrection.

The latest Experience editions have, for many, sounded the death knell of what once made Lonely Planet great: deep connections to place, first hand recommendations, useful maps, and detailed writing and research. Online reviews have savaged the new releases, which read more like long form travel brochures than guide books written by seasoned travelers. The Experience series, and indeed many of the latest country guides, have been stripped of much of the detail necessary for planning a trip and replaced with generic information and photographs in a cluttered layout unfamiliar to long time readers.

The acquisition of the travel start-up Elsewhere also signals a shift in direction for Lonely Planet. Elsewhere’s business model is similar to others in the digital economy, cleverly positioning themselves as a new breed of middleman. Essentially, the company links travelers with “local experts,” and together they plan your trip for an 11% commission. Imagine UberEATS, though instead of ordering a meal, you are taken on a cultural tour or African safari.

So, if what remains of Lonely Planet is now unrecognizable, is that such a bad thing?

In contemporary travel discourse, digital nomads are popular scapegoats. Their desire for predictability in the cities they inhabit, their inflationary effect on rental markets, and the subsequent gentrification that ensues are widely bemoaned. Yet, could not similar accusations be leveled against Lonely Planet?

In its heyday, such was the power of those little blue books that hostels in India and Southeast Asia often copied the names of listed businesses. The addition of a “2” or a “3” was a tribute to Lonely Planet’s influence and an attempt to piggyback on their neighbor’s success. Meanwhile, those hostels in print were infamous for increasing their prices, safe in the knowledge that the tourist dollars would continue to flow. Restaurants also rode the blue wave, with a listing often resulting in swarms of backpackers showing up, all with guidebooks in hand, ready to collectively share their individual experiences. Popular bars were frequented by the same crowd, as were the top attractions and transport companies. The Lonely Planet effect saw well-worn tourist trails become even more so, and soon we were all eating banana pancakes and sharing whisky buckets.

What is the point of travel, if not to forge your own experience? To explore the unknown, embrace unpredictability, and to discover. This was the world the Wheelers embraced half a century ago, a world without guidebooks, an open road of possibilities and destinations. A world where you relied on locals or other travelers for information, and you survived on instinct, research, or just dumb luck. Perhaps you missed some things. A flat tire, illness, or even a coup derailed your plans. Yet the end result was another experience, a surprise, a new path, unique stories from the road. Travel was less about checklists, bucket lists, and more about journeys with, and within. It was less about must-visit restaurants and night spots, and more about connections with the places you were wandering. Lonely Planet’s success, in part, guided many travelers away from these journeys and towards those of others. Towards comfortable and predictable travel. 

The world of the Wheelers is rarely ventured nowadays, yet is still available. So, should we mourn what has become of Lonely Planet? Or is it a world without the comfort of a guidebook we fear? As travelers, we grow most when our plans are disrupted, while our fondest memories and richest stories are those unplanned moments and interactions. Spontaneity, enriched by a budding sense of freedom, that is what makes travel exciting, and it is time we embraced it once again.

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