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    A liberal view of tyranny at distance

    By Michael Moynihan

    11:30 AM Tuesday Oct 2, 2012

    In 1933, as Joseph Stalin was busy purging his enemies and building a

    murderous cult of personality, the New York-based left-wing magazine The

    Nation advised readers interested in travelling to Moscow that

    Intourist, the Soviet Union's official travel agency, employed as tour

    guides "very interesting and attractive young women without hats",

    skilled in correcting misinformation spread by the capitalist media.

    Although the hatless apparatchiks from Intourist limited sightseeing to

    approved destinations – Ukraine, at the apogee of its brutal famine, was

    off-limits – they were nevertheless adept at obtaining "special permits"

    from the predecessor of the KGB, which, The Nation noted, "far from

    being a band of terrorist police, is an extremely able and intelligent

    organisation, always glad to help tourists".

    Even long after Stalin's crimes were revealed in Nikita Khrushchev's

    1956 secret speech, the migratory "fellow traveller" persisted,

    shuffling between failed utopias and dropping in at model collective

    farms and labour camps.

    During the Cold War, this sort of ideological tourism was almost

    exclusively a progressive domain; the sugar-cane plantations of Cuba

    heaved with vacationing European and American companeros, but few

    free-market acolytes turned up in Augusto Pinochet's Chile to witness

    pension privatisation or marvel at his market liberalisation programme.

    Even in the Soviet Union's final days, Hungarian-American academic Paul

    Hollander noted, a number of companies still offered educational trips

    to Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada, and Nicaragua. And years after the 1989 fall

    of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union,

    ideological dead-enders could still join expensive "reality tours" of

    Fidel Castro's Cuba or Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

    These days, the young and progressive book travel online, eschewing tour

    groups and specialised travel agents. This leaves the task of a

    travellers' political education to guidebook empires like Rough Guides

    and Lonely Planet, both of which – while offering what Lonely Planet

    calls "honest and objective" advice on where to find the perfect pisco

    sour in Peru or that slice of beach paradise in Cambodia – provide

    detailed, polemical asides on the political history and culture of the

    countries under review.

    Lonely Planet was started in 1975, when the British hippie

    husband-and-wife team Maureen and Tony Wheeler self-published a guide to

    cheap travel in South-east Asia.

    Mark Ellingham, also British, founded the competing Rough Guides in 1982

    after finding existing guidebooks too thin on the "politics and

    contemporary life" of travel destinations.

    Both companies have been astoundingly successful. Rough Guides has sold

    more than 30 million books over the past 25 years, transforming itself

    from a publisher of travel guides into a global business empire,

    producing television programmes, music albums, and dozens of other

    titles (like The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories).

    In 2010, Lonely Planet, now wholly owned by BBC Worldwide, sold its

    100-millionth book. It too has branched into television, radio, and


    Both guidebook empires have also made their founders very rich – Lonely

    Planet was sold for well over $100 million – though this has induced a

    certain amount of introspection.

    Lonely Planet's Wheeler now says he feels guilty about travelling

    because of the airline industry's contribution to global warming.

    And Ellingham, who has published The Rough Guide to Climate Change, says

    his business "must encourage travellers to travel less". They may be

    wealthy, making their money off an industry that's causing grievous harm

    to the Earth, but they certainly haven't left their liberal politics behind.

    To establish the quality of the political education they're serving up

    to a new generation of travellers, it's useful to begin by skimming

    their guidebooks for undemocratic countries like Cuba, Iran, North

    Korea, and Syria.

    There's a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of

    democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence,

    various contorted attempts to contextualise authoritarianism or

    atrocities, and scorching attacks on the US foreign policy that

    precipitated these defensive and desperate actions.

    Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness

    should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable

    rejection of globalisation and American hegemony. The hotel

    recommendations might be useful, but the guidebooks are clotted with

    historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of

    Orientalism and pathological self-loathing.

    It's not just the wacky colonel who got the benefit of the doubt. Has

    the media convinced you that the burqa is an instrument of oppression?

    Lonely Planet: Afghanistan, in a rare bit of what appears to be Taliban

    nostalgia, explains: "The burqa can be seen as a tool to increase

    mobility and security, a nuance often missed in the outside world's

    image of the garment. Assuming that a burqa-clad woman is not empowered

    and in need of liberation is a naive construct."

