Lately we’ve heard a lot about the negative impacts mass tourism has had on beloved destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking for intimate, immersive travel experiences that get them away from the crowds and into pristine natural environments and indigenous cultural communities.
To that end, here are our picks for the top 10 off the beaten path travel destinations to visit in 2021:
Botswana is one of the world’s hottest up-and-coming ecotourism destinations, in large part due to its forward-thinking approach to conservation. The country has prioritized the protection of wildlife for over 50 years now, ever since the Batawana people established the Moremi Nature Reserve in 1963 after seeing their lands threatened by poaching and cattle farms. Commercial hunting was banned in 2014, anti-poaching laws are VERY strictly enforced, and wildlife management is largely handled by local communities. As a result, Botswana has no shortage of amazing attractions for animal lovers. Bucket list activities include exploring the Okavango Delta via canoe, mingling with 120,000+ elephants in Chobe National Park, and having a traditional Big 5 safari experience at Moremi.
View our Botswana 2021 trips
Central Asia’s Silk Road has been around for thousands of years. These ancient trade routes are considerably less traveled today, largely because the Soviet regime made them off-limits to westerners. Yet countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan remain dotted with spectacular terra cotta domes and mosques dating back centuries. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have as many historic monuments as its neighbors, with the 1,000-year-old Burana Tower the lone exception. Yet the country is rapidly emerging as a popular ecotourism destination, with adventurous hikers praising its breathtaking scenery and community-based tourism projects. The Tian Shan Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also home to wildlife such as snow leopards, lynx, and sheep.
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A few years ago, President Obama loosened the decades-long restrictions on Cuba and interest in travel to Cuba surged dramatically. More recently, under the Trump administration, travel to Cuba became a more difficult process for Americans. However, Americans are still allowed to travel to Cuba if they follow the current rules, and it’s definitely a trip worth taking. Most travelers dream of visiting Havana for its classic cars, thriving Cuban culture (delicious food, infectious music, colorful art, etc.), and impressive colonial architecture. But outside of the popular capital city, the Caribbean’s largest island also offers majestic mountains, verdant valleys, tropical jungles, rich history, and a surprisingly diverse array of wildlife in national parks and nature reserves that remain far off the typical tourist path.
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The Galápagos Islands
More than 185 years after Charles Darwin visited the archipelago, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site remains one of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet. There are 18 major islands (many of which remain uninhabited) and three smaller islets to explore, and each one of them offers its own unique attractions. The flora and fauna you’ll find in the Galápagos varies wildly from island to island: As documented in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin found that the animals adapted genetically to a given island’s ecosystem. Thanks to its remote location and National Park protection, the animals there remain plentiful, and most are utterly unafraid of humans. With unique endemic species such as flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, Galápagos sea lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas, it’s a true nature-lover’s paradise.
View all Galapagos 2021 trips with International Expeditions
Beloved for its unspoiled natural beauty, Hokkaido is the second largest and least developed island in Japan. The island is relatively uncrowded by Japanese standards, with around 5.4 million residents in a 32,221 square mile area. Hokkaido offers an impressive array of untouched wilderness, from alpine fields and primeval forests to brilliant blue caldera lakes and volcano-fed hot springs. So the island naturally attracts its share of outdoor recreation enthusiasts. In warm summers the region’s 11 national and quasi-national parks offer exceptional hiking, cycling, and watching for wildlife (including Asia’ second largest brown bear population). When winter brings snow from Siberia, Hokkaido becomes a haven for skiers and snowboarders. Its waters are also reputed to produce some of the world’s best seafood.
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One of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet, the wild, rugged beauty of Kimberley, Australia feels like a completely different world than you’ll find in cities like Melbourne and Sydney. Located in the country’s northwestern region, this was among the first areas of Australia to be settled some 40,000 years ago. Around 70% of the area is still considered native title land, which was a huge success story for Australia’s indigenous peoples. The region is also jam-packed with natural attractions, including El Questro Wilderness Park, Horizontal Falls, King George River Falls, Mitchell River National Park, Purnululu National Park, and Windjana Gorge National Park. It also includes numerous surrounding islands, including the Buccaneer Archipelago and the Lacepede Islands (a birdwatcher’s haven).
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You’ll feel as though you’ve been transported to another world when you step foot in Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region. This sparely populated area boasts snow-shrouded landscapes of subarctic wilderness, herds of reindeer, the midnight sun, and the mesmerizing northern lights. It is also home to the indigenous Sami people, who try to keep their traditions alive. One way they do that is through the Sami Easter Festival, a four-day event where you may witness a variety of unique events including reindeer races, snowmobile races, ice fishing competitions, joik singing, and theater productions. Visit this winter wonderland and experience a variety of invigorating activities for yourself such as dogsledding, reindeer-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobile safaris, and more.
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Far off the beaten path, Mongolia is a true adventure travel destination. Bordered by China to the south and Russia to the north, this landlocked nation’s vast open spaces, breathtaking landscapes, and traditional nomadic culture make it a truly unique place to visit. In addition to its already striking natural beauty, Mongolia sees minimal cloudy and rainy weather, earning it the name “Land of the Blue Sky.” And, if you’re hoping to escape the crowds, Mongolia is the place to be as it has one of the lowest population densities in the world with just over 3 million people. While it’s home to numerous awe-inspiring wonders, some of its most unique natural and cultural wonders include the red Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert—Asia’s largest desert; the Havtsgait Valley, the site of ancient rock drawings left by early Gobi settlers more than 15,000 years ago; and the Naadam Festival, the country’s national holiday, where you can watch Mongolians competing in traditional sports such as wrestling, horse racing, and archery—a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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Papua New Guinea
Located over 6,800 miles from the United States (9,000 if you live on the East Coast), Papua New Guinea is one of the most rural countries in the world: Only 18% of its seven million residents live in urban centers. It’s also one of the most culturally diverse: Most people live in indigenous communities, and there are some 852 languages spoken. In other words, the country may be difficult to get to, but it’s exciting to explore. Known as “the land of the unexpected,” Papua New Guinea’s landscapes range from pristine beaches and wildlife-rich lowland rainforests along the coast to 15,000-foot mountains in the interior. Snorkelers and divers around the world are also attracted by the exceptional array of marine life you’ll find in its waters.
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Known as the “Pearl of Africa,” Uganda is bursting with natural beauty. With its volcanic mountains, mist-shrouded forests, mighty rivers (including the Nile), and numerous lakes (including Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake) this verdant East African country is also home to myriad wildlife. Discover an abundance of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, go gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and witness the unusual tree-climbing lions found in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The perfect destination for wildlife watching, you can also search for elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, lion, hippopotamus, giraffe, an astounding 29 species of antelope, bountiful birdlife, and much more.