by
Ralph Bestic

“Travel these days is all about doing not seeing,” says Brett Godfrey, who travels about 40 times a year for work and pleasure. The former head of Virgin Australia says the fact that we’re living longer and healthier means we want to experience more from our travels. Hence the cooking classes taught in a trullo in Puglia, leaf peeping while peddling around New England in the Fall, and small-ship expeditions around the Bosphorus with accompanying lectures on Byzantine art.  

An extension of “doing not seeing” is cultural immersion. Lodging with a family of Japanese artisan ceramicists might seem like a highly specific interest. But such specificity is how the smart tourism operators are carving their niche away from the masses. 

Bernadette Holmes of Wendy Wu Tours has achieved success by hunting within the Venn diagram of those travellers who love cruising and others who are fascinated by China. “They want to delve deeper into Asia,” she says. “River cruise forward bookings in China have increased by 51 per cent for 2018 with the Three Gorges Tour up 100 per cent.”

Achievement tourism is also thriving, as James Irving from Bhutan and Beyond explains: “The over-50s professional female traveller is the core of our business. She wants adventure and a tough challenge, but with a good bed.” It’s the same type of customer who uses Godfrey’s Tasmanian Walking Company to march along the fabled Overland Track. “That sector is our sweet spot,” says Godfrey, adding that travel with a bit of adventure in a pristine environment is tourism’s fastest-growing sector. 

Geography-wise, some countries suddenly become sweeter. Economies on a rise will increase their tourism budgets. New airline routes spur on newer hotels and best-in-class dining. Your Instagram filter fills up and before you know it, everyone is talking about the new place to go. Here’s our guide to five of the best destinations in 2018.

1. Bhutan

Few cars, moving at your own pace, a bed for the night in complete luxury or in the care of a Buddhist homeowner: this is a journey of the most personal kind and Bhutan is enjoying new interest, especially from those seeking achievement travel, the formidable 25-day Snowman Trek being a case in point.

The kingdom that pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness is on a mini roll, with a program of infrastructure upgrades, new accommodation agreements with hoteliers and simpler entry requirements. The international airport at Paro has a new terminal and the few roads around Bhutan are being widened. Wi-Fi is spreading and lodgings are plentiful.

“Most tourism activities in Bhutan are organised by government-approved operators,” explains James Irving from Bhutan and Beyond. “This even includes hiking, which is about immersing yourself in lowland landscapes and visiting Bhutanese villages, while trekking takes place on designated mountain trails,” he says. “However, in Bhutan, unlike neighbouring Nepal, conventional mountaineering is prohibited because all mountains are considered sacred.”

Trekking in Bhutan.
Trekking in Bhutan.

Jane Reddy

Bhutan has long been desirable to the discerning traveller, thanks to its high-value, low-volume approach to tourism. Visas are mandatory and their steep cost – a minimum of $US250 ($330) a person a day in high season – contribute to Bhutan’s reputation as being ruinously expensive. 

But, as Irving explains, only $US40 of this is, strictly speaking, the government visa. The rest of that daily rate covers accommodation (a minimum level of a three-star hotel), a driver and a four-wheel drive vehicle, a guide, food (as part of the accommodation deal) and all other government fees.

After a day’s rambling around the Himalayas, the thought of a soft bed, hot food and, if you’re lucky, a deep bath is beyond sublime. Six Senses Lodges will unveil its five luxury lodges next year, with each to be located in Bhutan’s five valleys of Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, Bumthang and Paro. If you want yoga retreat bragging rights, then eco-luxe Singapore hotelier COMO (best known in Australia for its stylish hotel The Treasury in Perth) offers lofty luxury with a week-long yoga retreat at its two lodges in Bhutan in the second half of next year. 

“Yet”, as Irving says, “a simple bed in a homestay house may be just the thing for a little more personal happiness.”

A woman in a patterned chador enters a mosque in Iran.
A woman in a patterned chador enters a mosque in Iran.

2. Iran

Iran is a destination on a surge, says Serena Mitchell from luxury travel operator Abercrombie and Kent. Her firm has chalked up a whopping 75 per cent increase in visitor numbers since 2016. Various factors, she believes, have synchronised to endow the 5000-year-old nation with renewed popularity, in particular the nuclear deal signed in 2015 and the re-establishment of Western embassies.

Aside from popular Tehran, interest in largely unseen historic locations has dramatically soared. Mitchell cites some of the most sought-after locations as Persepolis, the ruined capital of Persia founded in 518BC, the ancient city of Isfahan with its extraordinary Imam Mosque and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and the 4000-year-old city of Shiraz, home to tombs, rose gardens, the Pink Mosque, madrassas and the lively Vakil Bazaar. Jenny Gray from Intrepid Travel says easier visa requirements are another pull factor. “Once you have an authorisation code after booking, you can get a visa on arrival which makes the process much simpler,” she says.

