Passport to the exotic
We share with you the best exotic destinations to discover – before the crowds.
By Craig Tansley | Published #61, Summer 2015
Remember when an exotic destination used to be one that was just a long way from home? Then budget airlines began discounting airfares to some of the most far-flung destinations on Earth, forcing all airlines to follow suit, and before long what we once considered exotic destinations became mainstream getaways. These days the destinations we consider to be the most exotic on the planet must satisfy far more criteria than simply the distance they lie from Australia.
In 2015, the most exotic destinations must have a level of mystery about them, and a sense that we’re amongst the first lot of travellers to venture there. Could anything be more exotic than glimpsing a hidden kingdom for the very first time? And nothing screams exotic more than a destination we’ve been denied entry to in the past.
Then again, while we find this sudden accessibility to such places terribly exotic, we also find inaccessibility exotic in 2015. We often enjoy the challenge, even the price tag, in getting to those hard-to-reach destinations, mostly because it stops others from trying.
In 2015, the most exotic destinations are also those in which we seem to travel not across oceans and continents, but rather through time. We want to pass back through the centuries to gain insight into how our lives might have been. Alternatively, we can race into the future, travelling commercially beyond Earth into space for the very first time.
But we’ve changed as travellers – we journey in 2015 with a social conscience. Merely passing through is no longer enough for the modern luxury traveller. Exoticism in travel comes not in being voyeurs, but from feeling we’re helping the people who live in the destinations we travel to, just by being there. All the destinations below satisfy these criteria – because like all good visitors, we hate to impose.
1. When the inaccessible becomes accessible.
What could be more exotic than destinations we once couldn’t visit.
Myanmar is still the most exotic country in the world to visit in 2015 - open only recently to western tourists after decades of repression under a military government. Prior to 2011 - when the military junta officially resolved, transferring power to a civilian government - Myanmar had the worst human rights record in the world. Tourism was severely restricted and residents were warned contact with westerners could lead to arrest. But since 2011, the number of international tourists has tripled from 800,000 per year to 2.3 million in 2013. Travellers had been waiting for Myanmar to reveal hidden treasures to the world. And what treasures they are: there’s more than 100 ethnic groups in Myanmar offering one of the most diverse cultures left in Asia; hill tribes still live traditionally amongst landscapes of forests, mountains and gilded pagodas. The new government hopes to attract 7.5 million tourists per year to Myanmar by 2020 - by then the first waves of western travellers will have long passed through – the time to visit is well and truly now.
Stay: The Lake Garden, Nay Pyi Taw by MGallery.
Prices start from US$174 (about A$198) per night for a superior room. mgallery.com
What could be more exotic than visiting a city at the centre of western Europe’s last great war, that’s now bloomed into one of Europe’s true cultural epicentres? Between 1991 and 1995 more than 20,000 people died in the Balkans war – nearly half of these deaths occurred in Sarajevo. For four years the city was under attack in the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. But where bombs once fell, culture is flourishing – the city is famous for museums and religious diversity – it’s often called the Jerusalem of Europe. Lonely Planet has twice named it one of the Top 50 cities to visit in the world and Sarajevo’s annual Film Festival is one of the world’s most prominent, attended by the biggest movie stars in the business. Sarajevo has one of the world’s top five tourism growth rates of any region on earth, and with 25 per cent of the city’s economy destroyed by war, just being there helps rebuild Sarajevo.
Is there a country across the globe considered more exotic and untouchable? For most of the last century, Mongolia was entirely shut off to western tourism under an oppressive Communist government, and a complete lack of tourism infrastructure. But the number of travellers entering Mongolia has increased tenfold since the first hotels were built at the end of the 1990s. In 1997, barely 50,000 tourists visited Mongolia, in 2010 that number was almost 500,000. In 2015 there are now over 320 hotels and resorts in Mongolia, including five-star boutique spa resorts built amongst thousands of kilometres of sand dunes where nomads still herd sheep by horse-back across the nation’s vast steppes and deserts. We should tell you: McDonald’s and Starbucks have opened stores in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, but mass tourism is still years away.
2. Inaccessible? Now that's exotic.
There’s something about an arduous journey that makes arriving in hard-to-get-to destinations all the more worth it.
What could be more exotic than requiring an Aliens Travel Permit (for some regions) to visit? This Buddhist kingdom has been locked away from travellers since the Chinese took over last century. While extra effort is still required to enter – entry to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese Government – new boutique hotels are being built with a level of comfort and style unimaginable even just two years ago. You’ll need a special visa to enter (not just a Chinese entry visa) and will need to check updates on the latest travel permit situation, and will also need to pre-arrange a tour guide and transportation (independent travel is not allowed). Tibet’s new-found appeal to luxury travellers extends to how travellers can enter the country: after years of delays, travellers can board the oxygen-enriched carriages of the Tangula luxury train from Beijing to Lhasa travelling across the highest railway in the world.
You wouldn’t expect one of the earth’s most biologically diverse areas to be easily accessible now, would you? Part of Madagascar’s exotic appeal is that it’s cut off from the rest of the world – 75 per cent of the country’s plants and animals can be found nowhere else on the planet because Madagascar has been isolated for 165 million years. And it still is today. Travellers mostly fly via Mauritius, South Africa or Kenya - Madagascar still receives barely 300,000 tourists a year, 60 per cent of which are French. The easiest way to access Madagascar for Australians is via Mauritius. But it’s not just getting here that’s the only difficult factor. Once travellers leave Madagascar’s capital, Antanaarivo, the bitumen ends and you’re forced to traverse dusty trails in 4WDs. Traditionally, visitors had few luxury options in Madagascar, but in the past two years, exclusive 19th Century Kasbahs have been restored for high-end travellers, along with luxurious seaside spa retreats and unique boutique properties.
