In Other Words

Con Air

What in-flight magazines don't want you to know about the world.

Back in the heyday of Pan Am and Eastern Airlines, commercial flight was a thing of opulence, of rarity, of beauty. There is a reason the expression "jet set" still conjures images of the well-heeled swilling martinis while hurtling toward exotic destinations, armed with hatboxes and designer luggage. Those days may be long gone, but in an era when coach class has become an exercise in elective debasement, one perk from the dawn of air travel remains: You may no longer be offered a beverage, but you will, invariably, find a complimentary in-flight magazine tucked into the seat pocket in front of you.

Indeed, there are more than 200 such publications provided at 30,000 feet today -- from the longest-running, KLM's Holland Herald (which first appeared in 1966); to Smile, the magazine of the Philippines' Cebu Pacific Air; to the luxury-themed Oryx, aboard the equally luxe Qatar Airways. Courtesy of a (literally) captive audience and a seemingly endless well of advertisers eager for travelers' eyes and wallets, the in-flight magazine has proved remarkably resilient, undiminished even as the Internet and a poor economy have crushed lesser print products. Holland Herald, for example, claims to reach 2.1 million travelers each month. Brands from Armani to American Express pony up to fill its glossy pages.

Beyond selling ads, in-flight magazines sell destinations -- sometimes even whole countries. That's all well and good when the magazine in question is Air New Zealand's KiaOra and the country in question is a booming, bucolic island democracy. But seemingly every airline has one of these glossies, and sitting down to read them I was struck by how often they serve as propaganda tools for countries racked by terror, ruled by dictators, or beset by revolution. If pitching a country on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list sounds like a daunting task, it is -- unless you're willing to ignore all semblance of reality.

Take Egyptair's Horus, named for the ancient Egyptian god often depicted as a falcon. Horus's October 2011 issue is dominated by a saccharine profile of Qasr el-Nil ("Palace of the Nile") Bridge, which presents the landmark as it might be -- if it were in a different city: "[A] pioneer in its size and grandeur. Today the bridge serves as a crossing for traffic, as well as a hangout place. In the summer, it is filled with young couples strolling … horse-drawn carriages transporting tourists and locals selling cold karkade (hibiscus drink).… In the winter, sidewalks are transformed into cafes where older men sit and chat over cups of tea, and children peer over the railings with a view of Cairo's skyline."

Yet even allowing for poetic license -- the magazine's editors opted to release the bridge from modern Cairo's horrendous traffic (photos in the story show the bridge gloriously, improbably, empty) -- the Qasr el-Nil Bridge is not only a picturesque backdrop for old men whiling away the hours over mint tea, but also the bridge between Tahrir and Opera squares. In other words, it was recently a battleground, on which police tried to prevent protesters from crossing to downtown during the Egyptian uprising. Aerial images of the bridge from January 2011 show riot police advancing on unarmed civilians, firing water cannons. The Horus article devotes exactly six words to the protests, focusing instead on the majesty of the bronze lions that have guarded the bridge since 1872 and the (many) other decades of history these statues have seen, rather than the events -- just months before publication -- that had changed the course of Egyptian history.

The entire issue is an exercise in forced normality -- and perhaps with good reason. Tourism constituted up to 11 percent of Egypt's GDP, or as much as $25 billion, before the Arab Spring, but has dropped precipitously. Unsurprisingly, Horus -- and, one suspects, Egypt more broadly -- is pinning its economic hopes on tourism returning to pre-revolution robustness, and it has no interest in anything that would slow that return.

Aaron Gell, executive editor of the New York Observer and formerly editor of United Airlines' Hemispheres, explains this head-in-the-sand approach, common to many in-flight mags: "There's definitely a concern about publishing anything that will scare passengers or have some political implication. And that's understandable. The magazine is seen by readers as representing the airline, and why would they want to challenge people too much?"

In other words, travelers don't need to know about the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the heavy-handedness of the ruling generals, or the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. All they need to know is that the pyramids are still there. A blurb at the front of Horus reassures the reader that while foreign archaeological excavation teams fled the country during the "security vacuum," almost all are back in town and back at work. So Egypt is doing just fine.

