A 'Lonely Planet' Tour of the Axis of Evil

Most Americans making their summer vacation plans don't have Iraq, Iran or North Korea on their destination lists. But Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides, has visited the so-called "axis of evil" and a few other countries of ill-repute. He speaks with Liane Hansen about his latest guidebook, Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The State Department warned Americans this week about going to Iran. Officials cautioned travelers to consider the risk of being targeted by Iranian authorities. Iran is one of several countries considered dangerous for tourists. But that didn't stop Tony Wheeler. Wheeler created the "Lonely Planet" series of guidebooks and has been described as the patron saint of the world's backpackers and adventure travelers.

Wheeler's latest guidebook is called "Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil". And in it, you'll find travel tips for visiting places that are mildly malevolent, seriously off course, very reclusive and much misunderstood. Tony Wheeler lives in Melbourne, Australia, but he's in New York and we're speaking to him in our New York studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TONY WHEELER (Author, "Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil"): Hello.

HANSEN: You write that Iran - the one that's described in the press is not the Iran you encountered. Explain.

Mr. WHEELER: Yeah. Well, I guess the problem is that the way it's reported in the news is the news. And you've got a president who denies the Holocaust and there's a nuclear work going on. And just recently, there had been people arriving there are getting thrown into prison, which is not very nice.

But as a tourist, you're meeting an entirely different Iran, and I don't think I've ever been into a place where I encountered quite so much welcome and friendliness. I never went into a restaurant by myself without having somebody in another table saying, you're by yourself, come over and join us; we speak English at this table. That happened to me over and over again.

HANSEN: You picked these nations, I mean, the axis of evil: Iran, Iraq, North Korea. But you visited Afghanistan, Albania, Burma, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia. What was your criteria? What makes them bad?

Mr. WHEELER: Well, first of all, of course, I did take the axis of evil, and I thought that - that gives the book a theme. We'll start off by going to the countries that are labeled the axis of evil. And then I went to other countries that for some reason were pariah countries or that they'd been talk about a little bit of regime change would be good for them, or they - like Libya, you know, definitely have done bad things - blowing up airliners. There's no way around it. That's a bad thing to do. So that's really what made the list up.

The only one I was a little bit concerned about was adding Albania. I went to Albania right at the end, and it was almost an accident. And I felt a little bit guilty about defining it as bad because it was more, more misunderstood than anything else.

HANSEN: What did you see there?

Mr. WHEELER: I had a really interesting time. I went there - there are some beautiful towns, Gjirokaster in the south, it's a wonderful old town, Roman and Greek ruins, a real sort of atmosphere of things changing. And, you know, they're at bottom of the heap in Europe but they're trying to move up as rapidly as they can.

HANSEN: You traveled to Afghanistan, which is a pretty dangerous place.

Mr. WHEELER: Yeah. I went across to Herat. And Herat, of course, was in some ways the start of everything going really wrong in Afghanistan. The Russians bombed it when they first took over.

HANSEN: You write you've never been to a place as strange as North Korea.

Mr. WHEELER: Yeah. I thought that North Korea - I said at one point in the book that it felt like a gulag run by Monty Python. It was a very strange place. You felt like you're on a movie set a lot of the time. I was there for a couple of weeks. And it was just fascinating the whole time.

HANSEN: What did you encounter there that perhaps maybe conflicts with our impressions - Americans' impressions of North Korea?

Mr. WHEELER: There's difficulty of communication in North Korea, of course, because nobody in our group spoke Korean. There were about 10 of us traveling together. And you have a guide between you in the public at all times. And really your guide is the only person you can really speak with. But a lot of things happened that don't really require speech. Everyone - on one occasion we were in this hotel up in the woods in the middle of nowhere in North Korea. You sort of felt you've been the first tourist to come through in months because it was all, sort of, wrapped up and dusty.

And we ended up sitting in the bar in the evening. We thought what could we do to past time. We started playing musical chairs. And we got some of staff from the hotel who had no idea what this was at all - to play musical chairs. And I ended up working the tape recorder and, sort of, organizing it. So it was down at two staff from the hotel who won the final seat. And it was just a very, very amusing evening. And I thought this is the last thing I imagined, I'm in North Korea, key member of the axis of evil and what am I doing? I'm playing musical chairs.

HANSEN: You're giving the impression that there's no downside to being in some of these countries that have oppressive regimes. Was there any point where the regime would interfere or you've felt the heavy hand of the regime while you were there?

Mr. WHEELER: As a tourist, I did not feel the heavy hand of the regime, but one of the countries that I included in the book and included it very much for this reason was Burma. In Burma, there is a large movement who says that as a tourist, you should not go to Burma because by going to this country, you are effectively putting money into the country and that money will go to the regime and the regime is an oppressive regime. And I think that's a very legitimate argument. I think, you know, if you feel about that that's a good reason not to go there, then you should not go there.

On the other hand, I have over the years been to Burma quite a few times and I've got lot of friends there who are involved in various tourist businesses. And I know what would happen to them if tourists stopped coming. That they would no longer have the employment and income that tourism creates. So I have to, you know, juggle whether this is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do before I decided to go there.

HANSEN: Tony Wheeler is the author of "Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil", published by Lonely Planet. And he's in our New York studios. Thanks a lot, Tony.

Mr. WHEELER: Thank you.

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