by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
That FP piece castigating Lonely Planet is horseshit. It ignores the practical reality of traveling in unfree countries: if you get caught with books that tell the truth about the regime, you can be thrown in jail.
I backpacked in Iran with a Lonely Planet guide. Sure, the account of the Islamic Revolution was a bit too even-handed for my liking, and the practical advice – don't so much as shake the hand of a member of the opposite sex, for example – didn't really get into how absurd it all was. But I went to Iran with no illusions about the theocratic repression there. (I didn't need LP to tell me.) That's the very reason I was glad my guidebook was less than frank about the evils of the system.
Debate the ethics of spending your travel money in a totalitarian country, sure. But give LP a pass on its seeming equivocation: its their way of protecting the traveler.
Another reader adds:
I'm writing my dissertation on Cuba and travel there pretty regularly. I've read the Lonely Planet history/politics section, and I completely agree that it's a long looooong ways from a good synthesis of scholarship. The point, however, is that what enables dictatorial regimes to hold power probably isn't the ideology of the tourists that visit them, it's the isolation these governments have been able to maintain. The author acknowledges as much. Travel helps!
But if you're going to go into a country like Cuba and have real conversations with people, it's way more important to have a sense 1) of the basic talking points that have framed the rule of a government that, until fairly recently had a decent level of support and 2) that people are not faceless victims thirsting for US intervention, however much they might thirst for better economic opportunities.
Poor Cubans do have amazing and unique cultures, and tourists should talk to them. By skewing left, these books put tourists in a better position to find things out for themselves. But maybe we could get congress to mandate a Donald Rumsfeld preface from here on out?