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A Tourist in 'the Axis of Evil'

Crossing the Bad Lands with Tony Wheeler.

By Jared Ferrie 20 Jun 2007 |

Jared Ferrie has twice travelled to post-Taliban Afghanistan; his reporting on Sri Lanka recently earned a citation for excellence from the Canadian Association of Journalism.

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Wheeler in Iraqi Kurdistan
  • Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil
  • Tony Wheeler
  • Lonely Planet (2007)

It's been a hectic day for Tony Wheeler. He missed his morning flight from Portland; he almost didn't make it on the next flight, and now his luggage has been lost.

Wheeler touched down in Vancouver just in time for a telephone interview with local radio. By the time he sits down with me (five hours late), he's only had 15 minutes to freshen up in his hotel room.

"It's been quite a while since I missed a flight," he says, clearly unfazed by the whole ordeal.

Then again, he's no doubt seen worse. Indeed, Wheeler's life is the stuff of backpacker mythology. Born in England and raised in Pakistan, America and the West Indies, he left business school in 1972 to travel to Asia with his wife Maureen. They intended to travel for a year and then settle down.

By the time they reached Australia they had only 27 cents left, but their wanderlust hadn't depleted in the least. After being bombarded with questions about their journey, the couple wrote Across Asia on the Cheap. It became the first in a series that eventually grew into a guidebook empire. Lonely Planet now boasts 500 titles, and dog-eared, dirt-streaked copies now grace bookshelves in hostels throughout the world.

Wheeler's latest book is in a different vein, however. Part guidebook, part reportage, with occasional drifts into political commentary, Bad Lands: A Tourist On the Axis of Evil sees Wheeler drift through some of the world's more notorious locales. But it comes with a warning.

"I don't think anybody's going to go to Iraq and Afghanistan without knowing what they're doing," Wheeler says, recommending instead that novice travellers stick to such beaten paths as Europe and Thailand.

Let's talk about the concept. Why did you call it Bad Lands?

It's ironic. And it's a takeoff of the Badlands in South Dakota. I mean I could have called it Naughty Countries or Evil Nations. The thing that's amused me is that it is being translated now in a number of different languages and they've all said that "bad lands" doesn't have the same connotation. They're calling it various names and the one I really like is the Dutch title. It translates as "countries where scoundrels govern." I rather like that.

Do you think a country can accurately be called evil?

One of the things I was trying to show is the difference between the country, the people and the media image of it. With Iran in particular, you've got a president going around denying the Holocaust and saying Israel should be wiped off the map. It's not that the media are misrepresenting it or getting it wrong -- that's what the news is. The fact that everyday life goes on isn't news. But everyday life is often very interesting. I point out repeatedly how friendly the Iranians are and how outgoing they are.

North Korea was just as delightfully amazing as I thought it would be. It's such a movie set. You just feel like it's been put up to be looked at on film, but it's not really real.

What I began to realize the more I read about North Korea, the more I saw it, is there's a reason it came into existence. That split between North Korea and South Korea came about because it was a proxy battlefield for the Americans and the Soviets. And when you look at North Korea and think, 'God what a crazy country,' it's worth remembering why that happened.

Is tourism good for a developing country?

On the whole I think its good for all sorts of reasons. Look at Nepal. It's overpopulated, it's suffering from land degradation, it's got lots of problems. If you're a young Nepalese and your family hasn't got enough land to give you any, it's subsistence farming, or you go to India where life is tough enough already without being an immigrant. Or there's tourism. It's the only employment there is, effectively, and if it takes someone from making one more totally impractical field on a hill that's too steep, then it's doing something for the environment as well.

The other example is Africa. What saves the animals in Africa is tourists going to see them. Would there be a lion or a rhinoceros or an elephant left if it wasn't for tourists?

With the debate around climate change, do you feel guilty or conflicted about encouraging people to jet around the world?

Obviously, travel is what our company is about and if people don't travel we go down the tubes. And then personally, well, I travel a lot, and I'm beginning to increasingly feel, "Should I be doing this trip?"

The efficiency gains in the last 30 years of aircraft have been pretty phenomenal and they'll continue to be. But at the moment there's no hope of having a battery-powered plane.

We can talk about the terrorism issue and all sorts of other issues, but I think global warming is a bigger one.

Some countries you visited are apparently pretty dangerous. Did you fear for your life much of the time?

No. The only places I felt were dangerous at all were Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember once or twice waking up thinking, "Here I am in Iraq. It's not the safest place in the world." But no, I wasn't concerned at all.

People ask, "Did something dangerous happen?" And I say, "Quite possibly something dangerous happened just behind me."

My wife is from Belfast. I met her just as Belfast tipped over the edge. I remember once we were walking down the street and a car bomb went off one street over. And we heard this bang and looked up and saw smoke and dust floating over the five-story building. We thought, "Well, we could have been walking along that street instead of this street." That's the most dangerous thing that's ever happened to me perhaps. It's hard to say.