George Bush made me write Bad Lands. When, five years ago, the president of the world’s most powerful country picked out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil”, he provided a terrific starting point for a travel book about the world’s most wayward countries. Indeed, after adding Afghanistan, Albania, Burma, Cuba, Libya and Saudi Arabia to the “evil” list, I had so many contenders that I’m already contemplating writing the sequel, Bad Lands II.
Finding a mirror-image set of nine “good lands” is, unhappily, nowhere near so easy. “What about Switzerland?” you might ask. Democratic, neutral, neat and tidy – why, they even stayed out of all that European Union and euro business. Well sure, but if you’re a genuine badlands bad-lad and want somewhere to deposit all the cash you’ve extracted from your unfortunate citizens, where do you turn? There’s an anonymous secure bank vault waiting for you in Zurich, Mr Dictator. The executive jet is already on its way to pick up the gold bars and bags of diamonds.
What about Scandinavia? Neutral again; neat and tidy again; plus they’ve got socialism that works. So how about, say, Sweden? Sorry – when it comes to arms-dealing the Swedes are just as unscrupulous as any other country; the Bofors bribe case in India still bubbles along 20 years later. Norway, then? Not in my book: killing whales and goodness certainly don’t go together. Let’s face it, no country is all good, so I’m happy to settle for nine “pretty good” ones.
‘Tony Wheeler’s Bad Lands’ is published by Lonely Planet
It’s hard not to rate a Himalayan kingdom “good” when they talk about Gross National Happiness rather than messing with all that productivity and production nonsense. Plus, in 2002, they won the “Other World Cup”: on the same day that Brazil beat Germany in the real thing, Bhutan (ranked 202 in the world) beat Montserrat (ranked 203). Of course, it’s not all good in the mountains The Bhutanese have not been particularly nice to their Nepalese residents, many of whom have been kicked out and now live in squalid refugee camps. But the Bhutanese king seems to be as popular as the Nepalese monarch is unpopular.
A 10-day “Whistlestop Tour of Bhutan” is offered by Ampersand Travel (020-7289 6100; www.ampersandtravel.com) from £2,150. The price includes return flights to India, transfers, sightseeing, guides and luxury accommodation
Surprised? Well, while the French bend the rules to suit their policies – and their farmers – the Germans are left to do the hard yards to make the European Union work. They're also willing to put some military effort into worthwhile causes if it's a UN-sanctioned operation. So although they've steered clear of international mistakes like Iraq, they're one of the biggest contributors to the Afghanistan peace-keeping mission. Now if they could just quit tempting us with those petrol-guzzling Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Porsches...
Dertour's (0870 142 0960; www.dertour.co.uk) seven-day Rhineland and Moselle Explorer takes in the Rhine Gorge and costs from £519. The price includes return rail journey from London to Koenigswinter, transfers and accommodation
Despite having the US as its next-door neighbour, the Canadians have successfully resisted the Iraqi siren call. They have also resisted other wilder excesses from south of their border, including gun-ownership madness. Some of music's top talents – Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and kd lang – all hail from Canada, and it was the Canadians who invented Greenpeace. On the other hand, Canadians do have a nasty habit of clubbing baby seals, so where did they get that reputation for being a bland land?
Canadian Affair's (020-7616 9177; www.canadianaffair.com) 14-night self-drive tour of British Columbia and Alberta starts at £1,099. The price includes car hire, ferry tickets, whale-watching tour, route descriptions, maps and accommodation. International flights can be arranged for an additional cost
These days New Zealand can't do anything wrong. They're so anti-nuclear the US Navy can't even show its face, since the Americans refuse to reveal whether they're carrying nukes, even on a lifeboat. New Zealand refused to join in the Iraq mayhem, unlike neighbouring Australia. And while Australia is apt to send refugee boat-people off to its Pacific Gulag (also known as Nauru), New Zealand is likely to take them in. Add The Lord of the Rings (and some other fine movies) and the invention of bungee jumping, and we can almost forgive them for dwarf-tossing and the national rugby team's very threatening pre-game hakas.
