hidden europe 57

Beyond the Tourist Gaze: Revealing the Power of the Guidebook

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Statues of Seljuk rulers Alp Arslan and Malik Shah at the independence monument in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (photo © Antonella865 / dreamstime.com).


It's surely not a great challenge to write a new guidebook on well trodden territory. But imagine you were asked to write a guidebook to North Korea, Turkmenistan or Belarus. Quite a challenge! But it is just the kind of challenge relished by the illustrious authors who write for Bradt Travel Guides.

Job titles just don’t come any better than the one held by Paul Brummell. He is presently Head of Soft Power and Strategic Engagement at the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At parties and social events, to keep things snappy, Paul probably introduces himself as the government’s soft power boss. We strongly suspect that managing soft power around the world doesn’t leave Paul with much time to spare. And more’s the pity as we’d like Paul to write more guidebooks.

There was a time when Paul Brummell was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Turkmenistan, a diplomatic post which is currently held by Thorhilda Abbott-Watt — so splendid a name that it hardly needs embellishment with a grand job title.

One imagines that being Her Majesty’s plenipotentiary in a relatively obscure Caspian republic is not unduly demanding. Let’s face it: Ashgabat is not Washington DC. Paul Brummell himself described the Turkmen capital as “unremarkable”. Other commentators have been less generous. So, presumably not overburdened by diplomatic business, Paul wisely used some of his time in Turkmenistan to write a guidebook. And happily he found in Bradt Travel Guides a first-class publisher willing to take a punt on an obscure destination.

Bradt ventures to places that would scare mainstream publishers. Within a couple of years of South Sudan declaring independence, Bradt published the first travel guide dedicated exclusively to the new country. In 2015, they published an Iraq guide, and in January 2019 the fourth edition of their North Korea guide appeared.

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