Tehran has a clutch of elegant hotels in which you can base yourself, one of the most lavish being the Espinas Palace Hotel which opened in early 2016. According to the country’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation, there are a staggering 125 luxury hotels in the pipeline. 

The World Heritage-listed ruins at Persepolis.
The World Heritage-listed ruins at Persepolis.

Yet increasingly the drawcard is cultural immersion, or to stray from the cliché and interact one on one with locals on their own turf. Food and walking tours for adventurous gourmands are especially popular. Matin Lashkari and Shirin Tahanan’s Persian Food Tours offers guided walking tours to Tehran’s Tajrish Bazaar, followed by cooking classes in which jewelled rice – rice slathered in butter and saffron – is a principal ingredient. 

“The tour usually ends with a traditional lunch from the Gilan Province of northern Iran,” says Lashkari, who is also a fount of information on Iranian road trips.

Interest in the regions of Iran is buoyant. There are mountain ranges two hours’ north of Tehran, with well-run ski fields in Dizin. Mohsen Adib from Iran Desert Tours says that northern Iran and the coastal forests and mountains around the southern Caspian Sea are the new must-visit regions. Spanish-owned Meliá Hotels will open a five-star hotel, the Gran Meliá Ghoo, next year on the shores of the Caspian. 

Jenny Gray from Intrepid reckons that the 1000-year-old northern town of Masuleh is about as traditional as it gets in Iran. The town sits beneath brooding Mount Talesh and its rooftops and streets combine – yes, you walk on the rooftops and courtyards to get about. If you love locomotives, it’s all aboard with television train tragic (and ex-British MP) Michael Portillo, who’ll be hosting guest lectures on the Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ Persian Odyssey in April 2018.

Grilled sardines are a local favourite in Porto, Portugal.
Grilled sardines are a local favourite in Porto, Portugal.

3. Portugal

When, in 2014, Portugal wrenched itself out of a three-year bailout from the rest of the eurozone, it instantly perked up. It had hit rock bottom with quarter upon quarter of negative growth. Even its most celebrated export, port fortified wine, could be picked up for a song. Then low-cost airlines began expanding with new domestic routes while punishing, yet successful, economic reforms combined to drive tourism. 

Portugal was hailed as one of the eurozone’s standout economies and really began pumping in 2015, with a spate of new hotels, museums and Michelin-starred restaurants (21 in the latest guide). Spain is keeping a wary eye on its hot-to-trot neighbour.

Lisbon’s creative scene has made it the newest of the “new Berlins”. See what all the fuss is about by dropping into the LX Factory, a brilliant example of urban regeneration. Built on the shell of a former industrial site, the enclave was established in 2008, survived the eurozone crisis and now, almost a decade later, is a thriving hub of studios and design shops.

But while Lisbon is hot, Porto might be even hotter. The country’s second-largest city is buzzing as intently as the capital, thanks in part to new hubs at Francisco de Sá Carneiro Airport. According to Ana Bessa from the Porto Convention and Tourist Bureau, international visitor nights to Porto leapt 18 per cent in 2015-2016 and already, for the first half of this year, have soared 14 per cent. Off-season interest in Portugal via search websites – anything prior to May and after September – is up a colossal 80 per cent, according to American Express Travel.

Swathes of new hotels, such as the Pestana A Brazileira, are emblematic of the buzz around Porto. Opening earlier this year, the A Brazileira has used the successful strategy of repurposing an old warehouse into a smart, 90-room, five-star hotel. 

More recently, the 67-room Vila Galé Porto Ribeira opened alongside the Douro River and then there’s the delicious Hotel Yeatman, Michelin-starred and perched on a hillside overlooking the Vila Nova de Gaia municipality, where many of the old port merchants had wine barges and warehouses. This is 82 rooms of luxury for wine buffs and reinforces Porto’s food haven status. 

Note: to really enjoy Porto, it helps if you love sardines; they’re a local favourite, especially when served in petiscos, the Portuguese version of tapas.

The skyline of Porto, Portugal, where a swathe of new hotels have sprung up.
The skyline of Porto, Portugal, where a swathe of new hotels have sprung up.

4. Scotland

The hype surrounding the small screen’s Outlander and Shetland series, plus interest from adventure seekers and history buffs, are helping drive Scottish tourism, which rose by 6 per cent during 2016, according to the latest figures from Visit Scotland

Away from the population centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Highlands and islands offer traditional lodgings such as grand country houses set in wild landscapes. If it’s epic and forbidding grandeur you’re after, then Glencoe House, complete with a loch, will fit the Highlands bill. Or there’s the Fife Arms Hotel in Braemar, which is being restored to its Victorian splendour and opens next year.

