Last year the big news in travel was the negative impacts mass tourism had on beloved destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking for intimate, immersive travel experiences that get them away from the crowds and into pristine natural environments and indigenous cultural communities.
To that end, here are our picks for the top 10 off-the-beaten-path travel destinations to visit in 2019:
Botswana is one of the world’s hottest up-and-coming ecotourism destinations, in large part due to its forward-thinking approach to conservation. The country has prioritized the protection of wildlife for over 50 years now, ever since the Batawana people established the Moremi Nature Reserve in 1963 after seeing their lands threatened by poaching and cattle farms. Commercial hunting was banned in 2014, anti-poaching laws are VERY strictly enforced, and wildlife management is largely handled by local communities. As a result, Botswana has no shortage of amazing attractions for animal lovers. Bucket list activities include exploring the Okavango Delta via canoe, mingling with 120,000+ elephants in Chobe National Park, and having a traditional Big 5 safari experience at Moremi.
Cape Verde is arguably among the most underrated ecotourism destinations on the planet. Yet it attracts few visitors due to its remote location off the west coast of Africa. Thanks to the nation’s commitment to clean energy, human rights, cultural preservation, conservation, and social welfare, it’s been on Ethical Traveler’s list of the Top 10 Ethical Destinations every year since 2013. The archipelago includes 10 islands and offers a diverse variety of ecosystems. Islands in the east are more flat and barren, while those in the west include cloud-capped mountains and striking volcanic cones. High cliffs and black-sand beaches complete Cape Verde’s dramatic wind-sculpted landscapes, with forest-covered hills found in the islands’ interiors.
Central Asia’s Silk Road has been around for thousands of years. These ancient trade routes are considerably less traveled today, largely because the Soviet regime made them off-limits to westerners. Yet countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remain dotted with spectacular terra cotta domes and mosques dating back centuries. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have as many historic monuments as its neighbors, with the 1,000-year-old Burana Tower the lone exception. Yet the country is rapidly emerging as a popular ecotourism destination, with adventurous hikers praising its breathtaking scenery and community-based tourism projects. The Tian Shan Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also home to wildlife such as snow leopards, lynx, and sheep.
Interest in travel to Cuba has surged dramatically since President Obama loosened the decades-long restrictions on Americans doing so. And, with the current administration threatening to reverse improved US diplomatic relations with Cuba, there are even more travelers hoping to visit before the window of opportunity closes. Most travelers dream of visiting Havana for its classic cars, thriving Cuban culture (delicious food, infectious music, colorful art, etc.), and impressive colonial architecture. But outside of the popular capital city, the Caribbean’s largest island also offers majestic mountains, verdant valleys, tropical jungles, rich history, and a surprisingly diverse array of wildlife in national parks and nature reserves that remain far off the typical tourist path.
The Galápagos Islands
More than 185 years after Charles Darwin visited the archipelago, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site remains one of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet. There are 18 major islands (many of which remain uninhabited) and three smaller islets to explore, and each one of them offers its own unique attractions. The flora and fauna you’ll find in the Galápagos varies wildly from island to island: As documented in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin found that the animals adapted genetically to a given island’s ecosystem. Thanks to its remote location and National Park protection, the animals there remain plentiful, and most are utterly unafraid of humans. With unique endemic species such as flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, Galápagos sea lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas, it’s a true nature-lover’s paradise.
Beloved for its unspoiled natural beauty, Hokkaido is the second largest and least developed island in Japan. The island is relatively uncrowded by Japanese standards, with around 5.4 million residents in a 32,221 square mile area. Hokkaido offers an impressive array of untouched wilderness, from alpine fields and primeval forests to brilliant blue caldera lakes and volcano-fed hot springs. So the island naturally attracts its share of outdoor recreation enthusiasts. In warm summers the region’s 11 national and quasi-national parks offer exceptional hiking, cycling, and watching for wildlife (including Asia’ second largest brown bear population). When winter brings snow from Siberia, Hokkaido becomes a haven for skiers and snowboarders. Its waters are also reputed to produce some of the world’s best seafood.
One of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet, the wild, rugged beauty of Kimberley, Australia feels like a completely different world than you’ll find in cities like Melbourne and Sydney. Located in the country’s northwestern region, this was among the first areas of Australia to be settled some 40,000 years ago. Around 70% of the area is still considered native title land, which was a huge success story for Australia’s indigenous peoples. The region is also jam-packed with natural attractions, including El Questro Wilderness Park, Horizontal Falls, King George River Falls, Mitchell River National Park, Purnululu National Park, and Windjana Gorge National Park. It also includes numerous surrounding islands, including the Buccaneer Archipelago and the Lacepede Islands (a birdwatcher’s haven).
Papua New Guinea
Located over 6,800 miles from the United States (9,000 if you live on the East Coast), Papua New Guinea is one of the most rural countries in the world: Only 18% of its seven million residents live in urban centers. It’s also one of the most culturally diverse: Most people live in indigenous communities, and there are some 852 languages spoken. In other words, the country may be difficult to get to, but it’s exciting to explore. Known as “the land of the unexpected,” Papua New Guinea’s landscapes range from pristine beaches and wildlife-rich lowland rainforests along the coast to 15,000-foot mountains in the interior. Snorkelers and divers around the world are also attracted by the exceptional array of marine life you’ll find in its waters.
“The land of a thousand hills” is best known for the endangered mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park. There are currently 10 habituated gorilla families open to tourist visits, so trekking permits are limited to a mere 80 per day. Being surrounded by mamas, babies, and massive silverback gorillas is definitely an experience you’ll never forget. But it's hardly the country's only wildlife-centered attraction. From tracking chimpanzees and several species of monkeys in Nyungwe Forest National Park to a more traditional Big 5 wildlife safari in Akagera National Park, Rwanda has numerous must-see attractions. And, since the country is still emerging as an ecotourism hotspot, you’re almost certain to have some of these pristine attractions all to yourself!
Located about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, this 23,561-square-mile Norwegian archipelago is an Arctic wonderland practically brimming with wildlife. These mountainous islands have only 2,700 residents, more snowmobiles than cars, and 60% of the land area is completely covered by glaciers. There are 23 nature reserves and seven national parks protecting its relatively pristine ecosystems, which provide home to an array of Arctic animals including polar bears, Arctic fox, reindeer, and around 30 different species of birds. Off the coast you’ll find an incredible array of marine life, including dolphins, seals, walrus, and whales. It’s also a great place to see the midnight sun and the world renowned Northern Lights.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 25 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.