The Advanced Guard of Tourism: Tracing a Direct Line Between the Lonely Planet Travel Guides and The Beach
James Brooke-Smith on Backpackers and Globalization in the 1990s
Across Asia on the Cheap: A Complete Guide to Making the Overland Trip began life in 1973 as a sheaf of mimeographed pages stapled together into a pocket-sized booklet, which was passed around by hand in the counter-cultural enclaves of Sydney, Australia. The guide helped readers navigate the hippy trail that led from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, down into the Indian subcontinent, across Southeast Asia, and eventually to Australia.
In addition to the standard information about hostels and ferry times, Across Asia on the Cheap included more recherché details such as where to score the best drugs and how to pick up odd jobs along the way. The text was bashed out on a borrowed typewriter and accompanied by hand-drawn maps to secluded beaches and far-flung temples. This was a new kind of travel guide, a kind of anti-Baedeker, which offered an alternative to the sedate tours of cultural treasures and comfortable hotels that had been favored by Western tourists since the 19th century.
The guide was compiled by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, a married couple from England and Northern Ireland, who were themselves fresh off the hippy trail. At first, the Wheelers thought the guide might help them earn enough money to fund an extra year of travel before they returned home to find real jobs. They converted the scrappy samizdat version into an initial run of 1,500 printed books.
When those quickly sold out, they printed up another 3,500, this time with a glossy cover and journalistic endorsements on the flyleaf. In 1974, they published a second volume, The Lonely Planet Guide to South-East Asia on a Shoestring, named after a misheard Joe Cocker lyric about a space traveler who spies a “lovely planet” and decides to stay. In the eyes of many Westerners at the time, Southeast Asia was the equivalent of outer space, a part of the world still haunted by memories of the Viet Cong and Indonesia’s repressive Sukarno regime.
The Beach plays on the fear that gnawed at the consciences of the more self-aware global travelers of the 1990s.
Without really thinking about it—or at least, that’s how they would tell the story after they had become fabulously successful—the Wheelers were helping to invent a new kind of tourism, maybe even a new way of seeing the world. The Lonely Planet guides were aimed at young, adventurous, cosmopolitan travelers from the developed world who were keen to get off the beaten path and into the “untouched” regions of the earth.
Users were encouraged to think of themselves as travelers rather than tourists, part of a global community of seekers after experience and enjoyment, who were more attuned to the ways of life they encountered than traditional holidaymakers would be. By the 1990s, Lonely Planet had become a global publishing brand, with 350 titles in print and annual sales of over $40 million. The Wheelers’ success is a classic tale of Bobo capitalism, which converted the hippy experience of the 1960s into the edgy but commercialized sub-culture of the 1990s.
In Alex Garland’s 1996 novel, The Beach, the dream has turned sour. With their Lonely Planet guides in hand, the backpacker hordes have spread across Southeast Asia more like a deadly virus than a benign caravanserai of wide-eyed travelers. Garland’s novel grafted an airport paperback-style thriller plot on to the hippy traveller setting of Thailand’s “banana pancake trail,” the string of cheap hostels and beach resorts that catered to this new wave of budget travelers in the 1980s and ’90s. The Beach became a massive bestseller and was made into a terrible film by Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to make backpacking through the tropics seem less exciting than life as a heroin addict in 1980s Scotland.
The novel is narrated by Richard, a British traveller who wakes up one morning in a Bangkok hostel to find a hand-scrawled map pinned to the dead body of a raddled old hippy who has taken his own life. It is a scene ripped from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and transplanted to the Khaosan Road; the map even has an X to mark the spot of the hidden treasure. In this case, though, the treasure is not a glittering pile of doubloons, but a hidden community of travelers and the state of perpetual bliss their lifestyle promises.
Along with a French couple he meets at the hostel, Richard makes the perilous journey across the choppy straights of the Andaman Sea, sneaks past the armed gangsters who guard the marijuana fields that take up half the island, leaps from the towering waterfall that marks the boundary of the beach, and then discovers the secret community of like-minded souls—shang-ri-la, utopia, paradise!
In the eyes of many Westerners at the time, Southeast Asia was the equivalent of outer space.
But there is no paradise without trouble, no utopia without its dystopian flipside. A whole novel about sitting on a beach and smoking dope all day would be about as interesting as sitting on a beach and smoking dope all day. The narrative thrills come in the form of run-ins with the local drug smugglers, deadly shark attacks, tensions between the founding fathers of the community and the callow newbies, and the rising levels of psychosis and paranoia that come from sitting around on a beach and smoking dope all day.
But the real malaise that besets the islanders is historical, rather than a matter of predators and politics. The golden age of the hippy trail is long past. The last of the world’s undiscovered paradises are steadily being hooked up to the global network of long-haul airflights and budget tourism. The last great illusion of the 20th century, the fantasy that travel is a way to transform the self, is on life support.
The scariest thing about Garland’s paradisal beach community is that it has no purpose other than leisure. After the thrill of discovery subsides and he is inducted into the ways of the community, Richard experiences an eerie sense of disappointment: “It’s silly really. I think I was expecting an ideology or something. A purpose.” Once their morning fishing and gardening duties are completed, members of the community lounge on the beach all day smoking dope and taking turns on the Nintendo Game Boy.
When Richard stalks the drug dealers on the far side of the island, he imagines himself in a Vietnam war movie. The beach dwellers are a multinational community drawn exclusively from the developed nations of the world, without a single Thai or Asian member. They might be physically located on a tropical island in the South China Sea, but they are sealed within a bubble of Western culture and affluence. Have they really “travelled” at all?
The Beach plays on the fear that gnawed at the consciences of the more self-aware global travelers of the 1990s: that backpackers were merely the advanced guard of the tourism industry. The backpackers’ quest for “otherness”—new experiences, foreign cultures, a brief encounter with third-world poverty—mirrors global capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for new markets and consumers. Backpackers are the nimble, resourceful, adventurous pioneers who pave the way for the larger tour operators and global franchises to move in. Today, there is a Starbucks in Koh Samui.
Excerpted from Accelerate! Copyright © 2023 by James Brooke-Smith. Used with permission of the publisher, The History Press. All rights reserved.