Why travel in 2020? To experience the overlooked destinations that want your attention

It's time to turn our attention to the destinations that have taken a backseat for a little too longWednesday, 5 February 2020

By National Geographic Traveller

Sometimes, jolts are required. Even if you haven’t previously been to, say, Florida or Venice, you pretty much know what to expect when you arrive Something dramatically different, however, can reopen jaded eyes, rewire brains and expand palates.

In a time when the big hitters are desperately trying to limit tourist numbers, other places are eager to show off their cultural and natural treasures. In destinations such as mountainous Pakistan and heritage-rich Lebanon, which are tentatively opening their arms to the world after periods of bruising turbulence, an influx of visitors can transform tourism into viable industry and act as a catalyst for change.

The same can be said for areas like the rainforest-fringed coasts of Panama or the epic desert sweeps of southern Namibia, where small lodges can aspire to deliver memorable and distinctive experiences in harmony with their community and surroundings.

It’s not necessarily about throwing yourself into the middle of nowhere, either. Plenty of cities, such as Yerevan and Brisbane, which are working out how to show off their assets while building new developments and expanding effervescent neighbourhoods, see visitors as guests to be welcomed rather than as a problem to be managed.  

Going where you’re really wanted might be that refreshing jolt that’s needed. And, chances are, in choosing to experience the overlooked, you’ll discover something you never realised you would love.

1. Namibia

Few destinations can compete with Namibia’s raw, unspoiled beauty for off-grid adventuring. Add into the mix a major anniversary and eye-catching new lodges in the country’s untapped south, and Namibia is one to watch in 2020 

The pull is clear: home to otherworldly landscapes and star-blotted skies (not to mention excellent safari credentials), Namibia offers travellers a complete immersion in nature. While many of the country’s off-radar retreats have so far been concentrated in the north, it’s now the copper-hued dunes and game parks of the south that are seeing a wave of design-conscious openings. 

The hotel grabbing the headlines is a fresh offering by safari experts Natural Selection. Kwessi Dunes opens in March — a cluster of just 10 thatched cottages in the heart of the NamibRand Nature Reserve (one of the largest private reserves in southern Africa) and in easy reach of Sossuvlei’s epic dunes. Each suite is designed with a ‘stargazer room’, from which guests can count constellations in the clear night skies. 

Nearby in the same reserve, &Beyond has reopened Sossusvlei Desert Lodge following a complete facelift and overhaul of its excursions menu. And even further south, amid the dramatic dunes of the Karas Region, Zannier Hotels launched the colonial era-inspired tented camp Sonop, its second lodge in the country, in July.

It’s all impeccably well-timed too, as Namibia gears
up for a major celebration in 2020. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence from South Africa and an extra £1.3m has been earmarked for nationwide celebrations on 21 March, including a spectacular parade in the Independence Stadium in the capital, Windhoek. 

Words: Connor McGovern

2. Panama

Synonymous with its canal, Panama has traditionally been travelled through rather than travelled in, but new forward-thinking eco-retreats are putting it on the map 

This Central American country is packed with reasons to linger — especially for nature-lovers. New sustainable resorts are blossoming on its snaking Pacific coast, which is home to the Isla Coiba marine preserve. 

Trailblazing this eco-retreat boom with its 2018 launch, Isla Palenque set the standard for conservation-minded hideaways. The Panama debut for Latin America’s Cayuga Collection of high-end sustainable lodges, the hotel’s eight design-forward beach villas are set in 400 acres of beach-fringed jungle. Meanwhile in December, eco-retreat Islas Secas opened up 14 rugged islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui. Welcoming just 18 guests at a time, this is proper castaway terrain, albeit of the barefoot luxe variety, where 100% of the energy used is solar-generated, water use is sustainable, and the spa offering is a plush tent hidden in the jungle. And with Marriott also gunning for a 2020 arrival on nearby Pearl Island, plus increased international access courtesy of new Air Europa routes (via Madrid) and expanded Copa services within Latin America, Panama is firmly on the map. 