But there are times when this sort of packaged fantasy crosses the line from justifiably improbable to completely preposterous. Take a 2009 story in Myanmar's Air Mandalay magazine highlighting the town of Sagaing, on the Irrawaddy River. Photos of golden Buddhas and groups of picturesque monks out of central casting (shaved heads, oxblood-colored robes) grace the pages. "During World War II people from Mandalay and Yangon sought safety in Sagaing from the bombs and fighting; now those seeking to escape the stress of secular life can find religious sanctuary here," the story reads. "It is one of the most peaceful places in Myanmar, perhaps second only to Bagan in its tranquil ambience." Of course, it is also the place where government forces slaughtered hundreds of demonstrators during countrywide uprisings in August 1988.

Perhaps not every travel piece needs to acknowledge every historical trauma, but still.… In a 2010 issue of Air Mandalay, a writer meanders through Rakhine state, marveling at the joys of traveling by river, joking about all the temples along the way, and eating local delicacies. "Rakhine State," he writes cheerfully, "is also famous for its own particular variety of fish and noodle soup." Actually, what Rakhine has since become famous for is horrific ethnic violence and the recent threat of reimposing military rule after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman led to massive, brutal retaliation against Muslims. In June, violence that left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless prompted global condemnation, and many Muslims have fled to Bangladesh seeking refuge. If you're seeking refuge in Bangladesh, things are pretty bad.

There is, however, a subset of troubled-state magazines that simply dispense with the obfuscation and embrace a form of failed-state ground truth. Angola's Taag airline, for example, celebrates the role the carrier played when the country's roads were impassable -- as in: Airplanes! They helped people get around when it was too dangerous to drive! -- and promotes new amenities like the asphalt recently set down across the country.

Perhaps the greatest realism of all comes from the in-flight magazine of Afghanistan's Safi Airways. In a 2010 profile of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, the author exults that there was only one power outage during his entire visit. Even better: "[I]nside Herat, progress can be felt -- and even tasted.… Already thousands of households today have access to clean water. Rather unusual for an Afghan city." Herat strongman Ismail Khan, the mujahideen rebel who led local Afghan resistance against the Soviets, is described as a "warlord, but one who also reinvested the money he took from the merchants and the flourishing trade between Iran and Afghanistan." The article commends Khan -- now minister of energy -- for preserving Herat's infrastructure, rather than crushing it or letting it wither, as happened in other parts of the country. And, in fact, it's true: Herat was long considered more stable than Kabul, until recent violence and a spate of suicide bombings hit the city this spring. Then again, with threats of violence and kidnapping, it's best to fly there. "[I]t is not," the author admits, "recommended to drive from Kabul to Herat."

That jarring practicality is purposeful. As the magazine's editor, Christian Marks, told Der Spiegel in 2010, "People who fly with Safi Airways to Afghanistan aren't your typical tourists; mostly they work here. They're diplomats, aid workers, or the employees of security companies. You don't have to pretend to them."

It was a stroke of marketing brilliance to create an advertising platform for all those companies that do work in hazardous regions, and the magazine's pages are filled with war-zone specials: "In areas of conflict drive an armored vehicle from GSG. Armored Vehicles. German Standards." Where else can you see publicity for a soon-to-be-built walled community within easy reach of Kabul's airport? "Not Just an 'LSA,'" the ad promises, not bothering to spell out the military term "logistics support area," but a "fully secure community" for "personal and office" use. So good, you never have to leave!

Other stories in Safi's magazine give the same nod to Afghanistan's unique exigencies. In a section titled "Security," Westerners are advised to "Stay far away" from military convoys and warned that "riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting -- stay well away from them as authorities will respond with lethal force." Another article notes that a popular walking spot for expats is Bibi Mahru Hill, which has "reasonable views," though at the top, the "Olympic-size swimming pool built by the Russians" has "barely been full since it was built due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill. During the war the diving board was notorious as an execution spot."

Undoubtedly, such stories would have offended the sensibilities of the white-gloved air travelers back in the Jet Age's heyday. Then again, Pan Am is out of business, and these guys are going strong.  

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In Other Words

Leftist Planet

Why do so many travel guides make excuses for dictators?

