Avoid overtouristed destinations and visit these 10 unsung hotspots instead

We've all been there. And wished we hadn't been. Standing elbow to elbow with our fellow travellers, breathing in "eau de tourist", seething at selfie-sticks protruding from the sea of heads like periscopes and wishing, for the love of god, that everyone else had just stayed home and left Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower or Macchu Picchu in peace.

Overtourism is the buzzword of our time, thanks in large part to travel being more affordable and the world being more accessible than ever. And it shows no sign of abating.

Last year international tourist arrivals worldwide reached 1.4 billion, two years ahead of schedule according to the UN World Tourism Organisation. France, the world's most popular country, is expecting a record 100 million visitors a year by 2020; 30 million people will step aboard cruise ships this year; and destinations from Rome to Reykjavik are straining under the weight of too many tourists.

"Overtourism is an existential issue for the tourism industry," says Darrell Wade, co-founder of Intrepid Travel. "If travellers and the travel industry don't get our response right, we'll kill the very thing that makes us all love travel."

And it's not just about us. By putting what's been called an "invisible burden" on the places we visit, overtourism is the antithesis of responsible tourism, which aims to make destinations better to live in as well as to visit.

It's not as simple as avoiding certain places at certain times of the year – though that's a good start. All over the world, travel companies are working with local, regional and national governments to find solutions, relocating cruise ship berths outside city centres, imposing limits on Airbnb rentals, issuing fines for anti-social behaviour, even creating apps to help tourists avoid each other.

To cope with the 30 million tourists it receives, Venice installed crowd-control gates last year and will start charging daytrippers up to €10 a day from May 1 this year. Thailand's Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island near Krabi, made famous by The Beach and Leonardo di Caprio, has closed indefinitely to let its damaged marine environment recover from overtourism. And Bali recently announced plans for a $US10 per person tourist tax to remove rubbish left behind by its 6.5 million visitors a year.

Some operators are urging tourists to take roads less travelled. Intrepid recently launched two "Not Hot Travel Lists" to ease the pressure on better-known destinations in Europe and Asia, recommending anti-hotspots such as Cyprus instead of Croatia and Uzbekistan's UNESCO-listed Bukhara instead of Angkor Wat.

World Expeditions has noticed increased demand for its exploratory trips in remote regions such as the Changla Himal in far western Nepal and for alternative trails such as Peru's Salkantay Trek (instead of the Inca Trail) and the Italian Camino (instead of the busy French/Spanish Way).


"We're finding that more confident travellers are less interested in replicating the travel experiences they may have seen on social media and more interested in seeking out lesser visited destinations and trails," says World Expeditions CEO Sue Badyari.

In January, a new World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage (WTACH wtach.org) was created to protect unique cultures and historical sites threatened by overtourism, promote ethical tourism and help member destinations to develop strategies to avoid the kind of tourism meltdowns seen at places such as Phi Phi Island and Mount Everest. "It's time for the tourism industry to take a step back and look at the long-term impact of its decision making," says the organisation's Sydney-based founder and director, Chris Flynn.

"It's as much about HOW you travel, as WHERE," says Matt Cameron-Smith, managing director of Trafalgar, whose tours often visit big-ticket landmarks such as the Vatican City when they're closed and include regional areas as well as cities to give back to local communities.

Cruise ships cop a lot of flak for overwhelming port cities such as Dubrovnik, but "the vast majority of cruise destinations worldwide don't face serious concerns from tourism", claims Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) managing director Australasia Joel Katz. Having said that, CLIA and individual cruise lines are striving to maximise the economic benefits of cruising to the destinations visited and manage visitation impacts by, for instance, encouraging ground operators to develop new excursions that spread visitors across a broader area, says Katz.

The good news is that there are still plenty of "undertouristed" places. Some have long been bridesmaids to more popular neighbours. Some are recovering from natural disasters or civil wars. Others have just been too remote or unusual to attract visitors until now.

Whatever the reason, following are 10 unsung destinations likely to benefit from your tourist dollars – and where you'll be assured of a warm reception.

"For me, it always comes down to the people," says Darrell Wade of Intrepid. "Loads of places have great things to see and do, but it's the attitude of the people that stands out and makes a place genuinely memorable."

Welcome to tourism's new guard.


The Dead Sea coastline at sunset

The Dead Sea coastline at sunset. Photo: Alamy

WHY THEY WANT YOU Jordan is a small, politically stable country sharing its borders with some serious headline-makers: Syria, Iraq, Israel and the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. Tourism slumped by more than 60 per cent during the Syrian civil war and while it's picking up now even Petra isn't as busy as it used to be.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Petra is a must, an otherworldly archaeological park carved from pink sandstone more than 2000 years ago. Other must-see spots are the Mars-like landscape of Wadi Rum, the Roman ruins at Jerash, the salty Dead Sea and the dive resorts of Aqaba. To experience Bedouin culture, stay at the award-winning Feynan Ecolodge. There's also an emerging adventure scene with new long-distance trekking and mountain bike trails that opened in 2017.

WHEN TO GO Anytime, but March-May to avoid the heat and the rains.

TREAD CAREFULLY When visiting Petra, stay in Wadi Musa so you can walk to the World Heritage site early or late in the day for the best light and fewer tourists. The Jordan Pass includes discounted entry to 40 attractions, see jordanpass.jo

ESSENTIALS Experience Jordan runs nine-day Dana to Petra treks on part of the new Jordan Trail, from $US1695. See experiencejordan.com


Guided trekking is still the best way to see Nepal.

Guided trekking is still the best way to see Nepal. Photo: Alamy

WHY THEY WANT YOU Nepal is still rebuilding after the devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake in April 2015. More than 5000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, particularly in Kathmandu and the Langtang Valley, north of the capital.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Guided trekking originated in Nepal, in the 1960s, and it's still the best way to see this Himalayan country, giving you the opportunity to slow-travel through incredible landscapes and experience unscripted friendliness from the people who live in them. Consider sidestepping the three busiest trekking regions – Everest, the Annapurnas and the Langtang Valley – by trying lesser-known treks around Makalu, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga.

WHEN TO GO Either side of the summertime monsoon, but spring (March-May) tends to be less busy than autumn (September-November) when clear skies ramp up the mountain views. Winter trekking can be magical and blissfully uncrowded, if you can handle a bit of extreme cold, particularly at night.

TREAD CAREFULLY Teahouse treks and camping treks both support local communities in different ways, but camping helps reduce deforestation caused by using wood for fuel.

ESSENTIALS World Expeditions' new Self-guided Everest Treks offer the experience of walking at your own pace, staying at exclusive eco-camps en route, from $1740. See worldexpeditions.com


WHY THEY WANT YOU Indonesia is one of the most undertouristed countries in the world relative to its population, according to Intrepid's 2018 Adventure Travel Index. It's been promoting "10 new Balis" but two of its rising stars, Lombok and Tanjung Lesung off Java, were hit late last year by an earthquake and a tsunami respectively and need visitors to help them get back on their feet.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Indonesia's "new Balis" include Borobudur, the world's largest temple, in central Java; volcanic Mount Bromo in eastern Java; and the Thousand Islands off Jakarta. Then there's Komodo, famed for its ancient tribes as well as its dragons; Sumatra, where you can see wild orangutans; and the limestone islands of Raja Ampat, West Papua, an emerging dive destination with some of the healthiest coral reefs on the planet.

WHEN TO GO If you don't mind an occasional tropical downpour, you'll see fewer tourists November-April than during the May-October high season.

TREAD CAREFULLY Plastic pollution recently prompted Bali to ban single-use plastics, but wherever you go BYO reusable water bottle, coffee cup and shopping bags.

ESSENTIALS Southern Sea Ventures runs 10-day liveaboard sea kayaking and dive trips in Raja Ampat, from $6800. See southernseaventures.com


Egypt is an Indiana Jones of a destination if ever there was one

Egypt is an Indiana Jones of a destination if ever there was one. Photo: Alamy

WHY THEY WANT YOU Tourism slowed to a trickle for seven years after the Arab Spring, particularly when Australian journalist Peter Greste was imprisoned in 2014-15. After a terrorist attack in December, Smartraveller (smartraveller.gov.au) now advises Australians to "reconsider your need to travel" but Egypt is "no less safe than Paris or London, or Sydney or Melbourne for that matter", says Dennis Bunnik, who has visited 20 times, most recently in January this year.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO With 5000 years of history on display, Egypt is an Indiana Jones of a destination if ever there was one. There's the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the hieroglyphic-lined Karnak Temple, the Valley of the Kings. Sailing down the Nile on a felucca is a must, as are riding a camel at sunset past the pyramids and haggling at Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili bazaar.

WHEN TO GO October to February, to avoid searing summer temperatures.

TREAD CAREFULLY If you visit during Ramadan, May 5 to June 4 this year, dress conservatively and don't eat or drink outdoors between sunrise and sunset.

ESSENTIALS Bunnik Tours has several small-group Egypt trips such as the 17-day Egypt in Depth, from $7795, see bunniktours.com.au


Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, one of Colombia's natural gems

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, one of Colombia's natural gems. Photo: Alamy

WHY THEY WANT YOU Colombia  is far more than a nation of the cliches of drug cartels and organised crime, but is still synonymous with drug lord Pablo Escobar to many outsiders. A car bomb at a Bogota police academy in January, two years after the peace accord between the government and the FARC revolutionary forces, temporarily derailed its efforts to shrug off its violent past and slowed tourism.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Colombia is an intoxicating blend of Caribbean and South American culture with golden beaches, Amazonian rainforests, lush coffee plantations, historic colonial towns, grasslands dubbed the Serengeti of South America and cosmopolitan cities – such as Cartagena, a colourful walled town once home to pirates, and lively Bogota, the capital, which was the first city in the world to close its streets to cars on Sundays, in 1974. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is one of the country's natural gems with stunning beaches backed by the world's highest coastal mountain range.

WHEN TO GO Avoid the high season, December-January, and Semana Santa (Holy Week), which is April 14-20 this year.

TREAD CAREFULLY Don't ask for trouble by flaunting expensive camera gear or phones and learn some Spanish so you can chat with the locals.

ESSENTIALS See colombia.travel


There's more to PNG than the Kokoda Track

There's more to PNG than the Kokoda Track. Photo: Intrepid

WHY THEY WANT YOU Our closest neighbour, PNG is one of the world's most undertouristed destinations, receiving fewer than 200,000 visitors a year thanks to its reputation for crime, corruption and occasional clashes between rival cultural groups. Then there's the Australian government's controversial refugee detention centre on Manus Island, off the north coast. It doesn't help that Port Moresby, the gateway to PNG for most visitors, has a reputation for being unsafe.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO There's more to PNG than the Kokoda Track, including: islands inhabited by some of the friendliest people in the Pacific, surf camps on New Ireland (see nusaislandretreat.com), dive resorts in Milne Bay near Alotau (see tawali.com), war history and active volcanoes around Rabaul and events that bring together people who speak more than 800 distinct languages, such as the Sepik River Crocodile and Arts Festival. Port Moresby also has  a new Hilton Hotel, Harbourside dining precinct and Ela Beach revamp.

WHEN TO GO Avoid the wet season, October-May.

TREAD CAREFULLY Minimise your time in Port Moresby and avoid walking around town alone after dark.

ESSENTIALS No Roads' 16-day Three Peaks Trek is an alternative to Kokoda and includes climbing the 4509-metre Mount Wilhelm, PNG's highest peak, from $5900. See noroads.com.au


Iranians are incredibly welcoming and many speak English

Iranians are incredibly welcoming and many speak English. Photo: Shuttershock

WHY THEY WANT YOU Iran has long had a PR problem and Trump's Muslim travel ban and US sanctions the UN has called "unjust and harmful" haven't helped. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Iranians are incredibly welcoming and many speak English; people will literally run up to you in the street, shake your hand and thank you for visiting.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO One of the world's most intriguing countries, Iran has incredible Islamic architecture, buzzing bazaars, a sophisticated culinary scene, snow-capped mountains north of Tehran, the ancient capital of Shiraz with its Pink Mosque and the city-palace complex of Persepolis, idyllic Persian Gulf beaches such as Qeshm and Kish, and Esfahan, said to be the world's most beautiful city.

WHEN TO GO Spring (March-May) or autumn (September-November).

TREAD CAREFULLY Smartraveller advises "reconsidering your need to travel" to Iran but you can reduce the perceived risk by joining a group tour. Female travellers need to wear headscarves but Iran is less conservative than you'd think, particularly in Tehran.

ESSENTIALS Intrepid Travel recently launched 12-day women-only trips to Iran, from $3545, see intrepidtravel.com


WHY THEY WANT YOU After being "flavour of the month" a few years ago, Myanmar is now the least-visited country in south-east Asia. Tourism has slumped since late 2017 because of violence against the Muslim Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State and the ongoing refugee crisis. Myanmar is now promoting itself to China, South Korea and Thailand, but Western tourists reportedly stay longer and spend three times as much as Asian tourists.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO The multicultural capital Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is jam-packed with pagodas, synagogues, mosques, cathedrals and British colonial hotels such as The Strand. See the floating gardens and stilt houses on Inle Lake. Drift over the temples of Bagan in a hot-air balloon. Myanmar's remote Mergui Archipelago offers new experiences such as sea kayaking trips (see expeditionengineering.com) and cruising on a solar-powered yacht (burmaboating.com).

WHEN TO GO Avoid the hurricane season (May-June) and the rainy season (July-October).

TREAD CAREFULLY Boycotts generally hurt the people without having any effect on the policies that caused the issue. If you do go, choose an ethical operator who pays its guides well and supports local communities.

ESSENTIALS Intrepid Travel's 15-day Best of Myanmar trips include a visit to Intrepid's first community-based tourism project there, which helps four rural communities, from $2258. See intrepidtravel.com


WHY THEY WANT YOU Turkey fell off the travel radar after an attempted coup in 2016 and terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Ankara, the most recent in January 2017. But things are looking up: Istanbul's massive new international airport opened in October, new hotels have been built, including Six Senses' first Turkish resort, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism expects 50 million visitors annually by 2023.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Istanbul is one of the world's great cities, dominated by Hagia Sofia, the 6th century orthodox church turned mosque turned museum, but there's also the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. The archaeological site of Troy is celebrating 20 years since its World Heritage listing with a new museum that opened last year and a calendar of events this year. Then there are the Hobbit-like caves of Cappadocia and an 8000-kilometre coastline dotted with white-sand beaches lapped by "turquoise" seas (the colour was invented to describe gemstones from Turkey).

WHEN TO GO Summers are long in Turkey and the busiest time is mid-April to mid-September so dodge the crowds by visiting in spring or autumn.

TREAD CAREFULLY Avoid all-inclusive resorts on the over-developed Aegean and Mediterranean coasts in favour of more sustainable lodgings that benefit communities.

ESSENTIALS See goturkeytourism.com


Ethiopia: Africa's success story

Ethiopia: Africa's success story. Photo: World Expeditions

WHY THEY WANT YOU Once synonymous with drought, famine and civil war, Ethiopia is Africa's success story with unmatched economic growth, political stability and infrastructure. It's also working hard to attract visitors through a new e-visa system; a $US363 million airport renovation in the capital, Addis Ababa, unveiled in January; and Ethiopian Airlines' ever-expanding network, the largest in Africa.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Birthplace of coffee and the Rastafarian movement, Ethiopia has more World Heritage sites than anywhere else in Africa, boasts underground churches (in Lalibela) and "cradle of man" archaeological sites and the Arc of the Covenant (at Raximon) and Addis is the world's fourth highest capital, at 2450 metres above sea level. Adventure tourism is also picking up with treks in the Simien Mountains and mountain biking trips.

WHEN TO GO Avoid the high season (September to January) by visiting in July and August, the wettest months; the rain comes only in short bursts, the countryside becomes lush and the bird life is prolific.

TREAD CAREFULLY Ethiopia has some incredibly photogenic tribes, such as those in the remote Omo valley who wear lip plates, but always ask first and be respectful when taking photos.

ESSENTIALS World Expeditions' 18-day Ethiopia Simien Mountains and Beyond trip offers mountain trekking and the Timket Festival, held every January, from $5140. See worldexpeditions.com



With its "high value, low impact" policy, Bhutan is top of the class when it comes to sustainable tourism. The $US200-250 per night tourist fee includes three-star accommodation, all meals and transport, a guide and a $US65 royalty to support social welfare. See bhutan.travel


The NZ Department of Conservation doubled the fees for international trampers on its four best-known tracks this summer – the Milford, Routeburn, Kepler and Abel Tasman – and is creating the first new Great Walk in 25 years: the 55-kilometre Paparoa Track on the west coast, due to open in September. See doc.govt.nz


After three years on UNESCO's World Heritage in Danger list (2007-2010), the Galapagos Islands now caps tourist numbers at 245,000 a year and charges $US100 per person to fund conservation and support local communities. See galapagosislands.com


After Rwanda doubled its gorilla-viewing permit fees to $US1500 per person in 2017 to fund conservation, the number of wild mountain gorillas exceeded 1000 last year, for the first time since the 1970s. See worldwildlife.org


The icy continent received a record 51,707 visitors in 2016-17 but remains one of the world's most pristine places thanks to strict rules imposed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators such as: no more than 100 people ashore at a time and ships with more than 500 passengers can't make landings. See iaato.org