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Beat the crowds to up-and-coming destinations

The upside of visiting an emerging destination is pristine landscapes, reasonable — if not decidedly cheap — prices and the rare opportunity to experience the authenticity of a place before it’s overrun by tourists.
Boris Kulikov via The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

The upside of visiting an emerging destination is pristine landscapes, reasonable — if not decidedly cheap — prices and the rare opportunity to experience the authenticity of a place before it’s overrun by tourists.

There are, however, often trade-offs: the lack of a good transportation infrastructure, rudimentary hotel service, and poor medical facilities. Timing a visit can also be tricky in countries where political stability is a relative term. But with an adventurous attitude, the benefits of exploring new places usually outweigh the struggles involved. Ready to lay claim to the next great place? Below, four emerging destinations.

The last leg of the Trans-Labrador Highway, a two-lane road that stretches 655 miles from Labrador City in western Labrador through sub-Arctic wilderness and remote villages to the coast, opened for public use last summer, offering visitors a new route through one of the last frontiers in North America.

“It’s the first time that you can drive a loop from eastern Canada through the province of Newfoundland and Labrador without retracing your steps,” said Keith Small, business development manager at Destination Labrador, a marketing group.

The new section of the road passes to the south of the Mealy Mountains to the seaside communities of Port Hope Simpson and Mary’s Harbour, the gateway to Battle Harbour National Historic District, a restored 17th-century fishing village. From there, travelers can drive to Iceberg Alley (Route 513) to St. Lewis, where icebergs can be spotted offshore.

The mostly gravel road is generally driver-friendly, with wide shoulders and fairly level terrain. But it’s still remote. Gas, food and rest stops are up to 200 miles apart, and there is little cellphone coverage. To improve access to emergency service, the government has purchased 65 satellite phones, which travelers can pick up at participating hotels, and use free of charge with a credit card number.

Mid-June to the end of July is the best time for whale watching. For leaf peeping — and to avoid summer mosquito swarms — go in September.

Diqing, China
The Diqing area, in northwestern Yunnan, a showcase for traditional Tibetan culture, with monasteries, villages and dramatic terrain, is about to become more accessible. An extensive road project is expected to widen the current road to the township of Deqin to two lanes and add tunnels, cutting the now six-hour drive from Gyalthang, a more touristed region, also known as Zhongdian and Shangri-La, to three hours.

“We believe it’s a great up-and-coming area, and we’re happy to be one of the first on the ground,” said Risa Sekiguchi, product manger for Abercrombie & Kent’s Asia and Pacific region, which is developing a new trip to the area.

Diqing is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers run roughly parallel, through steep gorges. And unlike other Tibetan areas of China, which have been restricted to foreigners periodically, Diqing has largely remained welcoming.

“This area doesn’t have the armed guards, and you don’t have to get special permits to visit,” Ms. Sekiguchi said.

This spring Songtsam, a small group of Tibetan-influenced upscale boutique hotels, plans to open a handful of lodges including Songtsam Meili, on a bluff with views of the Meili Mountain range. Using the hotels as a base, WildChina, an adventure tour operator, has developed a weeklong trek through the region called WildChina Songtsam Circuit: Secrets of Shangri-La. Travelers visit monasteries and Tibetan families and hike along a pilgrimage route to Mount Kawagebo. Cost: $1,985 a person. Abercrombie & Kent also plans to use the hotels as a base for a new trip in 2012.

More than a decade of political chaos, economic upheaval and devastating human rights conditions have kept visitors away from this once thriving tourist magnet. But a new unity government (formed in 2009) and relative economic stability brought on by adoption of the American dollar and other foreign currencies is generating cautious optimism.

Some tour operators are returning with trips highlighting the country’s majestic Victoria Falls, its cultural offerings and remarkable wildlife. Wilderness Travel, based in Berkeley, Calif., which has not organized a trip to Zimbabwe since 2002, has a new 13-day game park-hopping excursion (from $6,695 a person) that includes a two-day canoe safari. Intrepid Travel, an Australian-based tour operator that is resuming trips after a three-year break, is offering 31 African vacations that include a visit to Zimbabwe. The eight-day Taste of Zimbabwe tour, from $2,740 a person, goes to Victoria Falls, and includes a safari through Hwange National Park in a 4-by-4 and a visit to Matobo National Park, where participants track rhinos.

Fears that President Robert Mugabe is planning to seize control of the country after two-years of a power-sharing government threaten to impede the return of tourism. While the State Department dropped its travel warning on Zimbabwe in 2009, it still cautions in its online information page that “political, social, economic, and security situations in the country continue to remain unpredictable and could deteriorate quickly without warning.”

Travelers planning to visit should work with a tour operator with local ties, like Intrepid Travel. “We are in constant contact with our team on the ground so have up-to-date information about the viability of running our trips through Zimbabwe,” said Geoff Manchester, director of Intrepid Travel. “Safety is our No. 1 concern, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation but at this stage have no reason to stop running trips there.”

Mongolia, one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, is a land of undeveloped beauty. That may be changing with the construction of the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine, a project now under way in southern Mongolia, which is expected to give a significant boost to the economic development of the country.

Just 557,414 people visited Mongolia last year, according to the Mongolia Tourism Board Web site, though tourist numbers have more than tripled in the last decade. Anticipating both corporate and leisure travel growth, Hilton Hotels, the Rezidor Hotel Group and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts have announced plans for new hotels in the capital, Ulan Bator. The first to open will be Rezidor’s Radisson Blu Hotel, scheduled to make its debut by year end, with 175 rooms, three restaurants including a microbrewery, a wellness center and conference facilities. Next year Shangri-La plans to open a 280-room hotel as part of an office, retail and hotel complex.

Ulan Bator is the gateway to Mongolia and a good base for those wishing to explore the country’s grasslands, national parks and Gobi Desert.

This story, Beat the Crowds to Up-and-Coming Destinations, originally appeared in the New York Times.