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Lonely Planet founder’s new book explores ‘Dark Lands’

By BETH J. HARPAZ AP Travel Editor

Publication: The Day

Published August 29. 2013 4:00AM

Tony Wheeler wrote his first travel book with his wife Maureen in 1973 after driving across Europe and Asia. It sold 1,500 copies in a week and launched a guidebook empire called Lonely Planet.

The Wheelers made a fortune when the BBC bought the company in 2007, but the BBC sold the company earlier this year at a huge loss. Meanwhile Wheeler, 66, is still traveling the world and writing about it. His newest book, "Dark Lands," recounts his recent adventures in countries troubled by ethnic strife, drug wars, and fiscal ruin.

AP: You were mugged, arrested and pelted with stones on this trip. Do those count as highlights?

Wheeler: They do count in a way. But I'd also say climbing up the Nyiragongo volcano in Congo was a highlight. It was like a children's picture book of what a volcano should be. Smoke, dust, a big empty muddy hole, lava bubbling up. ... It was perfect.

Also going into the jungle in Papua New Guinea to get to Admiral Yamamoto's aircraft. (Isoroku Yamamoto masterminded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; his aircraft was shot down in 1943.)

A third one would be in Haiti, listening to music in the Oloffson Hotel on Thursday night. It's such a buzz being there. Time flashes by and before you know it, it's 2 a.m.

AP: Would any of the countries in "Dark Lands" work for a conventional vacation?

Wheeler: All of those countries have trouble. Some you cannot see an easy solution, others, well, things are getting better. The best example is Colombia. On most measures, Colombia is doing far better than it was a couple of years ago. It has a lot of attractions. People say it's the best Spanish colonial architecture in South America. and Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities.

AP: Many places that were once off-the-beaten path have become overrun, and sometimes Lonely Planet recommendations contributed to that. Was this trip different?

Wheeler: You go back to places you really loved when you went there, that were sort of empty, and now everybody knows them. I think of Bali: Now everybody's got an "I've been to Bali" T-shirt. But with "Dark Lands," I showed that you can still go to places where people are having amazing adventures.

AP: How do you feel about the changes at Lonely Planet? Even before you sold LP, the brand had begun to shed its backpacker-budget image.

Wheeler: People say, "Oh, that's the shoestring budget, backpackers' young people guide" - but we're not that any more. I'm OK with it, but it's partly in a way why we thought it was time for us to move out. They were doing a lot of things I could see the reasons for doing, but it's not my first love.

Wheeler: There's no question we sold out at the perfect moment. It wasn't just the recession that hurt Lonely Planet - we also sold out just as the Australian dollar took off. (Lonely Planet is based in Melbourne, where Wheeler lives, and the surge in Australian currency resulted in foreign exchange losses.)

AP: Are there untapped areas of opportunity?

Wheeler: One of the things about LP that the BBC didn't really pick up on is that we look at it as an English-language brand, but it's very big in other languages. I've been to Italy twice this year and we've got a huge following there. We're the biggest seller of guidebooks in the Italian language. I get recognized on the street once a year in other places, but in Italy it happens a lot.

And in China, it's just astonishing. ... You see hordes of Chinese tourists on those packaged tours, but for young people and university students, so many of whom speak English, they would love to be out there doing independent travel. LP is part of that image.

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