Avoid Crowds at Popular Destinations and Try These Hidden Gems

Skip the crowds of Venice and escape to the romantic waterways of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

While we have the potential to positively impact the places we visit—infusing money into local economies, supporting conservation projects and local artisans, and building bridges across cultures, we also run the risk of destroying the very things we love.

From Canada to Thailand to Croatia, budget airlines and cruise ships are delivering visitors in record numbers, overwhelming and even damaging historic cities and natural sites around the world. As tourists flood into destinations such as Venice and Dubrovnik, residents are forced out and frustrated to the point of protest.

The Adventure Travel Trade Association’s “20 Travel Trends to Watch in 2018” report warns that “adventure destinations, often located in fragile environments and with less built infrastructure, need to pay attention to the dialogue around preventing and managing overtourism, because the destruction of the world’s most pristine and special places is irreversible.”

Rather than being part of the problem, travelers can actively support solutions. One of the easiest ways to help protect popular sites and alleviate the pressure of overtourism is to abandon the beaten path and opt for alternative destinations.

Save Venice and head for Slovenia instead.

It’s no secret that Venice and its residents are struggling with tourism. And we can’t blame them. The impact of boatloads of travelers—around 60,000 visitors that descend on this fragile city each day—has transformed it from its former status of “La Serenissima” (“most serene”) into anything but. Throngs of people, overcrowded canals, damaged ecosystems, skyrocketing rents, and authentic artisan shops replaced by cheap souvenir stores have dramatically changed the quality of life, forcing out some thousand residents each year and threatening the city’s UNESCO status. If you love Venice, do the Floating City a favor and let it go for now.

Just across the border in Slovenia, the peaceful, rolling hills of Brda wine country await. This “Tuscany of Slovenia” has spectacular views, hospitality as gentle as the hills, decadent food and wines that easily rival Italy’s, and even some medieval architecture—minus the crowds. If you really can’t do without waterways, head further west to Ljubljana, where you can cruise to your heart’s content on the jade-colored river that winds through this friendly, eco-conscious capital city. [Slovenia was named the world's most sustainable country in 2017.]

In search of sun and sand? Trade the Andaman Coast for this African one.

There’s no denying it: Thailand is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But popularity has a price. Beloved beaches of Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, and others in the Andaman Sea have attracted so much tourism attention that the natural environment and local way of life have been deeply, and potentially irreversibly, impacted.

If it’s sun and sand you seek, why not head to Mozambique? This southern African country has more than 1,500 miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean—much of which is insanely stunning and unspoiled. Island-hop between offshore archipelagos, snorkel the pristine waters, or simply lounge on a secluded beach with a good book, a glass of South African wine, and the ocean breeze.

Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. Journey to Jordan instead.

If you’re looking for a long trail where you can do some solo soul-searching à la Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild, the Pacific Crest Trail—the very one she trekked—is likely to be a letdown. With more hiking permits issued in 2017 than actual miles of trail, this thru-hike has become too popular for its own good. A dramatic increase in hikers is endangering the natural environment that made it an appealing escape to begin with.

Ambitious adventurers seeking solitude can instead set out on the Jordan Trail, a recently established, 400-mile trek across the entire length of this Middle Eastern country. You are certain to face physical and mental challenges—not to mention otherworldly, steal-your-breath scenescapes—as you trek through 52 communities and a variety of terrains during your cross-country journey. And if you still haven’t had your fill after 400 miles, consider crossing the border into the Palestinian territories and add the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil long-distance cultural trail to your plans.

Love Banff but hate crowds? Go to Yoho.

Even from photos alone, Banff’s postcard-perfect Canadian Rocky Mountain peaks and glacier lakes are easy to fall in love with. This Alberta outdoor adventure destination attracts a significant number of visitors—nearly three million between April and September alone.

Rather than battle for photo ops in Banff, consider crossing the border into British Columbia to commune with nature in Yoho National Park. Here you can hike, snowshoe, spot wildlife and wild orchids, kayak on aptly named and gorgeously green Emerald Lake, and explore the Burgess Shale Fossil Beds without bumping into busloads of tourists.

Skip overly Instagrammed islands like Bali and head to Raja Ampat.

Long revered as a significant spiritual sanctuary, Bali in recent years has become overrun by international backpackers, Instagrammers, yogis, and surfers. The intense uptick in tourists has led to an increase in prices, crowds, and strain on natural resources—and consequently a decline in the quality of life and experiences for locals and visitors alike.

While there are still some quiet corners of Bali to enjoy, it’s best to leave the hordes of holidaymakers behind and branch out. Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, so you won’t even have to leave the archipelago to find an alternative. Beckoning with idyllic, white-sand beaches and thriving, healthy reefs, the Raja Ampat Islands are heaven on Earth. Whether you’re an underwater enthusiast, want to stroll through the jungle and spot tropical birds and wildlife, or simply desire a peaceful place to kick back and relax, you’ll find all the serenity you seek—and none of the crowds—here.

When in Iceland, bypass the Blue Lagoon.

Is it the steamy Instagram shot or a hot springs experience you’re after? Iceland offers both in multiple locations beyond the Blue Lagoon. The Land of Fire and Ice is home to innumerable streams, springs, rivers, and lakes that make for incredibly relaxing settings to soak in.

You can escape the throngs of tourists and still enjoy the same kind of aquamarine-colored water at Myvatn Nature Baths in northern Iceland. Traveling farther afield not only means fewer people in the pools but also increases your chances of catching sight of the aurora borealis.

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Alternatively, more adventurous travelers will enjoy the challenge of reaching the geothermal pools inside the caves of Grjotagja—a northwestern setting so magical it’s appeared on a Game of Thrones episode, or the hot stream at Reykjadalur (located just an hour southwest of Reykjavik).

Give Dubrovnik a break. Bosnia and Herzegovina await.

Buckling under the pressure of a trifecta of overtourism culprits—cruise ships, cheap flights, and Game of Thrones fame, Croatia’s historic seaside city of Dubrovnik has been forced to take measures to limit the number of daily visitors and protect its UNESCO status. Short-term tourists (some staying just mere hours) tend to invade the city en masse, take up space and use up resources, yet contribute little to the economy.

While Dubrovnik deals with its popularity problems, consider exploring the culturally diverse and historically intriguing neighbor to the north: Bosnia and Herzegovina. What this Balkan country lacks in coastline, it more than makes up for with warm hospitality, endless hiking and skiing trails, and a variety of cultural influences—from Austro-Hungarian to Ottoman to Islam—that are reflected in the architecture, cuisine, music, and intriguing way of life.

Tips for Traveling to Top Spots

If you are visiting a popular destination, there are ways you can make the experience better for you and locals alike.

Buffalo gather at a lake in Guilin, China.
Buffalo gather at a lake in Guilin, China.
Photograph by Prasad Ambati, National Geographic Your Shot
  • Travel in the off-season.
  • Avoid large group, big bus, and cruise ship travel. Big groups and day-trippers tend to overwhelm destinations and use up resources and space while contributing little to the local economy. If you do travel in a group, spread the love and spend your money at local shops and restaurants wherever possible.
  • Book through local, ethical tour operators. For example, rather than following the tourist trail to the Grand Palace and Khao San Road in Bangkok, opt to book a guided tour with local guides who will take you through the historic heart of the city.

Sunny Fitzgerald is a freelance writer, sustainable travel specialist, Lonely Planet Local, and a regular contributor to Kama`aina Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @froliq and her website.

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