How popular a country is as a travel destination, has as much to do with image as it has to do with how interesting a place is to visit or how accessible or affordable it is. Some simply want to go somewhere because it looks nice while others are drawn to specific locations - whether it's Tuscany, India or Mauritius - as the image presented by these destinations fits their own personal aspirations. While popular tourist magnets, such as Australia or New Zealand, excel at self promotion, other equally deserving destinations fare less well in the image stakes; they may be a little of the beaten track, have suffered from poor leadership, or simply have failed to sufficiently promote their own attractions. Nevertheless, some of these less appreciated destinations have far more to offer curious independent travellers, than their more adeptly promoted rivals.
Here are some of the world's most underrated destinations:
The three great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are architecturally outstanding, incredibly atmospheric and great value for money. Majestic mosques and medressas, and huge, ornately tiled minarets seem to reach for the bright blue sky from every other winding alley way. Apart from the members of up-market 'cultural' tours from France and Germany, hardly anybody seems to visit them. This situation has hardly been helped by the notoriously corrupt Karimov regime, which insists that visitors pay for a pointlessly expensive 'letter of introduction' before even being allowed to apply for an equally overpriced tourist visa. The government's tendency to massacre protestors and boil alive political opponents, can't have helped either. Despite the country's fearsome reputation, the people themselves are incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming. Even the once notoriously corrupt militsia are far more friendly and helpful than you might expect.
For a long time, Uzbekistan may have been well off the beaten track but it is now possible to fly into Tashkent, the capital, on Latvia's Air Baltic budget airline, from most major cities in Europe. It is also now relatively easy to obtain your letter of introduction and tourist visa through specialist travel agencies such as Stan Tours.
It doesn't occur to many people to visit Taiwan. It's a little bit off the Far Eastern backpacking trail, and it's certainly more expensive than Thailand or Indonesia, but it still has plenty to offer the independent traveller. The Portuguese sailors, who were the first Westerners to visit, named it Ilha Formosa (meaning 'beautiful island'). After visiting the spectacular Toroko Gorge National Park, you'll soon understand why. The gorgeous gorge is known for its towering marble cliffs, its rock hewn tunnels and the spectacularly snaking Liwu River. It can easily be visited on a day trip from Taipei but many prefer to base themselves outside of the relatively expensive capital city. Taipei, itself, is bright, lively and fun. As well as Taipei 101 (formerly the world's tallest building), it also known for its museums, markets and temple complexes. The atmospheric Lunshan Temple is particularly popular and still plays host to ancient Buddhist rituals. Taipei is also renowned for its varied and delicious street food; the Shilin Night Market is always busy and bustling and overflowing with strange new street food to sample such as pig's blood cake, deep fried stinky tofu and rubbery grilled quails eggs.
It used to be relatively costly to get to Taiwan but with the new generation of budget Asian airlines such as Air Asia and Cebu Pacific, and cheaper flights on Taiwan's own EVA Air, it is now more affordable than ever. It's also incredibly safe and easy to visit and Westerners don't even need a visa.
Tunisia has been a well established package tour destination for Europeans, for some time, but still receives relatively few independent travellers. This may partly be because Morocco and Egypt are cheaper, but Tunisia is still far better value than Western Europe and there's a lot to see in such a small country. The vast majority of tourists stick to the busy coastal resorts such as Hammamet, Sousse or Jerba, with only the occasional day trip inland, but Tunisia has far more to offer than simply sun and sand. As well as magnificent desert and mountain scenery, there are also ancient Roman ruins, rock hewn troglodyte villages, and lush oases and palmeraies set between desolate Saharan sand dunes.
The recent troubles have badly damaged the tourist industry but most (non government) reports seem to suggest that Tunisia is still a very safe country to travel in. It's possible to get great value flights through BA.com - especially if you're willing to book ahead and fly mid week - and once you are there, it's easy to make your own way around. Perhaps Tunisia's greatest strengths, however, are its close proximity to Europe, and the huge variety of experiences to be had with so little travelling time between its many attractions.
Georgia and Armenia
Few travellers ever think about visiting the Caucasus, and yet both Georgia and Armenia are crammed full of magnificent mountain scenery and the architectural remnants of millennia of civilisation. Both countries have somehow managed to retain their unique characters over thousands of years of history despite having been conquered at various times by Romans, Mongols, Persians and Ottoman Turks. The people of both Georgia and Armenia are renowned for their warmth and hospitality, and despite the many historical and political tensions that remain across the region, foreigners are almost always made to feel welcome. There still remains a strong Soviet feel within the region, and many within the more rural areas are still very poor, but the larger cities are rapidly modernizing as they struggle to catch up with the more affluent former Soviet nations on the edge of Western Europe.
Georgia and Armenia may be at the very edge of European civilisation but they are now more accessible than ever, and offer a taste of something genuinely different. Flights from the Latvian budget airline, Air Baltic, fly into Tbilisi and Yerevan from all over Europe (via Riga) and there is only a modest visa fee for Armenia (which is straight forward to buy on entry) and there's no visa fee at all for Western nationals in Georgia.
Like Taiwan, the Philippines are a little off the well worn backpacking trails around the rest of South-East Asia. It's a bit more expensive, and a little less safe, and it used to take a lot more effort and patience to make your around even a fraction of its 7000 islands. Many visitors are less than impressed with the bigger cities but what really makes the Philippines worth visiting, are its many natural wonder. As well as the stunningly beautiful rice terraces of Banaue, there are also numerous world class beaches, 37 volcanoes, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, and the Underground River National Park in Palawan. If its wildlife you're into, then there's always swimming with whale sharks off of Donsol, the peculiar Tarsiers of Bohol, and some of the best diving in the world.
As with Taiwan, the rapid rise of budget airlines such as Cebu Pacific and Air Asia has now made travelling around the Philippines far more easy and affordable. You can now get cheap flights into either Manila or Cebu, from all over the Far East, and then get even cheaper flights around its many islands. If you research your trip well, and book up your flights in advance, then it is possible to experience an incredible variety of natural wonders within a disconcertingly short amount of time.