There are two cultures at play in Scotland, each based loosely on the environment: the western islands, such as tweedy Harris and monastically spiritual Iona off the Isle of Mull, together with the softer lowlands and borderlands of the south compete with the dramatic Highlands in the north. Scotland’s northern regions are as much about going wild – such as swimming in Loch Ness and camping in the Cairngorm Mountains – as they are about chilling in the 2017-opened spa carriage of the opulent Belmond Royal Scotsman train, with its sumptuous sleeper carriages for 36 cocooned travellers. 

Owned by the same company behind the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, it’s the ultimate way to glide about the Highlands and about as decadent (and pricey) as it gets. For something a little more authentic, Visit Scotland is toying with the idea of visitors experiencing life with fisherfolk on a working trawler.

Expedition cruising around islands such as the Shetlands and Orkneys with their Scandinavian influences (the accents are fascinating) is burgeoning, says Rob Tandy of luxury travel operator Captain’s Choice, which offers offers a range of cruise options. 

One of the most pleasant ways to journey through northern Scotland is by driving the new North Coast 500, known as the NC500. You can spend a week slowly cruising the Highlands, ticking off whisky distilleries and bedding down in luxury lodgings such as the Georgian Boath House in Nairn and the Bighouse Lodge in Sutherland. The drive kicks off in Inverness and follows the coastline of north-west Scotland for 800 kilometres. As you spin about the Highlands (an Aston Martin Vantage can be arranged), you might ponder why the softer southern regions have become such stars with their easier climes and handsome cities. 

One place that is crushing it in terms of ultimate on-trend city neighbourhoods is the Edinburgh suburb of Leith, where Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting was set. A wholesale regeneration has seen shipping replaced with dockside restaurants and character-filled bars. Meanwhile, further north in Dundee, an offshoot of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is being built. Dundee’s V&A Museum of Design is designed by star-architect Kengo Kuma, the architect of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Stadium, and will be a major Scottish drawcard once it opens in 2018.

The 15th-century Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Caithness.
The 15th-century Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Caithness.

5. Colombia

When mass tourism reached Colombia about 20 years ago, the trailblazers were exclusively younger travellers, according to Meg Hall of specialist South American travel agent Chimu Adventures. The country had big drawcards: Amazonian rainforest, the Andes, spectacular coastal landscapes and the intoxicating mix of Indigenous and Spanish cultures across music, architecture and food. But only devil-may-care backpackers were sufficiently unperturbed by the country’s lawless reputation.

Fast-forward to 2015: the war with the guerillas of the Farc army was grinding to a halt, optimism was soaring and visitor numbers began to spike. Figures from the government agency, ProColombia, show a 33 per cent rise in the first half of 2017. Backpackers have morphed into a more cashed-up tourist who has binged on the Netflix series Narcos, which was shot in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, as well as some exquisite cloud forest locations. Hall says that in 2016, following the peace deal with Farc, Colombia became South America’s hot spot almost overnight.

Hall suggests travellers begin in the capital city Bogotá with its mushrooming micro-breweries and cobblestoned colonial quarter of La Calendaria. Then head 400 kilometres north-west to Medellín before moving up to World Heritage-listed Cartagena.

Medellín used to be overflowing with cocaine, stray bullets, fat cigars and casual violence. Twenty-three years after the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar, it’s all hip aesthetics mixed with Spanish colonialism. 

Medellín architects such as David Bombilla are helming this new look: new-fangled bars and sleek restaurants pop up almost monthly, with the Panorama bar easily the buzziest, says Camilo Uribe from Medellín City Tours, who runs a Pablo Escobar Tour. “Even though locals don’t like us selling these tours, we manage to provide an image of the new Medellín,” he says. His top pick for a restaurant is El Cielo.

In 2018 Silversea Cruises will begin calling into the city of Cartagena. Durán Angel Eduardo, owner of Cartagena’s Duran Duran Tours, runs a Gabriel García Márquez tour, which shows the city through the eyes of Colombia’s Nobel prize-winning author. He’ll also take you through its laneways to the celebrated Puerta del Reloj (gatehouse to the old walled city) and the famed Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. 

We suggest you get to Colombia before it’s overrun: ProColombia claims that between 2015 and 2016, visitors to both Cartagena and Medellín were up 22 per cent.

Bolívar Square and the city’s cathedral in Bogotá.
Bolívar Square and the city’s cathedral in Bogotá.

The Summer issue of AFR Magazine is out on Friday, December 8 inside The Australian Financial Review.

Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram





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