Inspired by George W. Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech, as reflected in the book' subtitle, Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, goes to all these more or less dark places, not just the original three axis "members" (Iraq, Iran, North Korea
) However, what he does there is almost exclusively good old mainstream tourism, mostly not dark tourism at all.
That is to say: in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya
, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar (Burma) etc. he goes to ancient archaeological sites, temples and the like, all places that would be the prime destinations in any travel guidebook of the traditional kind if only these countries featured much in the mainstream tourism world, which most of them don't primarily for political reasons or security concerns. But he largely ignores potential dark tourism attractions. That is of course perfectly legitimate, insofar as he never explicitly claims to be engaging in dark tourism (the term is never mentioned). But it is still at odds with the title, and the aim to "tick off" all those bad places.
One great exception is the chapter on North Korea
: here, Wheeler's experiences are to a large extent identical to the ones I had when toured the country, and equally similar to those reported in Dom Joly's more recent account
(both went with the same operator, Koryo Tours
– see sponsored page here
), which is, in Dom Joly's words, "dark tourism at its best" (meaning: excitingly unusual and weird, rather than depressingly dark). At the other end of the scale is Albania
, which is only included because the name of the country still comes with vestiges of a mysterious, and yes, kind-of dark, aura, even though hardly any of this is still current.
For those who still confuse dark tourism
with danger tourism
: only in Afghanistan and in Iraq did Wheeler actually play a bit with danger by travelling there (although well protected and in evidently good hands at that) and did indeed encounter some dodgy situations. Otherwise it was all regular tourist travel – the exoticness of the destinations notwithstanding.
Interestingly, it is in Cuba
where there's a sudden deviation from the traditional tourist-points-of-interest-have-to-be-ancient-cultural-rubble attitude, namely when he does a side trip to view – only from afar, obviously – the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, which the USA
still runs on Cuban territory to keep their abducted "terror suspects" out of the reach of the rule of law. This is indeed a place that has great potential to one day become a real spot-on dark tourism destination …
Quite illuminating is the extra section at the end of the book, where Wheeler tries to provide a scale and gauge of how "evil" countries actually are, which he dubs his "evil meter" (cf. darkometer
). This involves criteria such as how the state in question treats its own citizens (i.e. how bad is the internal political repression etc.), how much of an external threat it poses (to neighbouring countries), whether it supports terrorism, and to what degree it relies on a cult of personality. The results are quite striking. OK, North Korea wins the top place in the resultant league table, but Cuba, that despised arch enemy of the US comes off the lightest.
Finally, Wheeler casts the net a little wider and briefly looks at other candidates for the status of "bad land", namely Somalia, Sudan, Zaire/Congo
, Angola, Argentina
, Pakistan, Syria, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, East Timor
, and as rather a "sad" than bad land: Nauru
. But as the very ultimate "baddest" land in terms of political unresolvability of the underlying conflict he identifies: Israel
/Palestine. Sadly, that does indeed seem undeniable – more so than with many of the countries on Wheeler's A-list. And the inclusion of Israel is also, remarkably, the only departure from the American perspective. Otherwise, one could argue that he could have included the USA
itself just as well. It certainly scores to some degree on the criteria singled out by Wheeler. And certainly he could have looked further East: what about Europe's "last dictatorship" Belarus
? Or what about the new "Tsar" Putin and his realm of political non-liberalism: Russia
? And let's not even mention China
or some of the Central Asian countries (e.g. Turkmenistan
) … And if one is prepared to include "ex-bad lands" such as Albania
, then why not others such as South Africa
? In short: the list of "Bad Lands" could be much longer – and at the same time quite different from Wheeler's.
As a travel journal, however, it is definitely a very captivating read – highly recommended especially for reading on the road (though perhaps not in countries such as North Korea
or Iran itself). For the dark tourist it doesn't offer much inspiration as to any particular sites, but it's still (mostly) about pretty unusual countries for tourism – and I trust that that alone makes for a kind of attraction to most dark tourists too.