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In conversation with Tony Wheeler: Warwick, travel, and the Wheeler History of Travel Writing

This November, The Boar sat down with Warwick alumnus and co-founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler. During the interview, The Boar asked Tony about his role in the launch of Warwick University’s brand-new postgraduate course, the Wheeler History of Travel Writing PhD Programme, and about his life as a travel writer.

Why did you decide to set-up the Wheeler History of Travel Writing PhD Programme?

Warwick University sold the idea to me. They have been trying to get me onboard to do something of this nature for several years, and when we were talking about it, I liked the idea because I believe travel books and travel guides are like history books. I’ll give you an example:

You can really glimpse at how much Vietnam has changed by looking at the difference between the first Lonely Planet guidebook of Vietnam, which came out in the early nineties, and now. I went to Vietnam when that first guide went out, and I can remember a bunch of things about Vietnam that would be utterly and completely different today. I remember being in Hanoi and noting that there was nothing there at all! I remember thinking that what these beautiful streets with all these beautiful trees needed was a few cafes, and of course, now its covered wall-to-wall with cafes, bars, restaurants, and hotels! That first Lonely Planet guidebook shows us how much Vietnam has changed over the past 30 years.

The programme focuses not just on the history of travel, but on politics, the environment and dark tourism as well. How involved were you in the making of the programme syllabus?

Very little! Warwick popped up with assorted ideas which they thought might appeal to me and I just said “ok.” However, I will push some of my favourite travel writers, such as Thomas Coryat (an English explorer born in the 16th century), a writer for whom I’ve always had a great deal of enthusiasm. He famously brought the idea of an umbrella and a fork back to Britain from Italy. I find that intriguing! His Italian book was a popular success, so he set off on a walk to India where he died of dysentery. Sadly, the book he intended to write about India never got published and most of the manuscript was lost. He actually died in Surat, which is a bit north of Mumbai, so on a visit to India one year, I went on a trip to Surat to find traces of Thomas Coryat and I found some reminders of his presence there.

For me, there are things that pop up all the time, and I think “Wow, this is worth seeing!”… I’ll still just get up and go anywhere, anytime anything interesting pops up

Shifting the conversation towards travel in general, why do you love travelling so much? What’s the thing that keeps you travelling even as you get older?

A constant interest [in travelling]. For me, there are things that pop up all the time, and I think “Wow, this is worth seeing!” It’s interesting because [every person has their own travel interests]. For example, as my wife, Maureen, and I have got older, we’ve gone off on our own tangents. I’ll still just get up and go anywhere, anytime anything interesting pops up, whereas she’s much more focused. A lot of Maureen’s travel these days is opera focused – there’ll be an interesting opera somewhere and she’ll go and see it. I don’t mind opera, but I have a much lower threshold of opera boredom than she does!

Recently, The Boar has been celebrating its 50th Anniversary. With that in mind, what are the biggest changes that you’ve noticed in the last 50 years of traveling?

Well, there are a lot more people travelling. There are a lot more tourists, and I worry about what they are doing – they’re flooding places!

Do you think it’s a problem of too many tourists, or that they are all going to the same places?

Oh, it’s the same places! The three places that get pinpointed all the time are Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice. I was in Venice very recently and I went into St. Mark’s Square. It was absolutely jam-packed! But you only have to get a few streets away from that tourist epicentre to find an utterly different Venice. On my recent visit we stayed in a hotel where a couple of times a day you saw clear evidence that you’d escaped the tourist crowds: school pupils heading to or from their schools.

You should write about something that’s unusual… the best travel writing is often about the most outrageous places

What do you think the future of travel holds? How do you think travel and tourism will change over the next 50 years?

Earlier today, I exchanged a couple of emails with Simon Calder (travel correspondent for The Independent) and he’s currently in Egypt where prices are rock bottom because tourists are avoiding that corner of the world. And you know, I flew from London to Dubai [on my way] to Australia three weeks ago, and I was thinking that I’m flying along this corridor where to the north of me is the war in Ukraine, and to the south of me is the war in Israel. All we need is something crazy to happen in the Middle East and suddenly the route between Europe and Asia is chopped off.

What are your top tips for travellers?

Don’t sit around thinking about it, get up and go! I’m a great believer in only travelling with a carry-on bag. There’s a Spanish author called Ana Briongos who wrote a book called Negro sobre Negro about her time as a student in Iran. She wrote about the importance of travelling when you’re young because you travel closer to ground level and make more contacts. I’ve quoted that paragraph so often and I’ve sent it to people saying if you want a reason why you should travel, here it is in one paragraph.* 

What are your top tips for travel writers?

The better you write, the better the travel writer you are going to be! But apart from that, you should write about something that’s unusual. You’ll get a head start on all the people who are writing about Italy or Paris and all the places that have been written to death. The best travel writing is often about the most outrageous places.

Finally, what is your favourite mode of travel?

I like walking because you are seeing the world at the pace god intended. I’ve also done a lot of cycling trips in my life, and they’ve been good. But there’s a lot to be said for private jets!

The Wheeler History of Travel Writing Programme is focused on the histories of travel and historical travel writing, in any language and from any part of the world

After Tony’s interview, The Boar spoke to Guido van Meersbergen, the academic contact for the Wheeler History of Travel Writing Programme, who was able to provide some further information about the PhD programme:

Why did you decide to launch this PhD programme?

PhDs are the lifeblood of academia. Unfortunately, their funding is under pressure, particularly in the Arts and Humanities, which limits opportunities for the majority of students for whom self-funding a PhD programme isn’t an option. Tony Wheeler’s generous donation offers us the opportunity to support innovative postgraduate research in an area in which many academics at Warwick hold unique expertise.

How do you combine the study of history with travel writing in the programme?

The programme is focused on the histories of travel and historical travel writing, in any language and from any part of the world. So it approaches travel writing of varying kinds as a key source for historical analysis of experiences and processes of travel and their political, cultural, economic, scientific, or environmental consequences for human societies and the world around them.

What are you looking for in students who are applying for the programme?

We’re looking to attract postgraduate students with a strong academic background in History or related disciplines with a strong and original project which may focus on aspects of the history of travel from any period or region of the world. Candidates who adopt a global historical perspective and have the ability to work with sources in more than one language are particularly encouraged to apply.


*If you would like to read the paragraph by Ana Briongos that Tony was talking about in full, it is linked here:







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