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 traveling 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 organization, always glad to help tourists."

Even long after Stalin's crimes were revealed in Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech, the migratory "fellow traveler" persisted, shuffling between failed utopias and dropping in at model collective farms and labor 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 compañeros, but few free market acolytes turned up in Augusto Pinochet's Chile to witness pension privatization or marvel at his market liberalization program. 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 Chávez's Venezuela.

These days, the young and progressive book travel online, eschewing tour groups and specialized travel agents. This leaves the task of a travelers' political education to guidebook empires like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, 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 Southeast 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 last 25 years, transforming itself from a publisher of travel guides into a global business empire, producing television programs, 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 magazines.

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 traveling 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 travelers, 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 contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. 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 globalization 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.

For instance, readers of Lonely Planet: Libya -- published before the recent unpleasantness -- are told that Libya's murderous dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was likely framed for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In fact, the book relates, "One of the most credible theories was that the bombing had been ordered by Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iran Air airbus by a US warship in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988." Qaddafi is cast as a misunderstood figure ("A recurring theme throughout Colonel Qaddafi's rule has been his desire for unity with other states, all to no avail"), unfairly maligned by Western governments ("ordinary Libyans suffered [under sanctions] and the world rebuffed repeated Libyan offers to hand over the Lockerbie suspects for trial"), and the victim of media unfairness ("Western reporters, keen for any opportunity to trivialise the eccentricities of Libya under Qaddafi, referred to [his bodyguards] as the 'Amazon Women'").

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 naïve construct."

Western media outlets have misinformed us on Iran as well. Lonely Planet: Iran assures travelers to the Islamic Republic that "99% of Iranians -- and perhaps even [President] Ahmadinejad himself" aren't interested in a nuclear conflict with Israel. In fact, ignore all the hyperventilating about nuclear weapons, because it's "hard to argue with" Iran's claim that its uranium-enrichment program exists only for peaceful purposes.

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 Sánchez, 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 neighborhood-level informers that monitors and informs on troublesome dissidents like Sánchez. Lonely Planet: Cuba thankfully assures tourists that the group is, in fact, a benign civic organization: The CDR are "neighborhood-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 labor campaigns."

WHY ALL THE bending over backward to excuse the world's most thuggish regimes? For the guidebook writer, as well as the starry-eyed travelers 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 is "a country devoid of gaudy advertising," possessing a "uniqueness [that] is a vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalized 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 globalization 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 planning." Meager 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 traveler's itinerary. Lonely Planet, which offers a small section on the Hermit Kingdom in its South Korea book, saw in the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (who routinely announced his intention to engulf Seoul in a "sea of fire") a "pragmatism and relative openness to change." And Bradt, a British publisher that offers the only dedicated English-language tourists' guide to North Korea, positively 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 travel-guidebook writers employed by publishers like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides aren't "cleanskins," dropped into a country and instructed to familiarize themselves with the local culture and report back their findings, but rather professional travelers, enamored of the places they're tasked with cataloging. (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 fervor [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 known for imprisoning thousands of dissidents and leaving millions of citizens in poverty. In 2008, Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents 6 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" by encouraging tourists to visit. Lonely Planet pointed out that the guide warned readers of the ethical dilemma by noting that forced labor 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 the Burmese junta now relaxing its grip on power and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi encouraging tourism again, 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 exact nature of those countries. The solution isn't to stop traveling, but to travel wisely, not mistaking grinding poverty for cultural authenticity or confusing dictatorship with a courageous rejection of globalization.

So go to Cuba. Try to get that visa to North Korea. Visit the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Just make sure to throw your Lonely Planet and Rough Guides in the trash before you do.

Correction: The original version of this article misquoted Lonely Planet: Iran as saying it is “hard to argue with” Iran’s claim that its uranium enrichment program exists only for peaceful purposes. In fact, the guidebook says it is hard to argue with wanting to produce fuel domestically through peaceful uranium enrichment but that "if, after all the denials, Iran does produce a nuclear bomb, whatever little credibility the Iranian government retains in the international community will be gone.” Foreign Policy regrets the error. Lonely Planet has responded here.

Illustration by Andrew Roberts for FP