You may not like the idea of being on a tour. You may fancy yourself as an independent traveller, an adventurous soul who doesn’t need to rely on the services of a guide. You find your own way around. You like figuring things out for yourself.
However, there are certain destinations, certain attractions, where you don’t have a choice. These are the places where independent travellers are banned; where a tour guide, or indeed an entire tour group, is not just necessary, but mandatory.
So, swallow your pride independent traveller. Get used to the idea of letting someone else take the reins. Because if you want to see some of these amazing, fascinating and sometimes frightening destinations, you’re going to need help.
There are plenty of restrictions in place for those who want to visit this magical but disputed Himalayan land. To begin with, you’ll have to enter through either mainland China, or Nepal – there are no other international flights. You’ll also need a special visa, and the only way to obtain that is to book yourself on a group tour. Though you’ll have a certain amount of freedom of movement once you arrive in Tibet, that tour booking is essential to being permitted entry by the Chinese government.
Who goes there? Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) has a 15-day Tibet Uncovered tour that begins and ends in Kathmandu.
The border between North and South Korea, around the town of Panmunjeom, is a bizarre place where rival soldiers glare at each other, fixing for a fight, while an uneasy peace between governments persists. It’s possible for tourists to check this area out, but only as part of an organised tour. Most travellers will arrive from the South Korean side, having booked at least three days in advance – and attained government approval – for a tour from Seoul.
Though you’d likely be declared clinically insane if you decided to jump in your tinny and point it south to Antarctica for a big adventure, you also wouldn’t be allowed to. Landing in the great southern continent is by permit only, and these are mostly held by the big tour operators. The quickest (and easiest) way to access Antarctica is to fly to Argentina, to the southern hub of Ushuaia, and then jump on a cruise ship. It will take about three days of sailing before you hit dry (icy) land.
It takes all kinds, as they say. If you’re the sort of person who considers a former nuclear disaster site a tourist attraction, then fill your boots. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, is open for business. However, the only way you’ll be able to see it is with a tour guide. Applications for passes into the exclusion zone have to be made to the Ukrainian government at least 10 days before your visit, and are best done through the tour agencies themselves. And … Good luck.
Mostly, this is here because it amuses me to be able to place a Californian tourist attraction on a list between Chernobyl and North Korea; however, the fact remains that you can’t visit Hearst Castle, the former hilltop abode of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, unless you’re on a tour. Fortunately, these tours aren’t exactly exclusive: there are more than 20 a day, hour-long excursions that take visitors through all of the main rooms of one of America’s most famously outlandish homes.
Who goes there? Tours can be booked online through hearstcastle.org
There are plenty of good arguments both for and against the idea of going to North Korea as a tourist – what’s not up for debate, however, is that you’ll have to visit as part of an organised tour that will be supervised constantly by representatives of the North Korean government. Signing up for such a tour is the only way you’ll be granted a visa to enter North Korea – though that process, surprisingly, is quite straightforward.
Who goes there? China-based Koryo Tours is the main operator for Western tourists hoping to visit North Korea. Check out koryogroup.com
Anyone who fancies the idea of strolling along this ancient pathway in their own solitary company will receive a rude shock on arrival. No, you can’t hike Peru’s famous Inca Trail without the services of an official guide, and if you hope to do a private tour rather than a group trip, it’s going to cost you a lot of money. And even if you do book a private guide, you’ll still be sharing the path with a large crowd. It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t The Inca Trail – it’s an Inca trail. The Incas carved many more pathways through the Andes that are equally spectacular, but nowhere near as popular.
Unless you happen to be Indian, Bangladeshi or Maldivian, the only way you’re getting into the Kingdom of Bhutan is by booking through an official Bhutanese tour operator or one of their official partners. That’s the way Bhutan rolls – no entry unless you’re on a tour, the prices for which can seem quite high, though you have to remember that these are all-inclusive, and part of the Bhutan government’s “daily minimum spend” rules. The hassle, and the cost, are definitely worth it though.
Who goes there? Intrepid Travel has a seven-day “Bhutan Discovered” tour – intrepidtravel.com
BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST
When you think about it, there’s a very good reason why independent travellers aren’t allowed to just go roaming around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on their own. This is the home of the endangered mountain gorillas, and it’s also been known to be the hideout for the other kind of guerrillas, too. Not the sort of place you want to wander around solo, and not the sort of place where you can. Tours are essential if you want to see these amazing animals in the wild (and avoid the dangers).