Take a chance on me

On the roads less travelled, locals go out of their way to welcome you, writes Ben Groundwater.

"Why?"

The question is a familiar one for adventurous travellers. This is just after you've announced your intention to go on holiday to Zimbabwe, or Iran, or Colombia, or Kashmir.

It's met with raised eyebrows, and that inquiry: why?

Why? Because it's worth it. And because it's really not that bad. Many countries that are still popularly considered no-go zones for travellers - from members of the Axis of Evil to those with a history of conflict - suffer from little more than a bad reputation. From incredibly hospitable locals to world-class attractions with few tourists, there's every reason to venture out and discover that the reputation rarely matches the reality.

The following countries are not only vastly misunderstood, they also offer an amazing travel experience for those prepared to take a chance and see for themselves.

IRAN

Smart Traveller advice: Reconsider your need to travel

While it's frequently portrayed as a country full of anti-Western fundamentalists, Iran is one of the friendliest places you could hope to visit, with foreigners welcomed with almost embarrassing levels of goodwill. Far from being dangerous, the main risk many visitors face is being fed too much by well-meaning hosts.

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"When people get to Iran they're very surprised at how relaxed it is, and how peaceful it is, and how helpful the people are," says Sue Badyari, the chief executive of tour operator World Expeditions. "Even when people sign up to go to Iran, they're excited by the prospect that it's a bit edgy, but when they get there that whole notion is very quickly dispelled."

It's not just the local people who draw visitors but also Iran's mosques, its historical sites, and its ancient cities such as Esfahan and Yazd. Intrepid Travel general manager Robyn Nixon says her company's tours to Iran fill up quickly. "The experience that people have there is quite amazing," she says. "It really changes people's opinions quite dramatically. The hospitality, the vast range of what it has to offer in terms of architecture, food, culture ... Lots of our travellers say it's one of their favourite destinations."

COLOMBIA

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

Reputations die hard, and when many think of Colombia it's paired with images of Pablo Escobar, a violent drug trade and marauding militia. While pockets of danger do still exist, Colombia has largely opened up as a tourist destination in the past five years.

"There's a hint of mystery about Colombia," says Natalie Davidson, South America expert at Sydney-based travel agent Classic Safari Company. "But there's more to it than that. There's the history of the country itself, the sense of adventure in visiting, and the diversity of options for travellers, from beach holidays on the Caribbean coast or an island stay, to hiking, diving, coffee plantation stays and jungle options."

Visitors can go salsa dancing in Cali, soak up the bar scene in Medellin, tour museums in Bogota, and experience Spanish colonial charm in Popayan. And, Badyari says, it can be done in style. "The Colombians are investing heavily in infrastructure, as well as great hotels, bars and restaurants, and it really is putting itself on the map."

ZIMBABWE

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

"I think we hit rock bottom here," says Sean Hind, a wildlife guide at Kanga Camp in northern Zimbabwe. "But that was a few years ago, and you definitely notice that things are getting better now."

Hind has been working in tourism in Zimbabwe for 15 years, and says changes since the 2008 election have helped tourists gain the confidence to return. "Bringing in the US dollar certainly helped to stabilise things," he says. "And then the power-sharing agreement [between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai] ... It's definitely better."

There are many reasons to be positive about Zimbabwe. The end of the Zimbabwean dollar meant the end of spiralling inflation. Politically, too, things are looking up, with a largely peaceful - although admittedly disputed - national election held recently.

Tourists are starting to trickle back into the country, attracted by the natural beauty in places such as Hwange National Park, Matopos, Mana Pools and the famous Victoria Falls. While it isn't cheap, there's enough infrastructure left over from Zimbabwe's brighter days - from fly-in, fly-out safari camps to luxury hotels in Victoria Falls - to ensure that visitors have a comfortable stay.

TURKEY

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

Turkey? What's Turkey doing on the list? It opened up years ago; it's part of Europe; it's a tourism hot spot.

That, at least, was true until recent unrest, when violence gripped Istanbul and many travellers began adjusting plans accordingly. But it's not time to give up on Turkey. While you should certainly monitor government travel advisories, there are more than enough reasons to visit.

"A lot of the destinations mentioned here have something in common - they've either had a history of civil unrest or there's a perception that there's a level of high risk, being Muslim countries," Badyari says. "One thing with all of these places is that they recognise that their reputation in the tourism market is one of adversity. So when travellers do go to these countries you find the people there are extra-friendly; they go out of their way to be very helpful. Turkey is one of those."

Istanbul, the centre of the country's recent unrest, is also its biggest tourism drawcard, with sights such as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. If you decide to steer clear, however, there are still options such as the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia, the salt waterfalls of Pamukkale, the historical sites at Gallipoli, and sailing on the Mediterranean.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

You're going to need to take precautions in PNG. The country is still developing, says Stuart Thompson, the sales and marketing representative for Papua New Guinea Tourism, and there are certain measures travellers should take.

"You want to do your research first," he says. "PNG Tourism recommends people travel with a trusted tour organisation; have a guide to host you, and plan your itinerary before you leave home."

What's the pay-off? A country of 1000 different tribes and 830 spoken languages; some of the best fishing and scuba-diving in the world; vast rainforested mountain ranges; World War II history in places such as Milne Bay and Rabaul; and the Kokoda Track.

Don't fancy the hike? Take a cruise. "People like P&O and Princess Cruises are always looking for new destinations, and Papua New Guinea is that destination," Thompson says. "I think there are eight or nine cruises being offered in the area already, mostly departing from Brisbane."

