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
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
"Pyongyang reputedly has 58m2 of green belt per citizen – four times the
amount prescribed by the United Nations, and in spring its hills heave
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 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."
By Michael Moynihan