In a recent article, The Economist wrote about the phenomenon of “overtourism” and how big an issue it has become for some of the world’s most famous destinations. Venice was cited as the best known example, and it is true – as magnificent as that city is, life there has become unbearable for the few remaining locals as well as those visitors who want to enjoy the sights in peace and quiet. I used to recommend visiting Venice in low season, which is just a few weeks between the New Year’s and the Carnival, so basically, right now. But I am not really sure this would help anymore, as hordes of tourists from Asia have firmly paved their paths to La Serenissima.
I have witnessed overtourism myself last August in Dubrovnik, which is also mentioned in the article. The main street was so crowded, you could hardly walk through without bumping into hundreds of bodies. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy visiting; but to be a local there, unless you are strictly in the tourist business, has got to be tough. The same situation was near the famous Little Mermaid in Copenhagen (see photo).
There isn’t a solution, really – people are traveling way more now than ever before, and the trend is here to stay. Yet, as the article has mentioned, the majority of countries in the world are actually screaming for more tourism, and that’s what I would like to encourage my readers to do: go off the beaten path; pave your own way to places less known. Be a backpacker, not a tourist!
Here’s my list of suggested alternative to popular destinations (some I have visited, some not), that will probably remain off the beaten path for a while, due to various reasons.
1. Instead of Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, visit most of the rest of Mexico
Every backpacker worth his sweat should visit Mexico. If you are from the US, it’s easy to overlook Mexico as something banal and not that exciting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico is a huge, culturally and historically fascinating country that contains almost every ecosystem and natural landscape on Earth. Mexico has a lot of bad rap both from the drug cartels and from the party and package tour destinations of Cancun, Los Cabos and Tijuana, where absolute majority of visitors form the north go to. However, there is much, much more to Mexico than that. If you seek pre-Colombian jewels but Chechen-Itza is too crowded for you (which it is), Uxmal, Teotihuacan and Palenque are there to visit, as well as many smaller Mayan and Aztec sites. The beautiful colonial cities of Oaxaca, Campeche, Guanajuato and Mexico City itself are all fantastic destinations.
If beach time is what you seek on your journey, then few countries in the world can compare to the hundreds of miles of yellow or white sand along Mexico’s both coasts, with killer waves for surfing on the Pacific side. And if you seek mountains and trekking adventure, Mexico has canyons, volcanoes, mountain ranges and of course, deserts. Mexico is vast, accessible and 90% of it is completely non-touristy.
2. Instead of Nepal or Bhutan, visit the Indian Himalaya
Nepal Himalaya is breathtaking. Treks around Annapurna and Everest Base Camp are world-famous and for great reasons, too. I by no means discourage you from visiting Nepal; however, some of the treks are also notoriously crowded. For some, it is actually a plus – you never really feel alone on the arduous high-altitude hikes. But if solitude amidst magnificent mountains is what you seek, then look no further than the Indian part of the Himalayan range.
Indian Himalaya is divided in 3 distinct areas: Northwest of Nepal, in the areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand; the tiny state of Sikkim squeezed between Nepal and Bhutan, and the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far Northeast. Some of these areas are well-visited by tourists, but the picturesque area of Ladakh, for example, receives much less visitors than Nepal, while offering equally rewarding treks and scenery. Similarly, Sikkim with its Kanchenjunga trails is mostly visited by Indian tourists, with foreigners far and few between. Finally, if you seek a place with no tourism at all, then the mysterious and ethnically diverse state of Arunachal Pradesh is worth a check, although being a disputed territory with China, you would have to check the current situation with permits for visitors.
India offers a particularly good bargain compared to Bhutan, where exorbitant tourism taxes have made the country all but prohibitive for backpackers. I, for one, will boycott Bhutan for that reason.
3. Instead of Bali, visit other Lesser Sunda Islands or Eastern Java
There is hardly a place in the world as overrated as Bali. Sure, perhaps a couple of decades ago it was the blissful paradise some people still believe it is, but with hundreds of thousands of tourists there at any given day and the locals corrupt by irresponsible tourism, it has become a rather unappealing destination for a conscious backpacker. Not to mention the surprising absence of good beaches, contrary to popular belief.
What to do? With over 17,000 islands, Indonesia has no shortage of beautiful sites. Even the islands close to Bali, Java and Lombok, both offer amazing alternatives. Yes, they are both still touristy nowadays, but a far cry from Bali. Other Lesser Sunda islands are even further away from the tourist crowds. Flores, while offering both spectacular scuba diving and volcanic scenery, has far fewer tourists than either Bali or Lombok. And the islands of Sumba, Sumbawa and Timor are still begging to be explored by an independent traveler.
Further east, the Maluku province is just now starting to gain attention from foreign travelers. I highly recommend the remote and historic Banda islands while they are still relatively little-visited.
4. Instead of northern Vietnam, visit northern Laos
Sapa in Vietnam is a beautiful spot; unfortunately, it is also overcrowded with tour groups from Hanoi. The rice terraces are worth a visit, for sure, but there are many of them in Asia, incuding in China and in Luzon in the Philippines (more about that below).
If you want the mountain scenery with remote tribal villages, go no further than across the border to Laos, where the northern topography is equally stunning. From the touristy Luang Prabang, a 3-4 hour journey will take you to the village of Nong Khiaw, which is an excellent and picturesque base for exploring the surrounding mountains, caves and rivers.
Laos has its own backpacker’s Mecca called Vang Vieng, and while it is beautifully situated, it is probably the only place in the country that feels a little bit like Khao San road in Bangkok (a very rural version of it), so I would recommend venturing north of Luang Prabang for the adventurous traveler. Another great alternative to Vang Vieng is the town of Thakhek on the Mekong river with amazing mountains and caves nearby, all easily explored by motorbike.
