Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler tells Pheroze L. Vincent why travel writing needs to go local before travellers go global

From writing a “Travel survival kit” for India to promoting travel guides for Indians going abroad, Tony Wheeler has come a full circle. In Delhi, to launch Lonely Planet’s first set of travel guides written specifically for Indians by Indian authors, Wheeler highlighted the fact that global travel is ceasing to be a western pastime anymore.

The guides are written by Indian experts on the destination countries. These include The Hindu’s former China correspondent Pallavi Aiyar, former TV reporter Ambika Behal, Bangalore based photographer Supriya Sehgal and Bangkok-based writer CY Gopinath. Six books are on short haul destinations like Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Dubai, Bhutan and China. And four, for long haul trips to Great Britain, London, France and Italy.

While Indians are known to be avid travellers, “the real change is Indians are going overseas a lot more. Travel guides in India were usually for visiting foreigners. But this series tailored for Indians has a larger potential market.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs’ Bureau of Immigration statistics say 12.99 million Indians travelled abroad in 2010. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimated in 2009 that by 2020, 50 million Indians would travel abroad annually. The sheer numbers got Lonely Planet researching from 2009. “We started talking to people, finding out what Indians look for when they go abroad. We created dummy books based on what people told us,” added Wheeler.

The books contain basic details on family travel, availability of vegetarian food and places to catch the best local cuisine. For example, if you belong to the sizeable minority of “pure vegetarian” Indians, say “Wo Chi Su”- which means “I’m a vegetarian”- to your Chinese waiter so that they don’t fry your vegetables in animal fat. If tandoori chicken and Kingfisher beer are your comfort food on weekends, drop in to The Tandoor at Jin Jiang Hotel in Shanghai.

The books have colour coded sections on planning your trip, best trips around the country, history and a helpdesk. There are also blurbs with insider advice, themed suggestions and desi special “value for money” notes too.

Market research shows that most Indian travellers will travel in groups, very few will be independent hitchhikers, and most of them will be first time travellers to the country. So the focus is on guiding them for a safe and easy trip, he said.

“But this won’t prevent them from exploring,” says Wheeler. “Even in Venice- perhaps the most touristy place in the world- we have the ‘two-streets over’ or the ‘detour’ section which tells about side attractions near the main tourist attractions. That should give you the confidence to move three streets over and explore more.

A frequent traveller through India, Wheeler is smitten by Delhi’s Metro- which he also blogged about. “Unlike New York’s subway, this is really easy to understand. The Metro card system is more modern than that in the US and the air conditioning is terrific,” he revealed.

After travelling to more than 100 countries, next on Wheeler’s list is the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest rail route in the world from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific Coast. He says that when nothing from the “when things go wrong” possibilities- mentioned in Lonely Planet books- occur, he actually feels unsatisfied.

Lonely Planets Travel Guides For the Indian Traveller are priced at Rs.495 and Rs.595. Forty more such books for Indians, including some on domestic travel, are planned for the next two years. Similar tomes are being published for Chinese and French travellers too.

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