    Western media outlets have misinformed us on Iran as well. Lonely

    Planet: Iran assures travellers to the Islamic Republic that "99% of

    Iranians – and perhaps even [President] Ahmadinejad himself" aren't

    interested in a nuclear conflict with Israel.

    The West's misreading of Cuba is an old staple for this crowd, and a new

    generation of lefty guidebooks doesn't fail to disappoint on this score.

    The Rough Guide to Cuba, for example, even has a kind word for the

    draconian censorship implemented by the Castro regime, lecturing us that

    it's "geared to producing (what the Government deems to be) socially

    valuable content, refreshingly free of any significant concern for high

    ratings and commercial success".

    Sure, the guidebook says, one can read dissident bloggers like Yoani

    Sanchez, but beware that opponents of the regime can be "paranoid and

    bitter" and are "at their best when commenting on the minutiae of Cuban

    life [and] at their worst when giving vent to unfocused diatribes

    against the Government".

    We've also apparently got it all wrong when it comes to Cuba's notorious

    Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a Stasi-like network

    of neighbourhood-level informers that monitors and informs on

    troublesome dissidents like Sanchez.

    Lonely Planet: Cuba thankfully assures tourists that the group is, in

    fact, a benign civic organisation: The CDR are "neighbourhood-watch

    bodies originally formed in 1960 to consolidate grassroots support for

    the revolution [and] they now play a decisive role in health, education,

    social, recycling and voluntary labour campaigns".

    Why all the bending over backward to excuse the world's most thuggish


    For the guidebook writer, as well as the starry-eyed travellers who buy

    them, there is no characteristic more desirable in foreign travel than

    "authenticity" – places uncorrupted by the hideousness of Western

    corporate advertising and global brands – and many of these pariah

    states are the only destinations that offer it.

    Lonely Planet enthuses that Cuba possesses a "uniqueness [that] is a

    vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalised world". Indeed, the

    dictatorship protects its citizens from the poison of consumerism in a

    manner other states might want to emulate:

    "Almost completely cut off from the maw of McDonald's, Madonna and other

    global corporate-cultural influences, Cuba retains a refreshing

    preserved quality. It's a space and place that serves as a beacon for

    the future – universal education, health care and housing are rights

    people the world over want, need and deserve."

    Writing in The Ecologist, a venerable British environmentalist journal,

    Brendan Sainsbury, co-author of Lonely Planet: Cuba, contends that there

    is purity in Cuban penury:

    "Falling into step alongside pallid, overweight and uncoordinated

    Western wannabes out on two-week vacations from Prozac and junk food,

    the Cubans don't just walk; they glide, sauntering rhythmically through

    the timeworn streets like dancers shaking their asses to the syncopated

    beat of the rumba. Maybe the secret is in the food rationing."

    There is an almost Orientalist presumption that the citizens of places

    like Cuba or Afghanistan have made a choice in rejecting globalisation

    and consumerism. From the perspective of the disaffected Westerner,

    poverty is seen as enviable, a pure existence unsullied by capitalism.

    Sainsbury refers to Cuban food as "organic" and praises the Castro

    brothers' "intellectual foresight [that] has prompted such eco-friendly

    practices as nutrient recycling, soil and water management and land-use


    Meagre food rations and the 1950s cars that plod through Havana's

    streets, however, don't represent authenticity or some tropical version

    of the Western mania for "artisanal" products, but, rather, failed

    economic policy. It's as much of a lifestyle choice as female

    circumcision is in Sudan.

    At the same time, formerly totalitarian countries that have undergone

    market reforms and economic growth are often upbraided by guidebook

    writers for betraying their revolutionary ideals.

    As living standards rise in Asia, the authentic travel experience is

    harder to come by. Writing on the Rough Guides website a few years ago,

    Ron Emmons, co-author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam, expressed his

    disappointment at the diminished power of the communist economy in

    Hanoi, sighing that his "first impression of Vietnam was a Pepsi advert

    splashed across the side of a shuttle bus. After centuries of valiantly

    fighting off invaders by land, sea and air, Vietnam had finally

    succumbed to Western influences."

    Even more surprising is the existence of guidebooks for walled-off North

    Korea, where government chaperones hover over every aspect of a

    traveller's itinerary.

