Lonely Planet has drawn on the knowledge, passion and kilometres travelled by its staff, authors and online community to present the Top 10 Countries to visit in 2011.
From the new book, Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011: the best trends, destinations, journeys and experiences for the upcoming year.
Not so long ago, when the Balkans were considered an 'only for the brave' travel destination, only the bravest of the brave trickled into Albania. Since backpackers started coming to elusive Albania in the 1990s, tales have been told in 'keep it to yourself' whispers of azure beaches, confrontingly good cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures and the possibility of old-style unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travellers are still a novelty. Sick to death of being dismissed with blinged-up crime-boss clichés, Albania has announced 'A New Mediterranean Love' via its tourist board. The jig is almost up – Albania won't be off the beaten track for much longer.
Famous for samba, football and cinematic scenery, Brazil has always been known for celebration (Carnaval being the most obvious manifestation of this national joie de vivre). Yet, Brazil rings in 2011 with even more cause for jubilation. Winning the bids to host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is undertaking a flurry of new projects, with billions of dollars earmarked for infrastructure (there's even discussion of building a high-speed rail line between Rio and São Paulo). Despite the strong Brazilian real, travellers should benefit from the addition of thousands of new hotel rooms, while increased competition from low-cost airline carriers (including Azul, established by the Brazilian-born founder of JetBlue) should make travel across this vast country more affordable.
3. CAPE VERDE
Cape Verdeans might have known about the wider world forever, but it seems that the wider world is only just opening its eyes to Cape Verde. On the surface this is hardly a surprise; the country appears to be nothing but a blink-and-you'll-miss-it dot of dust floating off the coast of Africa, but the islands have recently started catching sideways-glances from European winter-sun tourists. This growing international interest is bringing enormous changes to an archipelago that looks and feels as if it were born from a Caribbean mother and an African father.
The belly button of the Americas, Panama has rhythms that hip-hop between modern and primitive, such as the line of skyscrapers and container ships set against clear seas and dense, dark rainforest not so far away. For many, the culture of commerce has defined this tiny tropical nation, best known as the world's most famous shortcut. Yet its treasures – from millennial indigenous cultures to a biodiversity that astounds – run far deeper. Panama was always there, but who knew? On the world map and in the ether of sentiment, Panama occupies a continental crossroads where the 21st century meets the dawn of the ages.
For those who looked, Bulgaria has always had its moments – in its biggest cities, on its snow-capped peaks and great-value ski fields, on its golden-sand beaches and in ancient Black Sea port towns. Yet, over the years, with history's contribution, Bulgaria has got lost amid its more famous neighbours. But things are changing. Now proudly part of the 21st-century EU, Bulgaria has enjoyed more attention – and self confidence. Its ski slopes are de facto destinations for Europeans looking for cheaper alternatives, empty patches of lovely Black Sea beaches can still be found, and its quietly brilliant wine industry is flourishing.
For those in search of authentic experiences, Vanuatu is hard to beat. From mighty mountains and thunderous waterfalls to remote villages, from huge lagoons to tropical islets, there's so much on offer, far from the crowds. Don't expect ritzy resorts and Cancun-style nightlife; with a good choice of family-run guesthouses in traditional villages and a smattering of comfortable, romantic hideaways, it's tailor-made for eco-tourists. With 83 islands, you're spoilt for choice. Vanuatu has recently seen an increased number of direct flights from Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands – go now, before the secret's out.
Italy is a beguiling, beautiful, charismatic mess. The press might be largely owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, stories of corruption, bribery and sex scandals might be everyday news, and the economy might be in the doldrums, but this is still one of the world's most magnificent places to be. The food is delicious, sunshine is plentiful, scenery and towns are sublime, and there is millennia-worth of art to look at. There are 44 Unesco World Heritage Sites here, more than in any other country.
It's true, Tanzania is a place of great marvels – Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar… But that's not all. It also has great herds of elephants in Ruaha, tree-climbing lions around Lake Manyara, chimpanzee sanctuaries in Gombe and Mahale and packs of wild dogs in Selous. There are also sunsets on the Rufiji River, when the water boils with hippos and crocodiles. In fact, the country has the whole panoply of east Africa's wildlife – including such rarities as the red colobus monkey, black rhino, hawksbill and leatherback turtles and Pemba flying foxes – concentrated in an unrivalled collection of parks and reserves. So you think you've seen it all? We're betting Tanzania still has a surprise or two for you.
Heard the one about Bashar al-Assad and the US Ambassador? Well it's no joke. After five years of cold-shoulder treatment relations have thawed and Syria is officially off the naughty step. There's a definite upwardly-mobile attitude taking over the streets, thanks in part to the state-controlled economy slowly being overhauled and the noose of the 'Axis of Evil' tag no longer hanging around the nation's neck. Savvy tourists can lord it up like a pasha, staying in lovingly restored Ottoman palaces and sipping cappuccino after shopping it up in the souq. But with all this modernisation it's good to see some things are still the same. Out east the Bedouin still herd their scraggly sheep and welcome strangers into goat-hair tents for tea.
Japan has an ill-deserved reputation as an expensive destination where the English language is in short supply. But US$100 cuts of Kobe beef and the occasional Lost in Translation moment aside, Japan is surprisingly affordable and user-friendly. Before you go, stop by your local travel agency and purchase a Japan Rail Pass, which grants you unlimited access to the country's sophisticated transport network. While Tokyo was ultimately unsuccessful in its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the campaign resulted in increased English signage across the country. So, if Japan has been on your travel wishlist for a while, make this the year that you finally see the birthplace of sushi, sake and sumo.
This is an edited extract from Best in Travel 2011 © Lonely Planet. 2010. RRP: $24.99. lonelyplanet.com