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Monday, May 5, 2008

Strange Planet (part 4) or How I learnt to stop worrying and love the Lonely Planet Loophole

by Terry Carter*
Oh yes, there's more... So far this Lonely Planet thing is a mess of contradictions and odd confessions. Surely the guy who photocopied and stapled together the first copies of a Lonely Planet guide by hand on his kitchen table will come to the rescue and sort out this nonsense once and for all. Cue Lonely Planet co-founder and travel industry legend, Tony Wheeler:

…accepting free car hire from a tourist office would not be "a major problem". "That doesn't disappoint me..."

Well, Tony, it disappoints me. And my bank manager. I still have the receipts for cars hired across several countries, for several Lonely Planet books, going back several years. Shall I send them care of the BBC, or directly to you? I hear you’re pretty flush these days. I’ll expect a nice little nought on the end of my bank balance next week. Enough about my out of pocket expenses, though, back to the oddly twisting scandal. So now even the co-founder of the cultish company is admitting that certain kinds of freebies aren’t a problem. Admittedly, free car hire is an obtuse example, especially if it’s organized by the tourism people, so it’s not that bad. The Lonely Planet is still on its orbit, it just wobbled a little. Still looks beautiful from space. Thanks for reading! And drive safely. Drive Avis. What? He says more about not accepting freebies?

“From my perspective this is an impossible standard to meet," he says.

You have to be kidding me. But you, Tony Wheeler, put that standard in place. Your perspective? You ran the company. What not change this to a goal that is achievable? Why not have a more nuanced policy? Why say this now?
But could it get any worse than the co-founder of LP stating that he never expected his writers to refuse comps? For the love of Lonely Planet, please let it stop. But it doesn’t…

When asked whether Lonely Planet was betraying the trust of its readers by insisting it did not take freebies, he says curtly: "Well, that's what you'll have to say, won't you?"

Sweet Jesus.
OK. I’ll run with that. I’m no newspaper editor, but I swear that my headline would have read something more insightful than ‘A guide delusion makes it Lonely at the top’. I don’t even understand what that means. I’m not sure it’s even English. Here’s a more accurate and revealing headline, if I do say so myself: LONELY PLANET CO-FOUNDER SAYS COMPANY BETRAYED READERS TRUST. ADMITS WRITERS ACCEPT 'FREEBIES'. Many people in the travel industry see Lonely Planet, its employees and fanatical fans as a kind of cult. I see their point now and I agree to a certain extent, but I never realised it was a doomsday cult. Not sure if I’d be drinking from the water coolers at Lonely Planet headquarters today. Just a thought…

* Terry is my husband, co-author and a photographer. We wrote and contributed to over 25 guidebooks and stacks of other content for Lonely Planet over four years. Take a read of part 1 and part 2 of this strange saga here.

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