5. Instead of Baltic countries, visit Belarus
Well, this one is less than obvious, but few countries in Europe boast (or rather, bemoan) the lack of foreign tourism as Belarus. Granted, it lacks the medieval jewels such as Tallinn, Kaunas or Riga, but if you’ve already visited major historical cities of the continent, you are likely more interested in something different.
And Belarus offers just that – a piece of history, a country “stuck” in the past (although it is changing, and rapidly enough), with plenty of Lenin streets and monuments, World War II memorials, and pretty lakes and forests. As a foreigner, you will still be given surprised looks even in Minsk. And if you are interested in old cities, look no further than Hrodna – the best-preserved one in Belarus. And fellows, did I mention the girls?
6. Instead of Istanbul and Cappadocia, visit Eastern Turkey
Once again, I am not advocating skipping either Istanbul or Cappadocia – both are absolutely worth a visit and are remarkable destinations. But once you get tired of tourist crowds, why not venture to the east of Turkey, to its very rewarding cities and historical sites. From Trabzon with its cliff-side monasteries and nearby mountain villages to Kars, with its Armenian heritage and the atmospheric ruins of Ani to the ancient cities of Urfa and Mardin that feel decidedly Middle Eastern, there’s no shortage of interesting sites in Turkey’s east.
My personal favourite place in Turkey is Nemrut Dagi, the site of a 2000-year old archaeological remnant of once-important state of Commagene.
7. Instead of India, visit Bangladesh
Want to see what India used to be like 30 years ago? Go no further than its neighbour Bangladesh, namely its chaotic and bustling capital of Dhaka. I know, India is too big to really be called a touristy country, but most folks visiting tend to stick to the same
Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Varanasi-Kolkata itinerary. What Bangladesh offers is true
Muslim hospitality, amplified by the fact that foreign visitors, especially
independent travelers in the country are akin to aliens, so rare they are. You will feel like a minor celebrity almost everywhere you go, and the for most part, in a good way. Strangers will be delighted to help you at the slightest hint of a problem. When faced with difficulty buying train tickets in a crowded train station in Dhaka, I walked
into the station chief’s office and he ordered his associate to buy tickets for me. This would not work in India, where attitude towards foreigners is often mixed.
Besides Dhaka, there is an interesting village of Puthia to the north, with a fascinating array of Hindu temples. Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar in the south are a gateway both to the sea and the fascinating Hill Tracts area with dozens of indigenous tribes.
If you are interested in getting away from it all but would prefer to stay in India for visa reasons or otherwise, I highly recommend visiting the Northeastern States such as Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya or Mizoram. Not only will you see no foreigners for days, but you will have a chance to discover the part of India unlike anything you imagined.
8. Instead of Boracay and Cebu, visit central and Northern Luzon.
Boracay has got to be one of the most overrated destinations in the entire Asia. The island is tiny, the famed white sand beaches are crowded and not very clean, and the water, once pristine, is polluted by countless motor boats. Cebu, while offering some interesting spots to visit, is becoming overrun by tourists as well.
The main Filipino island of Luzon has two amazing things going for itself: spectacular ancient rice terraces in the mountains near Banaue, a UNESCO heritage site, and the stunning beaches of Ilocos Norte province.
Banaue terraces are no secret, and are very popular, especially among Filipino tourists. Still, they are nowhere near Sapa in Vietnam in terms of the crowds. Also, there are several other terrace areas that are even less visited, such as Batad, for example.
The beaches of Ilocos Norte are also well-known among the Filipinos, but somehow, they remain little visited, perhaps due to their distance from Manila. It is well worth spending a few days here to unwind and explore the nearby mountains and waterfalls as well. Oh, and while you are in the north, I highly recommend you visit Vigan, the only preserved colonial town in the Philippines.
9. Instead of Tanzania, Kenya or Rwanda, visit Mozambique
Mozambique is a vast country in south-east Africa. While it has had some tourism over the years, it is a far cry from the crowds visiting the national parks to the north. And guess what: while the “touristy” Africa is one of the most expensive third world destinations you will encounter, Mozambique remains very affordable.
Low cost aside, Mozambique’s enormous coastline offers plenty of water activities, such as scuba diving, swimming with the whale sharks, and good ol’ beaching. All reasonably priced and top notch. Inland, you will find your typical African safari expeditions, again, with the better bang for your buck than up north and most importantly, without the crowds.
10. Instead of Ireland, visit Scottish Islands
Ireland has a well-documented charm and rich natural beauty; but it is a very popular destination for both European and North American tourists. Got tired of seeing tour buses on those narrow Ring of Kerry roads? Head to the many islands of Scotland for the similar feel without the crowds.
Even on a day trip from Glasgow, the isle of Arran feels a world apart. Some call if Scotland in miniature. Heading north to Islay, a heaven for whisky connoisseurs, and a huge but almost uninhabited Jura, you will see not only distilleries but typical peaty, craggy scenery Scotland is famous for. Further north, the isle of Mull and the nearby Iona will amaze you with more rugged mountains and early Christian abbeys.
Finally, you should visit the magnificent isle of Skye, whose beauty is unparalleled among the islands of Scotland. Not exactly devoid of tourists, mind you, but with your own transport, you can easily get away and gawk at the stunning scenery at every turn. Watch out for rabbits, though.
Should you seek the ultimate isolation, visit the windswept Western Isles, the last stronghold of Gaelic language and culture in Scotland. Bring umbrella, but expect the weather to change multiple times throughout the day, creating awesome conditions for landscape photography. Also, while you are here, be sure to visit Callanish Stones – an excellent alternative to Stonehenge.
So there you have it. There are actually quite a lot more “instead of this, visit that” places I could share, but I would rather save them for a future post. What are your favourite “underdog” travel destinations?
Cover photo: The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark