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On today’s travel guides

As it is holiday season, this item – via Instapundit – got my attention. It is about why some kinds of travel guides tend to be mealy-mouthed about some of the countries they write about:

“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.”

There is a related point, also. When I occasionally read of how a region or place is “unspoilt”, it often is just an aesthetic comment that area X or Y has not been buggered up by ugly buildings. Fair enough. Even the most ardent defender of laissez-faire does not have to like all the consequences of some buildings. But there is a danger that this can sometimes tip over into a dislike of building and human activity per se. To take one example: I love certain big cities precisely because they are “spoilt” by the energy and sometimes crazy creativity of the people who live in them and build them.

12 comments to On today’s travel guides

  • Richard Thomas

    Cities, particularly big cities are really quite amazing phenomena. They are a solution to many of the needs of human existence but at the same time, they go against the nature of certain parts of our monkey brains. It’s no wonder that those who live in them yearn for “unspoiled lands” from time to time. The problem comes when that crosses over into advocating force to preserve those unspoiled lands for “me” rather than allowing others to also increase their wealth. Truly socialism is anti-social at root.

  • pete

    I’ve not been to London since I went to see City win the cup at Wembley last year.

    Since then nothing of interest to me has happened in that city.

  • bloke in spain

    Curious how unspoilt often equates to lack of flush toilets & dependable electricity. And to buildings that fell down more than a century ago

  • Snorri Godhi

    In connection with the quotes of the day for the last couple of days, it is an interesting fact that the travel guides being criticized are British.
    2 out of 2, from a country with about 1% of the world’s population.

  • Alisa

    The English may not be the most traveling people in the entire world, but they sure seem to be so among the English-speaking nations.

  • When I first started travelling, the “Let’s Go” books were quite popular. These had come out of Harvard in the US, and had a certain Ivy League patrician tone to them. Not necessarily better, but different.

    Lonely Planet was founded by Brits, but Brits who were living in Australia at the time, and the company was long run out of Australia and a large portion of its writers and editors were and are Australian. I would rate it as being at least as Australian as British. As a consequence, the books have always had a lot of Australian student politics style screed in them. I think the BBC’s politics has veered closer to that in recent years, which may be why buying Lonely Planet may have worked for them (or so the people there saw it). Actually I would question whether anyone actually reads these sections of guidebooks. People carry them because they contain hotel recommendations, restaurant recommendations and a few maps, generally. I think people also follow their recommendations as to what the main sights to see are to a small extent, but I have generally found them largely useless even for this – the “sights” listed are generally the most superficial imaginable.

    Even more, I think younger travellers in particular are not actually carrying guidebooks at all any more. Hotels, restaurants, maps, the internet does those things as well or better, and you don’t have to carry any heavy books.

  • pete: I can’t imagine living anywhere *but* London, myself. The rest of the world pales.

    You can have the cup final, though. Who really cares?

  • Gerry N.

    Unspoiled, as was stated above generally seems to mean filth, misery, disease, ignorance and early death. But as it’s mostly smallish brown people with no money, who cares? After all they’re quite fun to photograph and their crafts and art are quaint.

  • Flat Eric

    Well, OK. But as a practical matter, travel guides are bound to be rather mealy-mouthed about authoritarianism and atrocities, aren’t they? I mean, you are supposed to take these books with you to the countries they’re writing about.

  • I always preferred the Rough Guide to Lonely Planet, seemed a bit more adult. The other drawback I’ve found with travel guides is they are aimed at the age group of the writers, and in the case of a lot of them, that’s people barely out of their teens. In Eindhoven recently I found myself directed by an online travel guide to a “must visit” party district where I was the oldest person by about 15 years. Including the doormen.

  • I’ve never bothered with books that were “guide books” per se, but I have used specialist history books as guides when travelling.

  • Paul Marks

    On a whim, I went into W.H. Smith’s (in Kettering) for a travel guide to Israel (relying on people to know everything about where they live is just unreasonable – the visitor should have some idea where he or she wants to go and how to get there).

    However, there was a “choice” of one guide – and it was wildly overpriced.

    As so often – the internet is the best way of buying such a book.