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Candid Aussie Guidebooks to Pack

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 1992


WAYNE STARR is telling an old friend how to determine if a mattress has bed bugs. Oh, and he wants the friend to know that a trip to Yugoslavia was a complete disaster. "Hated the place the minute I arrived," says Mr. Starr of Chilton, Oxon, United Kingdom. And don't try to exchange money on the black market in Yugoslavia, he advises, because it's too easy to get ripped off.

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Starr is relating this information to his old friend Lonely Planet Publications, publisher of 80 travel guides from every continent except Antarctica. In large part because it encourages mail, Lonely Planet receives 75 to 100 letters a week from readers. But the company also gets the letters because it has cultivated loyal customers.

So many people come in and ask for Lonely Planet guides that "you don't even have to display them," says Ross Lamond, travel-guide buyer for the Angus & Robertson bookstore in Sydney.

Some travelers buy the books because of their off-the-beaten-track appeal. Lonely Planet has published guides about such non-touristy places as Yemen, Reunion, Namibia, and Madagascar. Writes Lucy Kunkel of Ithaca, N.Y., "Without your books I am sure the courage and convictions that I have for my journey would be much less."

Gabriel Fox, publisher of The Complete Traveller, a United Kingdom magazine, calls the guides either the best or equal-best of available guides. He says only the British Rough Guides (Real Guides, Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster, in the United States) are comparable in quality. Lonely Planet frequently has a book on The Complete Travellers' bestseller list.

Turning out quality books helps Lonely Planet sell 1 million copies per year. The US and UK are the largest markets. Australia represents 15 percent of its $5.3 million to $6 million in annual revenues. The books are either Shoestring guides - written for low-budget travel in a region or continent, or Travel Survival Kits, which cover a country or small group of countries.

The company, which joint-owner Tony Wheeler says is profitable, is a partnership between Mr. Wheeler, his wife, Maureen, and Jim Hart, who joined Lonely Planet in 1979. Today, the publisher occupies two floors of a modern office building in suburban Melbourne. However, Mr. Hart recalls that in the mid-1970s, "Tony could fit the whole office in the boot of a Ford Cortina." Those were the days, Hart says, of "microscopic" publishing. Today, he estimates the global market for guidebooks is about $400 millio n retail with Lonely Planet holding about 5 percent of the market share.

One reason for Lonely Planet's success is that its guides are different enough from the others to entice buyers. "We're more adventurous ... we never have been afraid of saying things," says Wheeler. For example, in its guidebook on Micronesia, the authors have no trouble criticizing US policy, which was supposed to provide for self-government and self-sufficiency. "Instead, 20 years of neglect were followed by 20 years of promoting welfare dependency," the book says.

Such candor has not always endeared the guidebooks to local politicians. "Africa on a Shoestring" is banned in Malawi because it criticized President Banda's Youth Corps. The latest edition includes a warning that custom officials will seize the book at the Malawi border and suggests pasting a different book cover over the Lonely Planet compendium. In India and Indonesia censors put black lines through parts which may not fit local versions of events. Maps can be especially troublesome because of border disputes.