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'").