National Geographic has published its 2019 “Cool List” of recommended destinations for travelers. Ever since NatGeo began producing Alaska State Troopers in lieu of insightful earth documentaries I’ve relegated it to the Fox category. My opinion now is now only massively reenforced.
The Cool List is one of the worst travelers’ lists I’ve ever seen. I’ll critique the African entries.
Number 9 on its list of 19 global picks is Africa’s highest recommendation, Zimbabwe. Number 12 is Eritrea. 13 is Kwa-Zulu Natal and the only other African entry is Uganda coming in at 16.
Kwa-Zulu Natal is cool. The other three are horrid, dangerous, morally despicable and probably physically unsafe.
Many of the citizens of Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Uganda, by the way, are some of the most progressive and courageous on the continent. In the case of Zim and Eritrea, their relentless protests have actually moved their governments in positive directions.
So I’m not discouraging the curious traveler from discovering this herself, if that’s her goal. I’m using NatGeo’s own standards of “cool” used in the Alaskan vernacular as something sweet and unusual … but easily and safely doable.
The reporting on Zimbabwe is voluminous including my own blogs. The country has a tortured history that a few years ago seemed on the brink of finally righting itself. It didn’t. One ruthless dictatorship has been replaced by another. What does that mean for tourists?
First, it means that the tourist facilities were not refurbished and improved as was the hype hardly two years ago: The once so famous Victoria Falls Hotel is a mess. I’m told by friends that nearly a third of its rooms are locked shut for lack of maintenance.
It means that supplies of normal things like food and fuel can be problematic. So there’s a chance if you fly into Victoria Falls that you won’t be able to take a taxi to your hotel because there are days without available petrol.
Not to mention the growing civil demonstrations protesting the lack of change that many Zimbabweans had expected with the new regime.
Eritrea is a bombshell. Literally. The country is littered with IEDs. It’s wonderfully true that the new Ethiopian government ended years of hostilities with this, its arch enemy for generations, and that the peace between the two countries creates enormous promise.
But the country vies with North Korea as the most closed and dangerous society on earth. If you’ve ever flown into Tibet and were politely told not to talk politics, you won’t find politeness in Eritrea. You’ll just be deported or thrown in jail if you utter the wrong word.
There is no tourist infrastructure here. There is very little of anything but a run down isolated society that has been warring for two generations. “Beyond Asmara, Eritrea has intriguing towns and wilderness regions to discover,” NatGeo claims. There are no wilderness regions in little Eritrea. One wonders who wrote this.
And then Uganda. I’m most likely to be criticized for criticizing Uganda. I have good friends who very recently traveled there and considered it one of their finest journeys. Soon I’ll post a blog on why I feel Rwanda is OK and Uganda is not, since the two countries share a similar politics.
The primate experience in Uganda is compelling. It remains the best place on earth to view chimps. Mountain gorillas are also available, but this not the place to do that – Rwanda is. Uganda’s gorilla conservation is corrupt and misdirected. As a sensitive tourist seeking conservation experiences, you need not support this. Rwanda is right next door.
But the greatest danger to travelers is the extremely xenophobic and homophobic public attitudes regularly displayed and legislated by the government. Gay women will manage unmolested, but gay men will not.
Worse, gay men endanger the people who serve them their vacation. Hotel clerks and drivers are required by law to report gay travelers to the police.
So if you’re not LGBT then why not? Because the antiquated homophobic and xenophobic attitudes have infected the rural population to the point of dangerous brainwashing. An important constituency is building in the country of blind, angry, intentionally uneducated followers of the President-for-Life. This constituency prevails in the once better tourists areas. I worry how this will manifest on travelers.
I just can’t imagine who created this for NatGeo. About its only value is the type of reactionary shock that a shoot-out with Alaskan State Troopers conveys. Is that the intention?