Stay: Anjajavy L’Hotel. Anjajavy L’Hotel.
Prices start from €684.00 (about A$976) per night in a Villa Sea View Room (based on a minimum stay of three nights). relaischateaux.com/anjajavy
3. Not far from the well-beaten path.
Sometimes the most exotic places of all lie just under your nose.
Western travellers have long understood the appeal of India, but few have ever ventured to India’s least populous state, Sikkim – until now. Located in India’s far north-east and bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, this rugged, mountainous state has largely been blocked off from tourism, with poor rail infrastructure and no central airport. However, a new airport will be finished by 2015 (Pakyong Airport) allowing westerners easier access to India’s coolest state, famous for its medicinal hot springs – providing the perfect antidote to the humidity and crowds you’ll find elsewhere in India. It’s also India’s cleanest state and it’s getting even cleaner - as part of an innovative tourism project the Government is proposing to convert Sikkim into a fully organic state – India’s first - by 2020.
Stay: Mayfair Spa Resort & Casino, Gangtok.
Prices start from INR24,310 (about A$453) per night for a deluxe room. mayfairhotels.com/mayfair-gangtok
Western tourists have traditionally flocked to game reserves in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa for luxury safari camp experiences, but luxury travellers seeking new experiences are now travelling to one of southern Africa’s poorest countries to view Africa’s Big Five (leopards, lions, elephants, buffalo and rhinoceros). The best place to view the Big Five in Malawi was once almost entirely decimated by poaching and logging. As tourism grows in the Majete Wildlife Reserve – travellers can now stay in a variety of five-star safari tented camps built in the past two years – more and more animals are introduced to the reserve (with over 3,000 wild animals introduced to date).
Stay: Mkulumadzi Mkulumadzi Majete Wildlife Reserve.
Prices start from US$345 per person per night. robinpopesafaris.net
The South Pacific has long been on the travel itineraries of Australians. But while more than 300,000 Australians will visit Fiji in 2015, only a few thousand Australian travellers make it to Samoa. While visitation is increasing by approximately 20 per cent per year, Samoa is still the South Pacific’s most unaffected travel destination. It’s the most traditional island in Polynesia – locals live in villages ruled by a network of chiefs under a system of law known as Fa’a Samoa, in houses with no walls. There’s no rubbish or high-rise, with few roads beyond the main coast road that circles Samoa’s two main islands. But Samoa is home to some of the South Pacific’s most under-rated high-end retreats, though its attractions remain gloriously primitive: waterfalls, blow-holes, underground ocean trenches, caves and extinct volcanoes where you’ll have to wake local landowners to visit.
Stay: Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Resort.
Prices start from NZ$407 (about A$368) for a deluxe ocean view room per night. starwoodhotels.com
4. Travelling back through time.
Journey back for a glimpse at how the lives of our ancestors might have been.
Tourism in Greenland is still a very young business, but the opening of a new luxury eco-lodge in early 2015 on an ice sheet on Greenland’s remote east coast is proof Greenland’s appeal to travellers seeking the world’s last wilderness is growing. The first flights only came into Greenland in 1959 – and for decades after barely 1000 tourists per year visited. But luxury travellers now have the opportunity for a five-star holiday, while still living amongst local Inuit communities who rely on subsistence farming and fishing to survive. Guests can join locals in traditional canoes fishing in fjords, or taking dog sleds across ice sheets. While Greenland is the world’s largest island, there’s barely 50,000 locals living there – 90 per cent of whom are indigenous; there’s nowhere more remote.
Stay: Hotel Arctic.
Prices start from DKK1,395 (about A$268) per night for a double room. hotelarctic.com
Tucked away in the corners of the mighty Himalayas, Bhutan has relied on its isolation to protect itself from the modern world – this is a country which only introduced national television 15 years ago. It was also just 35 years ago that Bhutan began allowing foreigners in for the first time – there are still tight restrictions on numbers. Bhutan allows travellers to travel through time. Locals still live largely as they did in the mid 17th Century. Men wear knee-length robes called ghos and women wear ankle-length dresses. To preserve culture, a set of etiquette rules were introduced known as Driglam Namzha. Bhutan is also the only country on earth to measure the Gross National Happiness of its population – incidentally, Bhutan rates number one in Asia. Despite its adherence to tradition, Bhutan offers luxury travellers sophisticated high-end accommodation and tours.
Prices start from US$930 (about A$1,067) for double occupancy in low season per night (plus 20 per cent tax and service charge). amanresorts.com
5. Travelling into the future
While the idea of travelling back through the years to see how we once lived is exotic, imagine travelling on a space ship into the stars above…
Forget Earth! What destination could be more exotic than leaving this planet behind altogether for outer space? One operator, Virgin Galactic is expecting to launch the first ever commercial planes into space from its base in New Mexico in early 2015, with founder Richard Branson first on-board. (The company says it will continue with its plans despite the loss of one of its pilots in the crash of Virgin spaceship Enterprise during a test flight in October last year). For US$250,000 you can book a place onboard Virgin Galactic – joining over 600 other potential astronauts. Payment also ensures VIP access to Branson’s private Caribbean island retreat. When your flight’s ready to go (and Virgin Galactic is advancing, signing significant agreements with the US’s Federal Aviation Administration in May) you’ll spend three days in pre-flight preparation before taking off for your two-and-a-half hour flight into space. virgingalactic.com