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Northern Ireland woman who blazed Lonely Planet trail sells up

Nearly 40 years ago at the age of just 21, Belfast woman Maureen Wheeler set off on a travelling odyssey that would see her and her husband establish one of the world’s most famous travel-guides, Lonely Planet.

This week the couple finally ended their ties with the iconic travel publisher, selling the remainder of their shares to the BBC and adding to their multi-million pound fortune.

BBC Worldwide acquired 75% of the publisher in 2007 for £89m, and has now paid a further £42m for the remaining shares.

The deal makes Maureen one |of the wealthiest women from Northern Ireland.

Now aged 60, Maureen grew up on the Holywood Road in east Belfast, but left Northern Ireland as the Troubles deepened in the early ’70s.

She has described in interviews how it was her passion for travelling, more than the violence, that made her leave Belfast.

Maureen moved to London where she met her future husband Tony Wheeler on a bench |in Regent’s Park.

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The pair became hippy travellers — driving, hitching and |sailing across Europe and Asia before arriving in Australia with just 27 cents in their pockets.

They decided to record their journey and wrote their first book, Across Asia on the Cheap based on their travel diaries.

Inspired by its success, the Wheelers went back on the road, travelling around south east Asia on motorbike for 18 months and put together their second guide, South East Asia on a Shoestring.

The book became the cornerstone of the Lonely Planet publishing empire which was established in 1973 and remains today one of the most popular and influential travel guides.

Lonely Planet has offices in Melbourne, London and Oakland in California, with over 500 staff and 300 authors.

The latest deal with the BBC means the Wheelers will no longer be on the board of the company or be involved in any of its running.

In a joint statement, they said: “The last three years have seen Lonely Planet embark on a journey of its own — giving its users and readers ever more choice |and utility.

“We wish the business and the Lonely Planet community every success in the future.”

Lonely Planet head of communications Tom Hall said: “You will still see and hear of Tony and Maureen in connection with Lonely Planet, but they won’t have that formal involvement.”

In 2001, Maureen received an honorary degree from the University of Ulster and has often boosted tourism to Northern Ireland by praising it as a destination in books and travel programmes.

Despite their huge wealth, it seems Maureen has not forgotten her hippy roots and is credited with being the driving force behind Lonely Planet’s corporate contributions programme established to provide financial assistance for humanitarian projects in developing countries.

One reason for selling the majority share of the company to the BBC was so that the Wheelers could spend more time doing, guess what? Travelling.

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