Former New York Times Balkans correspondent Nicholas Wood spent many years bringing “news to the people”. These days, he brings people to the news.
Wellington couple Anne and David Shillson spent nine days with a small group of like-minded people, from different parts of the world, on a political tour of Russia.
Well travelled, the Shillsons were looking for more than a tourist holiday and the Putin’s Russia tour gave them just that.
“It’s not a tour as such,” says Anne Shillson.
“It’s a very real and raw form of travel. There are no resorts and beaches, just contemporary history and politics. It was like creating a news or investigative documentary and we were part of it.”
They had visited Russia before but came away knowing little about the country.
“This time it has been a real eye-opener,” Shillson says.
This type of travel is proving popular for those seeking in-depth knowledge and perspectives on issues in world politics.
On these tours you do more than just look at the Kremlin. Rubbing shoulders with locals in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a Muslim-dominated Russian republic, the group met bureaucrats, farmers and small-business owners.
They gained an understanding of how things have changed since the 1990s, with an appreciation of the different approaches by the Russian authorities to predominantly Muslim republics within the Russian Federation.
They also spent time with politicians in Moscow, including members of the Duma, a pro-Putin youth group, and opposition activists.
Wood set up Political Tours in 2009 out of London, specifically for people passionate about politics and current affairs.
“The tours typically start in a provincial city or village where ordinary people live,” says Wood.
“The group gets an understanding of grassroots issues such as employment and education. From this key issues emerge, with the tours culminating in the capital with government politicians.”
The tours are supported by an impressive line-up of journalists, adding local knowledge and language skills to the well-informed and well-connected. In Russia, a former BBC Moscow and Europe correspondent, Angus Roxburgh, and Kazan local, Olga Ivshina, now a BBC World Service journalist, are among Wood’s tour staff.
Dorothy Button, widow of Australian senator John Button, describes herself as a political junkie. On the Putin’s Russia tour she was impressed by the calibre of people prepared to talk to the group.
“One night, we had a private dinner with people from the People’s Assembly – Putin’s opposition. They were happy to talk and answer questions honestly and freely,” says Button.
“Hearing both sides of the story added to the understanding of the real issues facing Russia.”
Four years since the inception of Wood’s Political Tours, his repertoire has grown considerably.
“Some tours go to post-conflict destinations like Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea and Israel and Palestine, while other tours go to countries where there has or potentially may be major change or upheaval, like Turkey, South Africa and Scotland,” says Wood.
Wood’s tours focus on an aspect of a country.
The South African tour looks at the legacy of Nelson Mandela and what has changed since the end of apartheid.
A former editor of the The Star, Peter Sullivan, led a group there last month to track the transformation of the ordinary black South African and look at where the country is heading.
The group talked to South Africans from all walks of life plus politicians and diplomats to find whether Mandela’s dream of a united, prosperous and democratic South Africa is possible.
The timing, so soon after Mandela’s funeral, added gravitas to the journey.
While some of the tours go to contentious countries some are more conventional. Wood’s tour of Scotland looks at the implications of Scotland’s vote for independence in the next 12 months and the possible break-up of Britain.
“Political tours may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday,” says Shillson.
“But they offer a first-hand experience of the issues facing a country and provide access to people you would not otherwise meet. By scratching the surface of a country, you get an understanding of what makes it tick.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
• Political Tours experts accompany the groups throughout the tour. All the places visited fall within travel advisory guidelines so there is no problem getting travel insurance.
• Like a newspaper, the tours take into account the latest developments in a region.
• Groups are small, usually six to 10 people.
• All meals are included plus local transport and hotels.
• Air travel is not included but easily organised.
Further information: See politicaltours.com.