The 14-night "Wildlife and Wilderness" tour of New Zealand, offered by Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk) starts at £2,035. The tour takes in volcanoes, lakes and scenic towns and cities, and the price includes transfers, car hire and accommodation. International flights can be arranged for an additional cost
An economy based on ecotourism, and caring for the rainforest and beaches, has to elevate a country on the good list, but Costa Rica has a trump card: no army. In a region where troops can be useful for oppressing your own citizens (Guatemala, El Salvador), and neighbours have gone to war over a football match (Honduras vs El Salvador, 1969), Costa Rica chose, six decades ago, to disband its army. But it has a well-equipped police force.
Journey Latin America's (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) eight-night Costa Rican 'Active!' trip costs from £1,059. The price includes accommodation, activities, transfers and guides. Flights are not included
With volcanoes, hot springs andReykjavik – the party town of choice for European ravers – Iceland would deserve "good land" status even if it hadn't also given us Björk. There are, however, a couple of dietary drawbacks: the Icelanders are said to drink more Coca-Cola per capita than anyone else, perhaps to disguise the taste of that other national favourite: putrefied shark meat.
The seven-night "Essential Iceland" self-drive tour, offered by Arctic Experience (0870 060 3288; www.arctic-experience.co.uk) costs from £672. The price includes return flights to Reykjavik, car hire and accommodation
Despite Norway and Sweden's disqualification, their eastern neighbour makes the cut. Finland has all the usual Scandinavian virtues plus an enthusiasm for saunas. Santa Claus lives in Finnish Lapland. And the Finns elevated Eurotrash to previously unknown heights when Lordi won last year's Eurovision Song Contest with some atrocious, hilarious monster rock.
A 10-day "Images of Western Finland" tour is offered by Scantours (020-7554 3530; www.scantours.co.uk) from £799. The price includes flights to Turku, transfers, tours, a day cruise and accommodation
Gaining Celtic Tiger status and making the transition from a bottom-division European economy all the way to the premier league has given Ireland a welcome boost in confidence. When you're getting rich, there's no need to blame others for your troubles. There was also no better indication that the Catholic Church had lost its often-malevolent influence than the success of the comedy series Father Ted. Finally, we're grateful that they've given Guinness to the world, but did they have to follow it with the plastic Irish pub model that's been exported to every city where alcohol isn't banned?
Seven-night walking tours in Kerry, Galway and Wicklow are offered by Go Ireland (0800 371 203; www.govisitireland.com) from £405. The price includes car hire, guesthouse accommodation and walking maps. Travel to Ireland not included
How bad is bad?
In Bad Lands, Tony Wheeler assesses each country he visited on an Evil Meter. This measures three factors: how it treats its own citizens, if it is involved in terrorism and if it is a threat to other countries. The scale for each runs from zero (perfect treatment) to 3 (evil personified). A bonus point, awarded to nations with a personality cult, brings the maximum mark to 10. This is how they score – least evil first.
"Poor old Cuba is an also-ran for evil. The only place Fidel is tough on is Cuba."
"There's no evidence the generals have ever tried to foment revolution, export terrorism or invade other countries."
Albania (under Enver Hoxha): 3
"You didn't vote, you didn't criticise (unless you wanted a lengthy stay in a Gulag-style prison), and you enjoyed the most impoverished lifestyle in Europe."
Saudi Arabia: 4
"Saudi's not much fun if you're a woman: being unable to drive, and allowed to work under extremely limited circumstances."
Afghanistan (under the Taliban): 4.5
"It's hard to find anything nice to say about people who hate music, art, film, kite-flying and women."
"They put much more effort into promoting terrorism than Iraq and, what's more, they're proud of it."
Iraq (under Saddam Hussein): 6
"If Saddam didn't like you, he'd launch the Mother of Wars – he didn't mess with mere terrorism."
North Korea: 7
"There is no personality cult like North Korea's. I hope we can all one day enjoy the Dear Leader/Great Leader Statue & Billboard Amusement Park. "
Additional research by Sophie LamReuse content