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.