What lonely planet are they on?

14 August 2012

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.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • luke waterson

    I won’t glorify this article with more than a few minutes of my time, but straight off, the hypocrisy smoulders. Here’s my favourite example of that hypocrisy, taken from a spectator article by John Aldridge of, would you believe, today (20/8):

    But there’s nowhere on earth that combines history, charm, ruined grandeur, music, dancing, cocktails, cars, cigars and now food, with great weather.
    What was that about a publication whitewashing a view of a dictatorship for travel-related purposes again? I will not comment on what Lonely Planet say about Burma or its regime as I have never been there (no doubt Nick whatever-his-name is has, or surely he wouldn’t be able to write such an “astute” article, but as, with fellow author Brendan Sainsbury, a writer of the Lonely Planet Cuba guide, I would say the following.
    Both me and Brendan have spent considerable time in the country and, over the years, Lonely Planet has been one of the few reliable on-the-ground sources of information (yes, mainly travel information, that is after all what we do). We have reported our findings and communicated these. In stark contrast to most of the writers on Cuba articles for national newspapers (or indeed right-wing dross like the Spectator) we have actually BEEN in the country, rather than tamely recycle opinions from either USA-based publications or the Internet. Bear in mind also that the majority of reporting on dictatorships does so from an extremely (and perhaps necessarily) negative standpoint. Again, I am not speaking on behalf of any other regime than Cuba here, but what I have certainly tried to do with the Cuba regime is, rather than portray this in the classic negative light, to assess from my own personal experience how this actually affects Cubans. Our very recommendations of cases particulars or paladares is surely evidence enough that, far from it being as childishly simple as supporting a particular regime, we are aiming here to show the majority of tourists that come to Cuba on packages that give 100% of their money to the state that they can support normal Cubans. It is no overstatement to say that, over a period of several editions, Lonely Planet Cuba has promoted tourism which has directly benefitted Cuban people. I don’t think there can be any argument therefore that Nick’s “article” here has achieved anything so productive. Newsflash: a dictatorship is not necessarily all bad, just as (if you read balanced publications unlike the Spectator or affiliated Telegraph) a Conservative-run government in the UK is not all good.
    Finally, “honest journalists who try their best to tell the truth about Syria, Libya and Iran” – Nick tell me when the last time you were in any of these countries? And for how long? Because you wouldn’t, as an honest writer, see fit to comment on them if you hadn’t, surely? Then again, if you were a decent writer, you probably wouldn’t revere or use Michael Moynihan as a source. And there was me thinking journalism could not sink lower than one of his articles!

  • BoiledCabbage

    Rough Guides are even more smug, the political overlay is nauseating, but you do get the sense they have used a better class of local contact.

  • Dave Donut

    As someone presently studying the history of travel guidebooks I have t.o say Cohen’s research is poor. There are plenty of instances of LP being uncritical of pretty brutal US/West-backed regimes. Thailand would be the prime example with the author who initially wrote LP’s titles on Thailand and much of SE Asia, Joe Cummings, now being a huge supporter of the extreme right in Thailand – an extreme right that has staged coups, massacres etc and all with the huge backing of the US.

  • coventrian

    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.’’

    This does sound bad – however,

    ‘The real issue is that you’ve been attacked for not visiting Colombia. But what, exactly, were you asked to write for the Colombia book?
    It was made clear from the beginning that it was a desk update. It’s been assumed by some in the press that Lonely Planet paid me money, and I just sat on it and wrote it from San Francisco without a care in the world. My advance on the work was less than the cost of a flight down to Colombia, so there was no question as to whether I’d be going to Colombia. I was asked to work on the history, culture, environment, food and drink sections.
    So you weren’t reviewing hotels or anything like that?
    No. That whole controversy has been blown way out of proportion. Lonely Planet didn’t expect me to go to Colombia. They knew full well that I wasn’t going.

    In other words Cohen is peddling second-hand and misleading information about how Lonely Planet operates.

    A typical Cohen smear job. Low on facts, lower on research, high on hysteria.

    ps I wonder if Cohen is going to complain about this,

    ELAL USA ‏@ELALUSALonely Planet rated #TelAviv #Israel in the top 10 ultimate party cities! RT if you’d like to visit Tel Aviv! @lonelyplanet

  • coventrian

    ‘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.’

    100% true.

  • Eddie

    All guide books are rubbish and wrong – Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Time Out – the lot.
    The trick is to know this in the first place and not to take literally anything you read in them: we do all need them when visiting places, but those who read them as gospel and follow their commendments like good wickle disciples are verily sheep unto the world…and lo, they shall get lost a lot an’ all!
    I always look at the UK sections of these guidebooks – they get it SO wrong, and omit a great many wondeful places in Britain (eg coastlines) to waffle on about warm beer and other nonsense. The only mention on Wales was Cardiff and Snowdon in one – thereby leaving out Gower and other national parks, and magnificent coastlines. Written for and by Americans mostly, it seems.

    • James R

      ” Written for and by Americans,it seems.”
      Check out Tripadvisor.Paris forum in particular.A combination of Stepford Wives and Steel Magnolias,all of them ‘experts’ on Paris.
      I caught them with an April Fool spoof and they did not like it.Some non-american lurkers from France & around the world came out and enjoyed the lampoon.Then I was edited out due to complaint[s] Land of the free,Eddie.

  • raymond delauney

    Your good friend Tony Blair may well have read the Lonely Planet guide to oil-rich Kazakhstan before he went to help cash in and prop up the 21 year long dictatorship of Nursultan.Nazarbayev.

  • coventrian

    Who is Nick’s new source,
    Michael C. Moynihan?

    Yes, he’s an enemy of the NHS.

    Love your new friend Nick.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      If he’s an enemy of the NHS, I love him too, but without the cheap irony.

  • Freedie

    Spot on, Cohen. Lonely Planet guides are so snotty about “western tourists” but never, ever see the irony of their own exploitation of the supposedly unspoilt.

  • Tony

    Also they are favorable towards certain guest houses in certain areas, it is far from independent. I used to use them whilst travelling though as they are quite handy, although far from perfect.

  • George

    Certainly there is a level of cultural relativism which is applied to smooth potential travellers concerns about a country. However, there is a separate and very practical concern in places like Myanmar, Syria and Libya under the ancien regime: if you cover the regime’s crimes too accurately your book will be banned and those carrying it arrested, which makes it rather worse than useles..

  • TiminSingapore

    Lonely Planet guides rarely tell you where the historic churches are. Hopeless for anything cultural. Aimed at audience aged 23 interested in bungee jumping and getting laid by fellow tourists, when not feeling really, really, like, in touch with, like the locals. Certainly not interested in politics or economics, beyond a certain cosy, right-on, smug, student-style leftishness.

  • NewsTweet

    And if you go to America, are you liable to be held responsible for its extraordinary campaign of slaughter since 1945? The trouble with these writers (i’ll avoid the fully deserved insulting adjectives) is that they ignore entirely the West’s external brutality and insist we judge it almost exclusively on how the West treats its own citizens. And even on those terms, there is still extraordinary injustice. Concerted, nonviolent strategies could unseat dictators and that’s what I support and no doubt many others do too. What the West and apalling dictators have in common is that where it suits, they abandon the sanctity of life principle.

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