There have always been reasons to travel off the beaten path, from the noble (self-discovery and transformation) to the mundane (bragging rights and…let’s not even use the I-word). Mostly, it’s a proper escape from the everyday in an increasingly homogenized world. These days, just finding a place without a Starbucks or a KFC feels like a grand exploration.
But in 2020, there are more reasons. Closed countries are opening up. Savvy luxury agencies are making remote destinations accessible to travelers who don’t want to rough it or risk much. And it’s also just feeling like the right thing to do.
“Where can we go to avoid other tourists?” That’s one of the most common questions Philippe Brown says his agency, Brown + Hudson, received in 2019. “We’re finding innovative ways to counter overtourism and responding to our clients’ increasing demands for travel ideas that are sustainable and off the beaten path.” Their local guides have learned to bring less obvious, undertouristed places to life in a way that yields the kind of insights you might expect from their overtouristed equivalents—taking people to the small village of Asolo rather than Venice, for example.”Today In: Lifestyle
Many operators are thinking this way in Europe and many world capitals. But to pinpoint places far off the tourist map, I asked a few of my favorite experts. Here (alphabetically) is what’s not hot for 2020.
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“Armenia has a raw, authentic quality about it that is extremely difficult to find,” says Tom Marchant, cofounder of Black Tomato. “Right on the cusp of starting to commercialize and building up for tourism, the destination is rich with ancient culture and tradition, sweeping landscapes of the Caucasus Mountains and stunning original architecture. It’s ideal for travelers seeking a genuine and impactful cultural journey free of tourist traps and manufactured experiences.”
Chad gained independence from France in August 1960, meaning 2020 is the 60th year of its independence, explains Andrea Ross, managing director of Wild Frontiers. An anniversary alone is rarely reason to visit a place, but the fifth largest country in Africa is “huge, safe and largely untouched by tourism,” she says. “Wild Frontiers’ new group tour takes in some of the oldest rock art in the Sahara, the eerie Martian-like rock formations of the Ennedi Massif, and the Ounianga Lakes, a staggering sight of blue in the desert that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is Africa in its purest form, and a trip for the truly adventurous, where they are likely to see few other people—never mind tourists.”
China—for Nature Tourism
Yes, this exists. “Twenty twenty is a massively important year for Chinese tourism with the opening of a new national park system designed to preserve China’s most elusive wildlife, pristine forests and nature reserves,” says Marchant. “For Black Tomato, this means exclusive access to more eco-tourism opportunities. This is for travelers looking to explore China in unique ways, like aiding in local conservation efforts by volunteering as a panda keeper in Dujiangyan or tracking giant pandas in the wild.”
“With a new [if imperfect] peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, now is the time to visit this developing country,” says Kristina Tuohey, managing director for product at GeoEx. “Infrastructure is limited, but for the intrepid traveler, the opportunity to explore a country just opening to tourism is exhilarating.” The country has “varied cultural influences—Italian, Egyptian, Ottoman—exquisite Art Deco architecture, a rich diversity of wildlife and breathtaking highlands.”
Semuc Champey, Guatemala
“Up until now, this remote and jaw-dropping region has been on the radar only of locals, risk-taking backpackers and travel industry folk,” says Marchant. “It was accessible only for quick day trips due to lack of accommodations, and it never truly gave visitors a chance to immerse themselves. A Black Tomato luxury Blink camp can change that. Now overnight stays are possible while maintaining the undiscovered, unfettered environments that make Semuc Champey so spectacular.”
“Travelers are seeking more opportunities to get in touch with nature in wilderness destinations,” notes Ross. “Particularly popular has been a trip taking in Mongolia’s Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival in the far west of the country. As many as 50 eagle hunters show off the dexterity of their birds, alongside camel races and horseback games. On our tour, guests stay in ger camps and spend time with nomadic families. Other highlights include the ancient rock art of Tavan Bogd National Park and an ever-changing scenery including alpine lakes and dazzling glaciers.”
Wild Frontiers has been tipping Pakistan as the next big destination for a couple of years now, but with the recent visit and royal seal of approval from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, they anticipate the destination will continue to be one to watch. “Pakistan is perhaps the ultimate adventure travel destination,” says founder Jonny Bealby. “It offers ancient Indus civilizations stretching back 4,000 years, and exciting cities like Lahore with its forts, mosques and palaces. But most of all, it offers incredible scenery, particularly in the north where the three greatest mountain ranges collide. Pakistan is great for trekking, mountain biking, rafting or just cultural tourism. The infrastructure has also improved, with resurfaced roads and new tunnels cutting down travel time, new luxury hotels are opening up in the region.” Wild Frontiers’ 16-day group tour travels up to the Northwest Frontier taking in mountain scenery, the Kalash people, the Hunza Valley and the Kingdom of Chitral.
“Change is palpable here—it’s an extraordinarily exciting time to peer inside a destination that has been largely closed to visitors,” says Tina Liadis, GeoEx’s director of global sales. “There’s a spectacular spectrum of diverse attractions, from ancient archeological sites to modern cities, mud-brick forts to verdant forests to red sand dunes.” GeoEx travelers can “be among the first visitors to Wadi Hesma, the ‘Wadi Rum of Saudi Arabia’; speak with Saudi women, local families, and up-and-coming artisans; enjoy exclusive access to private Saudi homes, museum collections, art galleries and art collectives; explore stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites—and get here now before the other tourists!”
Tunisia and Algeria
“With the recent ousting of Algeria’s former leader, travel is just beginning to open up in this fascinating country,” says Tuohey, noting that it combines well with its neighbor to the northeast. “Both countries have marvelous mosques, markets and unique architecture, and they share a rich Roman history as evidenced in the ruins of Carthage, El Djem and Dougga in Tunisia and Timgad and Djemila in Algeria.”
The country has made it easier for foreigners to visit and is benefiting from the Iran situation, but Ross is adamant that Uzbekistan is not a consolation prize. (Wild Frontiers handles the paperwork for Americans who need visas.) “It really is a prize in its own right,” she explains. “The rest of the Silk Road was really a migratory route for many years, but Uzbekistan was settled in the 6th century by people with a less nomadic lifestyle. That led to cities like Khiva, Bhukara and Samarkand having incredible mosques, markets and a history that was literally set in stone. You can see the history of those that settled here, but also the imprints left on the architecture, culture and religious beliefs left by those traveling through, from Alexander the Great to the pilgrims of the Silk Road. We take our tours off the beaten path to the landscapes and people beyond the cities. Staying in the Nuratau Mountains, we get to see village life and the traditions and culture beyond the city walls.”
I’ve been a travel writer and editor for 15 years – including several as a senior editor at ForbesLife – and I’ve written about more than 600 luxury destinations and hotels in 94 countries (and counting). I know the difference between what’s merely expensive and what deserves its high price tag. I’m discerning but not jaded, and I appreciate the hard work that goes into crafting experiences as well as crafting luxury goods. (I’ve written about those, too.) I’ve shared that wisdom with readers of Forbes, Departures, Conde Nast Traveller, Robb Report, Afar, National Geographic Traveler, Islands, Hemispheres, Brides, Modern Bride, Luxury SpaFinder, Well Good NYC, and other print and online publications. In the name of lifestyle journalism, I’ve gotten a tattoo in Bora Bora, been bitten by a massage therapist, and flown small aircraft above three continents.