Thirty-five years after it dropped off the tourist map, Iran may be set to return to the top of “must-visit” lists for 2014. Its attractions have never been in doubt – from ski resorts to beaches, stunning Islamic architecture, ancient archaeological sites and superb food – but the revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war saw the country go from a staple of the “hippie-trail” to the preserve of a few adventurous travellers, usually in organised groups. Now, tour operators are hoping the thawing of political relations with the west following the election of Hassan Rouhani as president will give travellers the reassurance they need to return. Wild Frontiers, the London and Philadelphia-based adventure travel specialist, has already seen a 30 per cent rise in bookings. “We’ve been operating tours to Iran for 10 years now without any issues,” says Jonny Bealby, the company’s founder. “In fact, again and again one of the things our clients tell us they enjoy most is the friendliness and welcome provided by the locals.”
Meanwhile, Rouhani’s administration has announced plans to ease visa requirements to increase visitor numbers and increase annual income from tourism from $2bn today to $10bn. Tourists from some countries could soon need no visa, while others will be able to buy a visa on arrival. Britain’s Foreign Office still advises against travel to Iran, in part because it has no embassy there. “If it changes its advice, we expect there to be a surge in demand similar to when Aung San Suu Kyi changed the stance on travel to Myanmar,” says Bealby.
Brazil has been splashed all over travel magazines for months now as it gears up for the football World Cup this summer, followed by the Olympics two years later. But some question whether such blockbuster events really make it a good time to visit. “We are advising clients to avoid Brazil during its World Cup and Olympic years,” says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell, chief executive of Cazenove and Loyd. “The hotels and flights are a rip-off and the infrastructure will be creaking.” Instead, he suggests exploring Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, where a string of stylish hotels have opened in remote wilderness settings. The most recent is Awasi, which launched in November close to Chile’s Torres del Paine massif.
Steppes Travel recommends the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia for self-drive holidays along the Carretera Austral, a 700-mile road connecting remote farming communities. “Off the beaten track self-drive is a real trend for 2014,” says Nick Laing, the company’s founder. Other road trip suggestions include the deserts of Rajasthan and a camper van trip along the Great Wall of China.
There is a simple reason for Japan to be rising up travellers’ wish lists in 2014: cost. In October 2011, a dollar bought Y76; at the time of going to press it bought Y105. “This has made a startling difference in price to a Japanese holiday,” says Nick Laing, who recommends visiting Okayama prefecture, staying at the newly opened luxury ryokan Kifu No Sato, and visiting Osafune, a historic centre of Samurai sword making. James Mundy of Inside Japan Tours reports a 58 per cent year-on-year rise in bookings and says: “Japan still has the reputation of being an expensive country but it is just not true any more.” He picks Okinawa, the subtropical islands 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, which are becoming increasingly accessible thanks to new low-cost flights (Vanilla Air, which launched last month, offers returns from Tokyo from about £50). This year will also see train enthusiasts travelling to Japan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the shinkansen, or bullet train.
A long-time backpacker favourite, Vietnam is increasingly courting the more affluent traveller. “It now offers the perfect balance of luxury, adventure, heritage, romance and relaxation,” says Jill Taylor of Chicago-based Jetset World Travel. The latest addition to the growing roster of lavish hotels is Amano’i, which opened in September overlooking Vinh Hy Bay, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. “It’s built on a remote area of coastline, on the edge of a natural reserve, but is still within a three-hour drive of cities such as Nha Trang and Dalat,” says Gabriel Donida of Munich-based Atelier Voyage.
Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell points to another trend for the region: the growth of small, smart cruise ships on the rivers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Aqua Expeditions, which operates boutique hotel-style boats on the Peruvian Amazon, is due to launch its first ship on the Mekong this year. Starting from Saigon, guests will make a short road journey to meet the 20-cabin boat, then spend a week travelling upriver to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Later in the year, safari operator Sanctuary Retreats is due to launch the 20-cabin Ananda on the Ayeyarwady river in Myanmar, where it joins the Orcaella, recently launched by Orient-Express.
Geoffrey Kent of Abercrombie & Kent recommends Mongolia for its “striking rugged landscape, dotted with timeworn Buddhist monasteries and crystal-clear lakes”. Growing numbers of tour operators are featuring the country, both for group and independent trips, and report rising demand. World Expeditions (which has offices in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Canada) says it has seen a 50 per cent rise in forward bookings compared with at the same point a year ago, helped by publicity surrounding adventurer Tim Cope’s book On the Trail of Genghis Khan. “Don’t miss the annual Naadam Festival in July, where the nation’s best athletes compete in archery, horseracing and Mongolian wrestling,” says Kent. Meanwhile, Tom Marchant of Black Tomato recommends the Bayan Olgiy province in the far west of the country: “Mongolia is still untouched by mass tourism but this area is particularly remote and honest to its cultural roots; for those looking for something really unique, and dinner-table bragging rights, then this is it.”
“Among the Africa cognoscenti, there’s definitely excitement about Zimbabwe, because the quality of guiding is so good and because it’s now seen as socially acceptable to go there, provided you stay in small, owner-run places,” says Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa. Highlights include Hwange National Park and Mana Pools, a series of oxbow lakes that are ideal for walking safaris as well as offering the chance to spot game while canoeing on the nearby Zambezi. “The last time I was there I crawled to within 6 metres of a pack of wild dogs and the only protection the guide had was his hat,” says McIntyre. “You just don’t get that kind of experience elsewhere.”
Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden
For those seeking a funky city-break destination with shopping, restaurants and a buzzing bar-hopping scene, Tom Marchant of Black Tomato recommends Stockholm, and in particular Södermalm, an island in the city centre. Perhaps helped to international fame by being the home of crime-fighting journalist Mikael Blomkvist in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of crime novels, Södermalm is attracting hipster weekenders as an alternative to Willamsburg or Shoreditch. SoFo (the area south of Folkungagatan) is crammed with small fashion boutiques and the island is full of coffee shops, beer gardens and galleries. “And Södermalm has a beach, which Shoreditch definitely doesn’t offer,” says Marchant.
Jonny Bealby is the founder of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com)
Gabriel Donida is executive director of Atelier Voyage (ateliervoyage.com)
Geoffrey Kent is founder of Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com)
Nick Laing is chairman of Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk)
Tom Marchant is co-founder of Black Tomato (blacktomato.com)
Chris McIntyre is managing director of Expert Africa (expertafrica.com)
James Mundy is marketing manager for Inside Japan Tours (insidejapantours.com)
Jill Taylor is luxury consultant at Jetset World Travel (jetsetworldtravel.com)
Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell is co-owner of Cazenove and Loyd (cazloyd.com)