UGANDA

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

Still tainted by the horror of the Idi Amin regime some 30 years ago, Uganda has struggled to attract the mainstream tourism market despite its relative safety. There's an edge to Uganda - and its draconian anti-gay laws win it few friends - but travellers still find plenty of reasons to visit.

"Uganda is a bit more off-the-beaten-track," says Julia Salnicki, Africa expert at the Classic Safari Company. "It appeals more to adventure-minded travellers who don't want to pay the higher prices of Kenya and Tanzania."

Those willing to make the journey since Amin's time have found a country still rich with natural beauty, from the raging waters of the infant Nile to the rolling green hills around Lake Bunyonyi. "There is also the Queen Elizabeth National Park," says Julia, "where the highlight is a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel to see a huge variety of bird species, and there is the chance to walk in Chambura Gorge to look for chimps; and Kibale National Park is a wonderful forested park."

The primary motivation for most people to visit, however, is to spend an hour face-to-face with an endangered species in its natural habitat.

"The compelling reason to go, of course, is the mountain gorillas," says Robyn Nixon from Intrepid. "And being aware of the scarcity of the gorillas does make travellers venture to places like that."

ISRAEL

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

There's no good news coming out of Israel. Flick on the TV and all you'll see is tensions in the Gaza Strip; rockets being fired across borders; politicians muttering about war. It scares people off. "Israel is not attracting a lot of commercial interest," Nixon admits. "There's a view that it's really inconsistent [in terms of safety]."

But what's it like on the ground? Joanna Savill is an Australian who has been living in Tel Aviv for the past four years. She says the reality for travellers who visit Israel rarely matches the reputation. "This tiny country is actually one of the safest places to travel, simply because of the attention to security," Savill says.

"You do have to get used to seeing 18-year-old kids carrying M16s, even on the beach, and be prepared to open your bag when you're entering supermarkets and shopping malls.

"But the rest of the time it's one of the safest countries to be in." Savill admits she's had a few scares, recalling crouching in stairwells when air-raid sirens have gone off, but says the rewards are worth the risk.

"Tel Aviv is a 24-hour party city that people compare with New York. It has fun city beaches, great coffee, delicious fresh food, beautiful people, and a vibrancy that Aussie cities could only dream of."

MEXICO

Smart Traveller advice: Exercise a high degree of caution

From drug-related violence to rampant petty crime, there are plenty of reasons for travellers to fear Mexico. It's not safe to hail taxis. You can't go out at night. Whole states have become war zones.

While some of that may be true occasionally, with a bit of research and a few safety precautions Mexico is there to be explored. Nixon from Intrepid visited Mexico City last year and says she had a largely positive experience in a vibrant destination.

"Generally speaking, I felt really safe," she says. "I felt as if it was no different really to any big city in any part of the world.

"We travelled on the metro, and went out in the evenings ... Obviously I am an experienced traveller, but I felt very comfortable."

For a country supposedly so mired in turmoil, the most surprising thing about Mexico is that's it's a lot of fun. Hanging around a taco stand in Mexico City is fun; experiencing the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca is fun; lounging on the beach in Cabo San Lucas is fun. This is a country that knows how to have a good time, despite (or perhaps because of) the problems it faces.

INDIA (KASHMIR)

Smart Traveller advice: Reconsider your need to travel

In the vastness and exoticism of India it can be easy to forget Kashmir, the troubled corner of a usually peaceful land. This disputed territory still carries certain dangers, though perhaps not as many as it used to.

"There's only very recently been any relaxation in the government advice on this region," Badyari says. "Until very recently Kashmir was strongly advised against. The [advice] is that a road trip between Lei and Kashmir is now safe - but any other region beyond that is still 'Do not travel'."

Of the travel operators interviewed for this story, only Classic Safari Company books trips into Kashmir, sending travellers to see the Mughal Gardens of Srinagar, the summer resort of Gulmarg, and the valley of Pahalgam. For independent travellers, the cities of Jammu and Srinagar are considered the safest to visit.

For hardy travellers willing to brave the inconvenience of nightly curfews and the risk of occasional unrest, the reward is a spectacularly beautiful land in which you'll have a rare experience in India: being one of only a handful of tourists.


FIVE PLACES YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO VISIT

LIBYA

The home of one of the world's most underrated tourist attractions, the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, also has an "unpredictable security situation". That includes the threat of terrorist attacks and kidnapping. Best to leave this one for now.

AFGHANISTAN

A drawn-out war and the threat of Taliban attacks have rendered Afghanistan a no-go zone for travellers. Only the hardiest — or foolhardiest — would attempt a visit. However, as part of the old hippie trail, Afghanistan still has a place in our hearts.

SYRIA

Civil war in Syria is not just destroying lives and homes, but also centuries-old buildings and monuments. It will be a long time before Syria can be considered a tourist destination, and even then the country will sadly never be the same as it was.

PAKISTAN

With terrorist attacks in its cities and unrest on its borders, Pakistan is off the tourist agenda, although Smart Traveller advice for the country overall is "Reconsider your need to travel" rather than a blanket "Do not travel", a warning confined to particular areas of the country. We hope Pakistan can recover over time — it has too much to offer in terms of culture to be completely disregarded.

IRAQ

Probably one of the most surprising things about Iraq is that the entire country isn't rated "Do not travel". The northern region of Kurdistan is a mere "Reconsider your need to travel". Even that, however, is a very risky proposition.

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