Advances in technology have made the world more accessible: places that were once virtually unknown wildernesses, such as Everest and Patagonia, have been opened up to mass tourism.
But what about travelling to war zones, or countries where the political situation creates major risks? These remain off-limits for most – but whether for professional reasons or through sheer curiosity, some people still do venture to the ultimate ‘forbidden destinations’. As well as the historic sites and landscapes to be seen, it’s also a chance to experience a country and its people beyond the news headlines, and to witness history in the making.
They aren’t places for the inexperienced traveller, and being safe depends on a level of knowledge that goes way beyond the scope of this article. For an idea of what travel to unstable countries might involve, whether now or in the future, we look at five troubled destinations below.
The decimation done to Iraq’s infrastructure by the 2003 war and the subsequent sectarian violence are well known. The situation is improving – and the Iraq Tourism Board is busy promoting the country as the next big destination. But visitors still face an unstable country with a risk of kidnapping and armed violence – all the more tragic given that Iraq is the location of some of the earliest known human civilisations.
The northern and largely autonomous Kurdistan is notably safer to travel to than other areas, but Iraq’s biggest draw is fertile Mesopotamia in the south – the location of ancient Babylon and Ur, as well as Islamic holy sites. It is also possible to view some of Saddam’s old palaces.
Independent travellers cannot obtain visas but various companies offer tours. Babel Tours, based in Kurdistan travel to a wide range of destinations within Iraq but currently avoid visiting Mosul. The director, Haider Ajeel, insists that the risks are low and says that the security situation is improving.
Another company that tours Iraq is Hinterland Travel, run by Geoff Hann. Hann led a post-war tour of Iraq in 2003, but the situation made it unsafe to go again until 2008. He concedes that Baghdad is a difficult place to travel in, with checkpoints every few yards, but says ‘the country is getting better and better every month’.
It is possible to fly direct to Baghdad from Amman, Istanbul and other cities. Many international airlines fly to Erbil in Kurdistan.
Afghanistan was a key part of the original ‘hippie trail’ in the sixties and seventies, but the Soviet invasion of 1979 began decades of war and instability. The current situation is poor, with a risk of bombs and kidnappings, and appears to be worsening.
Paul Clammer wrote the Lonely Planet guide to Afghanistan in 2006, at a time when the country seemed to be making progress – but would currently advise against travel there. ‘I took that trip entirely using local minibuses and local taxis, but it’s not one I’d be keen to recreate now’, he says. Safety depends on having up-to-date and reliable intelligence on danger areas, and travellers don’t have access to the information networks that people living and working there do.
This is a shame, since the country is one of outstanding beauty. Clammer describes the Band-e -Amir lakes near Bamiyan as ‘one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been’. Other attractions include the ancient city of Herat and the 12th century Minaret of Jam.
Despite the danger, tour companies do run from Kabul, visiting the safer northern regions. The best ones, for those willing to take the risk, Clammer says, are the Afghan-run companies based in Kabul. Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Afghan Logistics and Tours, says: ‘In a country like Afghanistan, we cannot say that a tour is 100 % safe, but the parts we operate in are quite safe, and we have not had any security problems so far.’
The one area where safe travel is possible is the Wakhan Corridor in the northeastern tip of the country. Cut off by the Hindu Kush mountains, it was never touched by fighting even in Soviet days and is a base for trekking. It can be reached by internal flight from Kabul or by crossing the border from Tajikistan.
Safi Air fly to Kabul from Dubai and Frankfurt. Other airlines fly from other locations. Schedules are subject to change.
The huge area which until now was occupied by Sudan is likely to be divided in two following a recent referendum, but even before this, it was impossible to generalise about the country, says Paul Clammer, who also wrote the Bradt guide to Sudan:
‘Asking whether it’s safe to go to Sudan is like asking if it’s safe to go travelling in Western Europe – culturally, ethnically and geographically it’s a very diverse country.’
The area north of Khartoum, for example, is very safe, and attractions include the pyramids at Meroe and scuba diving in the Red Sea.
However, Southern Sudan is a different matter. Juba, the southern capital is connected to East African travel networks, but in more remote areas (especially those on the north-south border) a lack of infrastructure combined with a prevalence of weapons makes the situation unpredictable. Various spoiler groups are unhappy with the peace process, though many of the most dangerous areas, such as Darfur, are in any case virtually inaccessible to the tourist.
Much will change following the referendum, but the cost of travel will probably continue to be prohibitive – a lack of competition currently means that it can be difficult to find a hotel room in the south for less than $150 a night.
Wildlife is a major attraction for those who do visit. Were it not for the political instability, the wildlife of southern Sudan would be as well known as that in Kenya and Tanzania, says Clammer.
Direct flights to Khartoum leave from London and many other locations.
Kashmir is another destination of extraordinary beauty, and was very popular until the late 1980s, since when the battle over its independence has caused problems between India and Pakistan. Before a visit to Kashmir in 2001, Bill Clinton described it as ‘the most dangerous place on earth’.
The possibility of violence and political troubles has deterred many western tourists, though in the last decade Kashmir has begun to grow in popularity again. Tourists do not tend to be directly targeted, but kidnappings have occurred and the situation remains unpredictable. The area remains a destination for pilgrimages, with a large number of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist holy places.
Independent travel is possible, but tourists should be aware of the risks and stay up to date on the latest developments. There are also various tour companies operating, of which Hinterland Travel is one. ‘Hostage taking and other crimes do occur, but it’s generally between Muslim and Hindu groups,’ says Geoff Hann. ‘On the whole it doesn’t impinge upon us as tourists.’ He takes expeditions into the mountains with the protection of the Indian army.
A major destination is Srinagar, the capital overlooking the houseboats of Dal Lake. The ski resort of Gulmarg in the mountains is also popular. These areas are generally safer than those on the border or in the mountains, where travel is not advisable.
Kashmir can be reached overland within India. Srinagar airport receives many domestic and some international flights.
Cote d’Ivoire was generally safe until recently, but there is currently a higher level of risk due to political unrest over the incumbent president’s refusal to accept defeat in an election last year.
There is no record of tourists being targeted, but violent incidents and fatalities have risen, and disappearances, including of those crossing the border with Ghana, have occurred.
Kate Thomas, who wrote the Cote D’Ivoire section of Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide in 2008, does not recommend travel to the country at this point, but believes it has a great deal to offer travellers if the situation improves.
Abidjan, on the coast, is the economic capital. ‘It’s a really lively, bustling city with great nightlife, music and restaurants,’ says Thomas – though curfews are in operation at times of political unrest.
Further along the coast is the dilapidated charm of Grand-Bassam, along with several beaches, including popular surfing locations such as Assinie. Inland is the basilica at Yamoussoukro, modelled on St Peters in Rome, and several national parks.
Before the current instability, says Thomas, it was more a case of travellers needing to stay alert rather than confronting grave dangers – though military checkpoints can slow progress, and soldiers often ask for bribes.
Cote D’Ivoire is one of the more developed countries in the region, with an established infrastructure including air-conditioned buses, so if the situation does improve, it deserves to see travellers return.
Direct flights go to Abidjan from Paris, Brussels and Casablanca.
WideWorld does not endorse travel to any of the above countries or any of the tour companies mentioned, and recommends that readers should thoroughly research the risks before considering travelling. The FCO currently advises against travel to many parts of the above countries. See here for the latest government advice: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/