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Sarah Barrell: Election tourism can be risky but it gets my vote

Travel notes

Election tourism. Now there's a niche market that hasn't been tapped. If you haven't quite had your fill of all things ballot-related, or even if you have, consider focusing your global wanderings around foreign elections. Not as sexy as "set-jetting" (see Around Britain, below)? More worthy than eco-tourism? Oh, jaded traveller, how wrong you are.

Think of elections as simply another cultural event that we might travel to experience like, say, the pageantry of Easter in southern Spain or the glitz of Carnival in Rio. How would these compare with the potential thrill of witnessing, first hand, Berlusconi being ousted by Italian voters? Certainly some of my Italian friends living in the UK have enjoyed the thrill of what, for them, is a comparatively un-thrilling general election. "It's very comforting," said one. "You can count the candidates on the fingers of one hand and none of them say anything offensive."

The pre-election carping about MPs' expenses and tactical voting calls resulted in raised eyebrows from my Italian brother-in-law. "Corruption?" he snorted. "You've got no idea." So if you're craving scandal, proper scandal involving call-girl sex, money laundering and a gagged media, then head for Italy during elections. One of the most atmospheric books about Italy that I've ever read was The Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones, the former Independent on Sunday journalist who emigrated to Parma, charmed as much by the politics as by wine, opera and leggy women.

If you want serious dissent through tactical voting, hop over to France where it's a national pastime. On average, the French get through about eight prime ministers for every four of ours, so you're guaranteed some proper electoral action on a regular basis. But nowhere does election pizzazz like the United States; a festival of sorts complete with ticker tape, poetic speeches and screaming fans. Washington, Boston and New York are never buzzier than around an election, even during something as local as a mayoral race.

Of course, elections often have a very negative impact on travel. Last year's Indian elections gripped the country with excitement for months, but pre-election bombings in cities nationwide put paid to any vicarious thrills travellers might have got. And the sporadic outbreaks of violence in parts of Kenya following the controversial December 2007 elections resulted in many government travel advisories telling people to avoid all "non-essential travel" to the region, crippling the tourism industry for months.

Risky as it may be in some cases, there is perhaps no time to try to get under the skin of a country than when it elects a government – or at least tries to. Last year I travelled to Iran a few weeks before the fated presidential elections and while I wouldn't say it was the cheeriest time to be there, it was a great time to engage with people over the issues facing them day to day. Everyone had passionate opinions about the future of their country, and this allowed us to leave with something more significant than a souvenir box of dates.

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