Nick Cohen

What lonely planet are they on?

What lonely planet are they on?
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A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the Lonely Planet guide to Burma. I looked at how the supposedly right-on publishers sweetened the rule of the military so that western tourists could travel with a clean conscience. The crimes of the junta — which had the appropriately sinister name of the Slorc — could be discounted, the guidebook said. Tourists should not worry about the conscripted workers who built their hotels because forced labour is 'on the wane'. Maybe Lonely Planet had an ideological reason to whitewash dictatorships, I speculated. Or perhaps it was a cheapskate enterprise that did not much care what it published, as long as it could secure maximum profits for minimum outlay.

Thomas Kohnstamm, co-author of Lonely Planet guides to various South American countries, raised the latter possibility when he implied in his memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, that Lonely Planet employees were so stretched they barely grasped the nature of a regime before moving on to the next country. He explained a Lonely Planet recommendation for a Brazilian cafe by saying that while he was researching the guide, a waitress suggested that he came back after closing time. 'We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner. I later recount in the guidebook review that the restaurant "is a pleasant surprise... and the table service is friendly".' At least he was a gentleman about it and at least he went to Rio. Later, Kohnstamm cheerily admitted to producing chunks of the Lonely Planet guide to Colombia from San Francisco. 'I got the information from a chick I was dating — an intern in the Colombian consulate.'

The staff of Lonely Planet were shocked by my piece. They were not used to being criticised in the liberal press. Their boss emailed me to express their hurt in pained terms, and I wondered whether I had gone too far. The excellent Michael Moynihan now tells me that I did not go nearly far enough. He has raised the question of whether Lonely Planet was a sinister organisation or merely an efficient means of extracting money from readers in a piece for Foreign Policy. Moynihan has slogged through its guidebooks and found a consistent pattern. Lonely Planet has a habit of excusing or diminishing crimes as long as the criminals are anti-western. Here are my favourite examples.

  • Of the Soviet communists who killed more than the Nazis, Lonely Planet says in its guide to Russia and Belarus 'Gora Sekirnaya: Literally 'Hatchet Mountain,' Gora Sekirnaya is 10km northwest of the village and is infamous thanks to the torture Alexander Solzhenitsyn alleged took place there in his Gulag Archipelago (though scholars now dispute many of his claims)."
  • Assad's pre-revolutionary Syria, the guide informs readers, was a land with cautious hope for the future. 'Reforms by the young president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may not have been as wide-ranging as many might have hoped, but there is certainly a feeling of optimism in the capital. Culture and tourism are high on the agenda and Damascus has responded with a flurry of art gallery and hotel openings (including the long-awaited Four Seasons).'
  • Of Gaddafi's Libya, 'Soon after coming to power, Libya's revolutionary government decided that Libya was to be transformed into a modern nation. As part of this goal, entire communities were moved from Saharan oases into often custom-built accommodation, encouraged by free, modern housing with electricity, air-conditioning and integrated sewage systems.'
  • 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. 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.
  • Of the decaying Brezhnevian slum of Communist Cuba, Lonely Planet tells us 'such uniqueness is a vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalized world. Grab it while it's still there.'
  • Meanwhile Stalin is covered with a coat of whitewash. He may have committed more crimes than anyone else in human history but was not all bad.

    Readers will doubtless call the propaganda 'leftist' and I suppose it is in its way, even though there are many on the left who oppose the Cuban dictatorship, and the TUC spoke out against the Lonely Planet guide to Burma. Better to say that the ideology Lonely Planet exhibits is not an emancipatory, but a sour and callous form of leftism, whose guiding principle is that any enemy of the West is better than none, even when they are enemies from the extreme right. Hence Lonely Planet prettifies the Iranian dictatorship, which by any standard is a reactionary regime based on fascistic theocracy.

    So yes, I would agree, that in its indifference to the sufferings of those less fortunate than themselves, Lonely Planet's managers are in the grip of a malign creed. They diminish the deaths of the victims of dictatorship and in a characteristically pseudo-leftist manner distance themselves from those struggling for something better. But the ideology is also profitable. The excuses Lonely Planet made for the Libyan ancien régime and (let us hope soon-to-be ancien Syrian régime) are exactly the excuses a manager in a Western corporation would make as he tied up a trade deal. Moynihann agrees that the Lonely Planet view of the world is good for business. Its orientalist customers want authenticity from when they visit strange land, he says; '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'.

    As I suggested earlier, I think a baser emotion is at work. The millions of readers of Lonely Planet wish for guilt-free holidays. If the guidebook were honest with them, they would feel uncomfortable and wonder whether they should be helping dissidents rather than treating themselves. As much as the oil executive striking a deal with a dictator, rich travellers need reasons to help them sleep at night. There’s much else besides in Lonely Planet guides. Ninety nine per cent of the content neglects politics and tells tourists how to enjoy themselves, but that is the point. The apparent contradiction between a debased leftism and profit turns out to be no conflict at all. Lonely Planet founders, a pair of hippyish Brits called Maureen and Tony Wheeler, certainly found the two went together. They sold the enterprise for around £100 million to BBC Worldwide, which is meant to support honest BBC journalists who try their best to tell the truth about Syria, Libya and Iran, but instead indulges a publishing firm that spreads repellent fantasies.