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Tourist Turbulence

Summer approaches, travel increases—and some people will kill you for photographing butterflies. Here’s recent news on sightseeing, from Bangkok to Lars von Trier.

Turbulence resulting from grave waves, wind shear, cloudiness, and engine failure due to volcanic ash are the least of your worries this summer.

A wave of social turbulence threatens vacation perfection, while visits to genocide sites, the European human right to a holiday, and cruises to post-disaster Haiti indicate that vacations and volatility are being packaged together. But what’s the extent of the threat, and where might you get hung for photographing butterflies?

In Bangkok, the government declared part of the capital a live-fire zone to deter protestors. One journalist described the chaos as a “21st century Sarajevo.” Throughout the turmoil the government claimed no civilians were being killed, only “armed terrorists,” but video footage disagrees, and an Italian photojournalist was among the dead as troops stormed the barricades. But this was no Tiananmen.

For now, tourists don’t seem fazed. Around 80 percent of vacationers are expected to maintain bookings, surely more now that the fighting has stopped and protestors are being bussed back to their homes largely in the north of the country. Hotels who feared loss of business blocked access to international news, leaving some guests unaware they were lodging within the live-fire zone. You said you were looking for an adventure. Here’s a bullet.


There are three films in the “Turbulence” canon. The plot of the third: Terrorists hijack an airplane that is broadcasting a rock concert live on the Internet. It features Zak Santiago Alam, who went on to feature in Flight 93 and Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York. You’d think a volcano bubbling under Central Park would stop the tourists from coming, but I’m not so sure.


MEMO: Al Qaeda HR formally requests 10 weeks’ notice for vacation time.

Best keep it quiet though; it’s the lure of adventure and so-called jihadi cool that recruiters are using to spur on terrorists to sign up. And when terrorists are caught by the U.S., the preferred location for holding them seems to be on a tropical island. Some are even luckier, like the Uighurs who were shipped from Gitmo to exotic Palau in the South Pacific. Oh, and before you leave Guantamano Bay, don’t forget to visit the gift shop. Island-hopping on Uncle Sam’s dime.

Cuba is gradually opening up to tourist infrastructure investment, but I don’t think any amount of money could restore the Havana of the ’30s, magnificent in black and white.


From the Harper’s Index, April 2010: “The estimated number of Royal Caribbean passengers who have visited the company’s Haitian resort since the earthquake: 36,000.”


In Iran, a French teacher who took photos of the recent protests faced 10 years in jail, but got off with a $300,000 fine. Think your travel insurance will cover it? I checked my coverage for catastrophe, and it would pay a lawyer for maybe two hours; and claims resulting from protests, war, and riots are explicitly forbidden.

You wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly in Peru when communist group Shining Path were in power. They considered photography of nature to be a bourgeois affectation. One journalist took a picture of a butterfly and was told “If you’d been here a few years ago you’d be hanging in that tree right now.”


Beatings of pro-democracy protestors will take a few decades to appear in a Cairo guidebook, if at all. The Egyptian tourist board is selling its country as “the destination that sparks a burst of inspiration in your heart and mind.” Just keep those heart and mind bursts out of the political realm, or it’ll be the secret police doing the heart-bursting.


I was happy to have a recent flight home from Denmark cancelled due to the ash. It gave me an excuse to extend my stay a few weeks and further enjoy the nightlife and outdoors so well portrayed in a Danish Tourist Board ad directed by Lars von Trier:

All right, but a real ad from Denmark’s tourist board is crazier. It extolls the country’s supposed promiscuous side through a spoof video of a women seeking the man who conceived her child while on holiday in Copenhagen. Is that meant to attract people to visit, or keep them away?

The ad isn’t so far-fetched. A non-profit organization that arranged free accommodation in local people’s homes for the duration of the climate change conference recently announced that a Danish host and her Brazilian guest are expecting a child together. The organization’s name? New Life Copenhagen.


Cambodia is busy preserving 14 jungle sites used by the Khmer Rogue so that tourists can “visit and understand the last political leadership of the genocidal regime,” explained the prime minister. In Rwanda, 35 “genocide sites” have been set up—tourism adds around $26 million to its economy each year.


Encountering turmoil in Jersualem, one or two tourists each month becomes affected with the Messiah Syndrome, believing themselves to be saviors or biblical figures. One German tourist was found naked wondering the Judean Desert claiming to be John the Baptist. For more information on Messiah Syndrome, The Simpsons did it in episode 457, with Homer believing himself to the chosen one who can end Middle East conflict.


Maybe Iceland can be charged with gross human rights abuses after the E.U. declared tourism to be a human right and are subsidizing vacations for the elderly and the poor in order to both promote E.U. culture and prop up resorts in the off season.

Should a mega-volcano cause experts to forecast the end of mankind, people will be straight on the phone to their airlines and insurance companies demanding compensation.


But vacations aren’t a human right—life is. Vacation in a country that mistreats its people, and you give that nation a little more legitimacy. But maybe cosmopolitanism and the fear of reputation damage is the sort of influence causing Thai authorities to exercise restraint. So perhaps the balance isn’t so far off. But it’s worth remembering that sniper scopes are paid for with tourist dollars too.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith