Do under-the-radar travel gems really exist? It depends whose radar you are using.
Around this time of year, avid travelers start looking for exciting destinations to visit in the coming year. We notice the family and friend's social media posts from far-flung places, we survey captivating trip blogs and read all the travel year ending lists. Despite the headlines, experience tells me that there are no off-the-beaten path never-heard-of-before places or authentic travel Shangri-La's left, but the trendlines can reveal some great 2016 travel gems if you look hard enough.
To help you net it out, over a decade ago I started writing what is now annually called the GO/no-GO List. The dualism of the GO/no-GO list comes from my firm belief that it is just as important to discard potential destinations from my must-visit list as it is to identify new fresh places to visit.
There is good news and bad news.I often state in the travel talks that I give, that despite the shrill nightly cable news commentary to the contrary, that the world is actually a 95 percent conflict-free zone, filled with destinations that I would be happy to visit anytime.
That said, some destinations are wisely avoided unless you are a thrill-seeking psycho adrenaline junkie, warzone journalist or international humanitarian aid worker, you obviously should not be visiting these hot conflict zones: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, eastern Ukraine, and Central African Republic. To which I would add the Boko Haram-infested areas of Nigeria, Chad and Niger. Frankly, just avoid Nigeria, full stop.
First, the bad news. Six additional destinations you might want to voluntarily avoid on our 2016 no-GO List:
Venezuela - Change is brewing with the recent elections that saw strongman Maduro's party get trounced. But that still leaves this amazingly rich in travel adventure potential country (Los Roques, La Gran Sabana, Angel Falls, Coralline islands, the mighty Orinoco, the Andes, etc.), still dealing with chronic food shortages, wild exchange rates, steep inflation and alarmingly routine violent crime rates--express kidnapping and taxi carjacking daily occurrences. Caracas is the closest thing to modern-day dystopia that Kurt Russell could make a movie called Escape from Caracas. Makes the NoGo list again ten years running.
Honduras - When Hobbes said that life is, "nasty, brutish and short"--he had bloody gang-infested Honduras in mind. Open warfare between the narcotics trafficking Barrio18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs, have given it the "highest murder rate in the world." Add the out of whack chance of being killed in a car accident and you have really bad double-double with the UN and the OAS calling Honduras the "most dangerous country in the world". And look out for equally disrupting El Nino hurricanes and flooding in 2016. Stay away!
Pakistan - Need another signal telling you not to visit Pakistan in 2016? How about when countries start closing down their consulate services--as the US did recently and others have in the past! Really, who needs the headache of always looking over your shoulder with that big target on your back in a country that averages a terrorist incident a day? I'll pass, life could be too short here!
Laos's Special Economic Zone - Located in the beautiful but notorious northwestern Golden Triangle area, this 39-square-mile private concession in Ton Pheung, Laos, maybe the most ill-conceived idea ever. Basically, one company, Kings Romans Group, runs this "lawless playground" fueled entirely in illicit trade, prostitution and gambling. You are more likely to meet a gorgeous Ukrainian escort or opium-high Chinese black marketer selling tiger bone wine, pangolin scales, bear paws or python meat here, than an actual Laotian. Sadly, the sign of things to come too for Laos as China continues to make it their own Tijuana/Amsterdam/Vegas den of inequity. Don't go.
Yemen - The second front on the ongoing proxy war between the Sunni-led Saudi's and the Shi'ite-led Iranians. With the night sky over Sanaa now illuminated by anti-aircraft fire instead of desert stars, there will be nothing left when the proverbial dust settles. This once amazing Middle Eastern outpost is now closed for business.
Zimbabwe - Cecil the lion was not the only death in Zimbabwe this year--the travel industry is dying too. Once known as the Breadbasket of Africa with the fantastic travel adventure draws of safari lodges and Victoria falls; this landlocked nation has plunged into despair, rife with a collection of issues (blood diamonds, smash-and-grab jewelry and ATM cash point thefts, power cuts, police shake downs, reckless drivers, mass unemployment, hyperinflation, anti-LGBT violence and 15+% HIV-infection rates). They all begin and will end with soon-to-be wanted for crimes against humanity, villain President-for-life Robert Mugabe--just Google Gukurahundi. As he goes the country goes.
Finally, No Fly Zones - Leaving Abu Dhabi recently, I noticed our circuitous flight path towards Europe--and I was thankful for it too. Just as the use of drones is growing domestically, the spread of portable anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) internationally will become a growing concern in 2016. In light of the downing of Malaysian Airliner (MH17') over Ukraine and the Russian charter over the Sinai Peninsula, regulators are starting to require pilots to maintain minimum altitudes deemed safe from possible ground fire, but it might be best to avoid the airspace over the regions of: Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq-Syria, Sinai, Somalia, Yemen, Mali and the Ukraine.
Now the good news, 10 destinations that did make our 2016 GO List:
Charleston - A relaxing, though culturally soothing destination that oozes hospitable Southern charm and may be the best food-centric city in America with new and old world-class eateries. Maybe it's time for a visit during the Cajun Festival?
Rio de Janeiro - Get the best feel for this lively city by using AirBnB to begin looking for places to stay for the 2016 Olympic Games. It will be a big global party and no one does it better than people of Brazil. Relax and enjoy the sublime Cariocas beach and revitalized museums and parks--the music scene isn't bad either!
Seal River, Manitoba - Need a nature fix in 2016? Take a canoe trip down this 162-mile scenic corridor from Shethanei Lake to the Hudson Bay to enjoy more wildlife than you thought possible seeing all the Canadian Big Six: black bear, seals, arctic wolf, polar bear, eagles and Beluga whales. Just take plenty of deet to help ward off the blizzards of mosquitoes.
The Global Scavenger Hunt - It has been called the Burning Man of travel adventure, and is becoming for travelers-in-the-know, a cult-like institution celebrating their 12th edition in 2016. It's a daring adventure for one, A Blind Date with the World, a real-life around the world Amazing Race-like competition; and it offers philanthropic opportunities. Where's the bad? The 2016 edition of the annual three-week travel adventure event is scheduled for Apr 15-May 7, 2016. (GlobalScavengerHunt.com)
Ethiopia - Maybe the place to visit in 2016. And rightly so with animal safaris (akin to the famed migration in the Maasai Mara), Egyptian-like ruins (the Queen of Sheba slept here), castles, churches (Is the Ark of the Covenant here?), and profound natural beauty of scenic Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. Where else can you go to speak Amharic? Did I mention cheap?
Iran - The sanctions are finally lifted and 19 World Heritage Sites beckon from ancient Persepolis to the Mosque of Isfahan. Iran is now open for business; ancient ruins, glittering mosques, cultural treasures and spectacular landscapes. The good news is that you don't have to be a UN nuclear inspector to visit, tourists are welcome! See yourself as a happy-faced American Goodwill Ambassador.
Valletta - An exciting mix of Sicily, Cyprus, Marseilles and Tunis, this historic city on this amazing island of Malta is an exotic departure from the traditional popular Mediterranean hot spots. With about 350,000 citizens, this little big port city makes for an enticing place to visit. Maybe the new Paris of the 20s, Bali of the 70's or maybe the new Prague circa 1990? Just saying...
The Great American Road Trip - Gas is cheap, muscle cars are back and quality family time is a highly coveted commodity--it's time to take a road trip in 2016! But get off the generic Interstates to see the real America living along the side roads and byways; try the West Coast's Route 1, take the Blue Ridge Parkway back East, or take Dylan's infamous Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans to enjoy all the blues and BBQ you can handle. Just go.
The National Park Service - Help celebrate the 100th birthday of our nation's famous and great collection of National parks. (Combine a visit with a road trip and kill two birds with one stone!) Visit lessor parks like: the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, wander Acadia National Park in Maine or Olympic National Park in Washington, or cruise the daunting Joshua Tree National Park.
Madagascar - It is called the "eighth continent" for good reason, this Darwinian dreamscape with most of its flora and fauna seen nowhere else on the planet is a see-it-while-you can must-see! Loveable lemurs, the Labyrinth of Stone, and beloved baobab trees should satisfy. (Easy access via Paris, Bangkok and Johannesburg.)
That's our list, what's on yours?
Happy trails in 2016 wherever you go!