Backpackers have traditionally been at the forefront of tourism. The more adventurous budget travelers often go to places that are left untouched by chic resorts and packages. Their curiosity often takes precedence over comfort, cleanliness or caution. To put it bluntly, they are curious.
The governments of some countries don’t like curious backpackers. Saudi Arabia doesn’t even issue tourist visas (although you can get a different type of visa for Red Sea diving packages and – with difficulty – transit visas). North Korea will only let you visit on an organized tour and then only show you what they want you to see. Bhutan also normally insists that visitors come on expensive organized tours, but it is possible to get around this if you have an invitation from a member of the Bhutanese royal family! Most places in Libya require an official guide to accompany you, but this is not necessary if you only visit Tripoli (although you still need to arrange an expensive visa through a Libyan travel agent). You must also be accompanied by an official guide to getting a Turkmenistan tourist visa, but getting a five-day transit visa is relatively easy. Other countries may let you in more easily, but don’t seem inviting; Afghanistan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, etc. (Although you can visit the relatively safe Kurdistan area of Iraq even without a visa).
As some countries experience civil war, famine and plague, others open up and become more accessible. Ruling powers in countries like Myanmar (Burma) or China may not be too fond of degenerate backpackers who corrupt their youth with Western ideals of freedom and democracy, but travelers are tolerated for good reason: tourism makes money.
Here are some of the best new destinations to be open to affordable independent travel:
Not long ago, Albania was strictly prohibited from independent travel. The only way to visit was through an expensive organized tour. Sailors from nearby Corfu were terrified of being forced to land along the Albanian coast, in case they were arrested as foreign spies and taken to some sort of gulag. It was considered the last major bastion of European hard-line communism. That’s all over now. Westerners no longer need a visa, and hostels and budget accommodations are starting to pop up everywhere. Still, of great value, Albania offers everything from elegant Ottoman mansions in snow-capped mountains to ancient Greek ruins and near-deserted Mediterranean beaches. The last few years have seen dramatic improvements in Tirana, the capital, as the once infamous streets and pot-hole sidewalks have been seriously upgraded (although the famous concrete bunkers still show up in some very strange places because they are so hard to demolish). Albania still has a strong flavor of its own and remains a few steps away from even most of Eastern Europe. It may take a while for Albania to become westernized and get their first official McDonalds, but they do have a MacDonalds (with the same ‘golden arches’ logo). They also have a fake version of KFC, but it only serves kebab. There may be a few legal issues that need to be resolved before they are asked to join the EU.
During the decade-long civil war – which killed something like 100,000 Algerians – Algeria was strictly forbidden from tourism, and even until recently you could only visit it if you went on an expensive tour and were accompanied by an official guide. It may be an exaggeration to say that everything has now changed and that all of Algeria is completely safe, but independent travel is now possible. You will need to have a booking with a hotel and provide enough evidence to get a tourist visa, but it can be done (the easiest and cheapest option is probably to get a cheap flight to Tunisia and cross from there – the border with Morocco is closed). Algeria is a huge country with everything from ancient Roman ruins and undeveloped Mediterranean beaches to grand colonial architecture and large parts of the Sahara Desert. Sooner or later, those in power will realize that tourism can make them a lot of money and make a big contribution to solving their chronic unemployment problems. If they were going to promote Algeria’s attractions and make it easier to get a visa, Algeria could really explode (poor choice of words).
Macedonia has medieval walled towns, large lakes and a large number of architecturally distinctive churches and monasteries. The people are friendly and even popular tourist destinations like Lake Ohrid are incredibly cheap for Europe (ten euros a night for a cozy double room with cable TV). It’s easy enough to travel overland to Macedonia from Kosovo or Albania, but due to the lack of cheap international flights, it can only be practically visited as part of a larger trip through the less popular parts of Eastern Europe. If Easy Jet or Ryan Air were to fly to Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, everything would change overnight.
Not many people would choose to visit Oman as their main tourist destination, but it is likely to become increasingly popular as a stopover between Europe and other parts of Asia. If you are stopping inexpensive Dubai, it is easy enough to take a bus to Oman’s capital, Muscat. Western nationals can get a cheap visa at the border with Oman. If you’re flying elsewhere with Oman airlines, you can also pay a small surcharge to stop in Muscat for a few days. Muscat may not be as well-designed for tourism as Dubai, but it’s cheaper, friendlier, and more interesting. In addition to the usual desert and the incredibly rocky mountain landscape, Oman also has more than its share of castles and mosques and heaving, atmospheric bazaars. Budget accommodation doesn’t get in the way much yet, but sooner or later someone will decide to own a backpacker hostel. Once that happens, others will follow soon.
Unlike Russia or Belarus, Western nationals no longer need a visa to visit Ukraine. You can take a cheap Easy Jet flight to Krakow in Poland and then catch the train to the Ukrainian border. From there it is a short bus ride to the third-largest and perhaps most popular city in Ukraine, Lviv. You can also take Easy Jet flights to Budapest and then take the night train.
Ukraine still seems very Soviet. The cities still have a state-sponsored circus and puppet shows in crumbling but permanent buildings. Outside the cities, many people still grow their own turnips in their front gardens. Most of the old ladies wear headscarves, and many of the middle-aged ones have bad paint jobs. However, young people are different – the teenagers in Ukraine are not much different from teenagers in Poland or Hungary. However, it is the differences that make Ukraine worth visiting. As with Macedonia, there is still a lack of cheap direct flights and language can still be a problem, but Ukraine still has something to offer the curious traveler. As it is so close to the more popular parts of Eastern Europe and decent hostels can be easily booked over the internet, it will no doubt be increasingly overrun with that of a curious nature.