Words: Sarah Barrell

3. Brisbane

Mega developments, a boom in stylish hotels and a hip laneways scene are giving the overlooked Queensland capital an injection of cool

Long known as the River City, Brisbane is spreading the good stuff further along the water’s edge. A £2bn plan to transform Queen’s Wharf into a glitzy commerce district is underway, hot on the heels of the new Howard SMITH Wharves, now open as an 8.5-acre, landscaped public space with restaurants and a craft brewery. The five-star, art-focused Fantauzzo hotel has also opened here, one of a string of additions to the hotel scene. 

Elsewhere, the Fortitude Valley neighbourhood has spruced up its once-grim laneways with indie shops and small bars. There are new adventures to embark upon, as well. Yalingbila Tours has launched the first Aboriginal-owned whale-watching cruises, which head down the river towards the sand islands of Moreton and North Stradbroke. And, going further afield, Australia’s newest luxury train journey is the three-day Great Southern epic from Brisbane to Adelaide, which launched in December. All in all, the city is sinking some £5.25bn into surpassing Sydney as the country’s major gateway — and it might just pull it off. 

Words: David Whitley

4. Yerevan

New routes are opening up to the Armenian capital, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities

In recent years, radical adventure tour company The Travel Scientists has offered one of the most impractical ways to get to the Silk Road-era city — driving a second-hand banger all the way there from Istanbul on its Caucasian Challenge. Thankfully, 2020 will welcome another option: simply flying from Italy. Launched in January, Ryanair’s new routes mean that the Armenian capital can be reached from London for under £100 with that one simple connection — and there’s chatter that fellow budget carrier Wizz Air will soon follow suit with a rival route.

Why go? Well, the ancient city is receiving a carefully considered update, with improved tourism infrastructure, including several new hotels; big names like Kempinski and Marriott opened there last year. 

Such committed investment is a sign of confidence in Yerevan’s stability, but travellers with an understanding of history will have long had this 5,000-year-old city on their radar. Black Tomato and G Adventures have launched tours in the last year, both focusing not only on Yerevan’s rich past, but also its distinctive cuisine and millennia-old wine traditions, capitalising on a growing interest in the Silk Road. 

Words: Jamie Lafferty

5. Pakistan

A new top-down, pro-tourism policy has resulted in direct flights from the UK, easier-to-obtain visas and a royal tour — and visitor numbers are on the up

In the 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan was a highlight of the backpacking circuit: hippies flocked to Lahore to soak up the dazzling Mughal history then headed north, through Peshawar, for meadows, mountain trails and tribal homestays among the gemstone mines of the Hindu Kush. Terrorism meted out by the Taliban then stymied tourism to a mere trickle — but that’s all changing. 

The FCO lifted travel restrictions to much of the north in 2015. Then, in 2018, former cricketer Imran Khan became prime minister and introduced pro-tourism policies. Last year, an $8 (£6) e-visa was introduced for the UK and a confusing permit system was scrapped. As a result, in June, a decade after the route was halted, British Airways resumed direct flights from Heathrow to the capital, Islamabad. A high-profile visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge followed in the autumn.

Returning travellers are discovering that the nation’s charms remain largely unchanged, but warnings do remain in place for many areas. For friction-free tours, travel should be undertaken with a specialist operator, such as Wild Frontiers, which has more than 20 years’ experience in the region.

Words: Amelia Duggan

6. Puerto Rico

Tourism on this intriguing Caribbean island is rebounding from recent natural disasters, thanks to hotel openings, improved routes and a whole new entertainment district

Puerto Rico has become a surprising poster child for tourism comebacks. In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma blasted the island, leaving the US territory of 3.2 million people devastated. Then, in December and January, earthquakes rocked the island’s southwest. Despite this, Puerto Rico is very much open for business. This year will see the launch of El Distrito, a five-acre entertainment district in San Juan boasting an urban zip-line, 6,000-seat venue, restaurants, rum distillery and more. Further fillips include Marriott Aloft openings in the capital and the city of Ponce and a Four Seasons and golf course in Cayo Largo. Access has improved too; Iberia has upped its service from Madrid year-round; and new daily flights with Spirit between San Juan, Newark and Boston.

Last year marked the 500th anniversary of Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the island’s Taíno, African and Spanish traditions mesh. December 2020, meanwhile, will see the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story

So, there’s more reason than ever to experience the island’s white sandy beaches, bioluminescent bays, rich Caribbean history and tropical rainforest. 

Words: Pól Ó Conghaile

Read the full list of reasons to travel and destinations to visit in 2020 here

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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