By Utpal Borpujari
India has a role to play in the birth of the legend that is every backpackers’ ultimate travel guide, Lonely Planet. It was in 1973 that Englishman Tony Wheeler, an ex-Chrysler Corp engineer, and his wife Maureen Wheeler published Across Asia on the Cheap, based on their experience of travelling from Turkey to India and Nepal through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book still remains one of the highest-selling publications of Lonely Planet, 37 years after it first hit the stands. And in 1981, Lonely Planet’s guidebook series made its first expansion through the publication of the India guidebook. So, it makes perfect sense that the legendary travel guide’s monthly publication has chosen to don an Indian avatar.
The recent launch of the India edition of the Lonely Planet Magazine also in a way marks the increasing visibility of the country in the world tourism circuit, where it has been languishing in the backburners all these years despite its tremendous diversity, lagging behind even a city-state like Singapore in terms of yearly tourist arrivals. The fact that India, with its growing economic and geo-strategic importance, is also becoming more visible in the cultural and cinema world globally perhaps has also added in favour of the decision to bring out Lonely Planet’s India edition. And travel industry watchers do not forget to point to the coincidence of Lonely Planet India’s launch happening almost simultaneously with the government’s decision to start visa or arrival, even if experimentally, for tourists from five countries – Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore.
Wheeler himself agrees with these views on why Lonely Planet, which is 75 per cent owned by BBC Worldwide while the remaining 25 per cent lie with the Wheelers, has chosen to dock itself in India at this moment in time. “2010 has been an ideal year to launch the iconic travel magazine in India. Indians today are travelling more than they have ever done. They are experimenting, exploring, discovering places across the globe. So there’s a definite attitudinal shift towards travel. Besides, Lonely Planet Magazine has ambitious global plans. India’s the third country where it’s been launched after the UK and Brazil,” he says. India, it goes without saying, is a strong part of those global plans which entail publication of quite a few more international versions of the magazine across countries in the near future.
Lonely Planet’s reputation as a guide that introduces readers to little-known places outside the known tourist circuits and also where to shack up cheap will surely be replicated in the Indian version of the magazine too, but in the Indian context, it will also target upmarket people who are keen travellers and want authoritative travel information from credible sources, according to Wheeler. However, on that count, the magazine might have to do more than just riding on its reputation of legendary proporations to lure the ultra-sensitive Indian market which in the past few years has seen several travel magazines and publications targeted at exactly the same segment.
It also seems to be aware of this, as the publication’s India editor Vardhan Kondvikar says, “We very much have India-specific plans on the content side. The magazine is about seeing the world from Indian eyes – every section, every element, has been revamped to cater to an Indian audience. For example, the UK edition does ‘10 Easy Trips’ every issue, while we’ve changed that to five, to provide greater and more detail, which Indians require because we like planning our trips a bit more comprehensively. Second, there’s the addition of India-specific elements like ‘Fancy a Curry’ and ‘Veg Out’, which help you find Indian-food and vegetarian options in every destination. Third, we have a section on visas – where to get them, how long they’ll take – and consulates abroad, given how difficult we find it to get visas to many countries.” The Indian edition has most of its content, including international stories, generated by Indian writers and photographers, further adding to the “Indianisation” of the magazine, and Kondvikar says that even while selecting pieces from international editions, the publication will be “very particular” about selecting stories that will appeal to an Indian audience.
Kondvikar also makes it a point to stress that “Lonely Planet Magazine” will help inculcate the habit among Indians of reading travel literature just for the joy of it. “We believe we’re actually creating the travel-literature genre in India. Before Lonely Planet Magazine arrived, most Indians only looked to the Internet and tour operators for travel info and inspiration on where to go next, and had never read travel magazines for the sheer pleasure of it. How we’re different is simple – this is Lonely Planet,” he says. Wheeler says the result is already there to see, with the launch issue in February disappearing from the shelves in the first 15 days, a trend that has continued in the subsequent months.
For a group that had its initial books attracting youth from Australia and Europe who had hit the Hippie trail in the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and beyond, it is surely a step forward to target upwardly-mobile, young Indian families. Quite clearly, the planet no more belongs only to the backpackers in the eyes of the world’s largest travel guide book and digital media publisher that prides itself for its thematic guidebooks spanning from photography books, food guides, city guides, travelogues, diaries, language guides, walking guides to even more specific Volunteer Travel guide or National Park guide.