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Tony Wheeler on Nontraditional Travel Destinations

The Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler tells us why it's the edgy places with government advisories that he finds most interesting.


I'm all for comfort. Over the years I've sampled my fair share of five-star hotels, tried an international selection of Michelin-starred restaurants, wandered through museums and galleries from the Louvre to an assortment of Guggenheims, even sat up at the sharp end on quite a few flights.This doesn't alter the fact that it's the "nontraditional destinations"-those edgy places that, if you paid any attention to government advisories, you'd never have stamped into your passport-I always find most interesting. Of course, when I wrote the very first Lonely Planet guidebook, 35 years ago, it focused on the world's more unusual destinations. There are just as many of them waiting to be explored today, there are plenty of reasons they're worth the extra effort, and, furthermore, they're generally far less risky than the rumors, horror stories, and "don't go there" warnings would have us believe.Take Iran, for example. I've spoken about the surprises of traveling in Iran to many audiences: the warm welcome, and the people who want to talk about governments, democracy, and understanding. Inevitably when I look out at the people I'm speaking to, I see heads nodding in agreement: They've been there as well; they've had the same disconcerting experience. Or Afghanistan-where, of course, there are parts of the country that are definitely very dangerous, and I wouldn't claim that anywhere is completely safe. But what a country. Wild, tangled mountains, lost valleys, amazing ruins, a soaring minaret hidden away in the middle of nowhere, Buddhist stupas cut out of solid rock-far too solid for the Taliban to have done anything about. It's no wonder intrepid travelers have always found the country an intriguing challenge.Or North Korea: It may be hard to find the key to the door (I arrived on an overnight train from Beijing), but as Alice found in her adventures in Wonderland, it's a doorway worth opening. I've never been to a more surrealistically strange place, a country where you constantly thought you were on a movie set where wandering behind a building would reveal it was all a fake. Or try Saudi Arabia. Again, unlocking the door may be difficult-if you can't claim you're a Muslim en route to Mecca, that is-but once again the effort is worthwhile, particularly if you're trying to understand the back story behind the places that dominate our media.My recent travels to misunderstood nations, undertaken as research for Bad Lands, my book about these destinations, have also brought me to Cuba, Libya, Burma, and even poor little Albania, a country that cut itself off from the rest of the world so resolutely and for so long (more than 40 years) that it has had great difficulty convincing anybody that the doors are now open again.Now I'm starting to work my way through a new list of the world's less-expected travel destinations. I've recently been around Haiti, a place with fantastic naïve art and great music ("we play voodoo jazz," the owner of Port-au-Prince's iconic Hotel Oloffson explained before his house band's regular Thursday night performance). After a couple of weeks spent kicking around Colombia I was delighted to note the admission by the country's tourist office that it was a dangerous destination: They warned visitors that there was always the danger "that you might want to stay longer."My next trip, a little walking expedition with some friends through the back lanes of Tuscany, will be First World in every way. I expect to enjoy some great meals and sample some fine wine at the end of each day's walk. But when I get back there will still be plenty of the world's less-expected destinations lined up on my "must do" list.

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