    Lonely Planet, which offers a small section on the Hermit Kingdom in its

    South Korea book, noted that in his later years the North Korean leader

    Kim Jong Il (who routinely announced his intention to engulf Seoul in a

    "sea of fire") showed a "pragmatism and relative openness to change"

    that had been absent in the famine years of the 1990s.

    And Bradt, a British publisher that offers the only dedicated

    English-language guide to North Korea, effuses about the desolate, gray

    capital of Pyongyang as "a city without parallel in Korea, or Asia".

    In sunlight, the streets and squares, without a fleck of dust, can

    literally dazzle.

    "Pyongyang reputedly has 58m2 of green belt per citizen – four times the

    amount prescribed by the United Nations, and in spring its hills heave

    with green."

    Perhaps it's no surprise then that Bradt also has a unique take on North

    Korea's successful quest for nuclear weapons at a time when millions of

    its people were starving:

    "The most common arguments in the Western media are that the aggressive

    little dictatorship sought all along to build a nuke and use it as a

    bargaining chip for more aid – which sidesteps the fact that the DPRK

    was being threatened by a nuclear mega-power with which, someway by

    mutual consent, it was not at peace."

    Regardless, there is little cause for concern, according to Bradt,

    because the "allegations about the uranium enrichment" are most likely a

    figment of overheated American imagination, from the same people who

    "cooked up the WMD intel against Iraq".

    So what gives? The writers employed by publishers like Lonely Planet and

    Rough Guides aren't "cleanskins," dropped into a country and instructed

    to familiarise themselves with the local culture and report back their

    findings, but rather professional travellers, enamoured of the places

    they're tasked with cataloguing. (Well, except Thomas Kohnstamm,

    perhaps, who admitted in 2008 that he had written Lonely Planet:

    Colombia without having ever set foot in the country. He was, however,

    dating "an intern in the Colombian Consulate".)

    These besotted individuals possess a remarkable ability to be forgiving

    of those they love, and scathing about those they hate.

    While Rough Guides enthuses about Cuba's health-care system and

    equivocates about Havana's totalitarian government, it has no problem

    defining American culture as a "combination of a shoot-from-the-hip

    mentality with laissez-faire capitalism and religious fervour [that] can

    make the USA maddening at times".

    One could see this sort of knee-jerk leftism as archaically charming, if

    it weren't so insidious.

    After all, beyond tacitly endorsing the countries they visit, tourists

    also pour money into them. Take Lonely Planet's guide to Burma, a

    country that languished for almost four decades under a military junta

    which imprisoned thousands of dissidents and left millions of citizens

    in poverty.

    In 2008, Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents six

    million British workers, threatened a boycott of Lonely Planet if it

    didn't withdraw its Burma edition; according to the TUC's petition, the

    book sent a "strong message of validation to the brutal military regime".

    Lonely Planet pointed out that the guide warned readers of the ethical

    dilemma by noting that forced labour was used to develop tourist sites

    and that "activists claim that tourism dollars help directly fuel

    government repression". But it refused to pull the guide.

    With Burma's junta relaxing its grip on power and Nobel Peace

    Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi encouraging tourism, Rough

    Guides, which said in 2008 that it felt "wrong" to publish a Burma

    edition, is currently reconsidering.

    The problem with guidebooks to countries like Cuba, Iran, and North

    Korea is not that they encourage travel to rogue regimes (the American

    travel ban to Cuba and the lack of tourism in North Korea have done

    little to unseat either government), but that they consistently

    misinform tourists about the nature of those countries.

    The solution isn't to stop travelling, but to travel wisely, not

    mistaking grinding poverty for cultural authenticity or confusing

    dictatorship with a courageous rejection of globalisation.

    So go to Cuba. Try to get that visa to North Korea. Visit Tehran. Just

    make sure to throw your guidebooks in the trash before you do.

    * This article first appeared in Foreign Policy magazine. Lonely Planet

    responded: "We strongly refute any suggestion that we have any political

    affiliation or bias, and in particular that we are sympathetic to

    repressive regimes. The quotes from our guides that Michael Moynihan

    uses… are selective, taken out of context, and do not represent Lonely

    Planet's comprehensive, balanced view."

    - AP

    By Michael Moynihan

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