Lonely Planet's top countries for 2011

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Where in the world should you go next year? Our in-house travel experts, including Lonely Planet cofounder Tony Wheeler, have chosen their top 10 countries for next year based on scores for topicality, excitement, value for money and...that special X-factor. Here they are, in order of rank, from Lonely Planet's latest book: Best in Travel 2011.

Albania

Not so long ago, when the Balkans were considered an 'only for the brave' travel destination, only the bravest of the brave trickled into Albania. Since backpackers started coming to elusive Albania in the 1990s, tales have been told in 'keep it to yourself' whispers of azure beaches, confrontingly good cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures and the possibility of old-style unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travellers are still a novelty. Sick to death of being dismissed with blinged-up crime-boss clichés, Albania has announced 'A New Mediterranean Love' via its tourist board. The jig is almost up – Albania won’t be off the beaten track for much longer.

Brazil

Famous for samba, football and cinematic scenery, Brazil has always been known for celebration (Carnaval being the most obvious manifestation of this national joie de vivre). Yet, Brazil rings in 2011 with even more cause for jubilation. Winning the bids to host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is undertaking a flurry of new projects, with billions of dollars earmarked for infrastructure (there’s even discussion of building a high-speed rail line between Rio and São Paulo). Despite the strong Brazilian real, travellers should benefit from the addition of thousands of new hotel rooms, while increased competition from low-cost airline carriers (including Azul, established by the Brazilian-born founder of JetBlue) should make travel across this vast country more affordable.

Cape Verde

Cape Verdeans might have known about the wider world forever, but it seems that the wider world is only just opening its eyes to Cape Verde. On the surface this is hardly a surprise; the country appears to be nothing but a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dot of dust floating off the coast of Africa, but the islands have recently started catching sideways glances from European winter-sun tourists. This growing international interest is bringing enormous changes to an archipelago that looks and feels as if it were born from a Caribbean mother and an African father. But what is it that these tourists come for? When someone first mentioned trying to attract foreign visitors to their 'dot of dust' most Cape Verdeans must have laughingly thought 'What can we offer a tourist here?'. The answer turned out to be quite a lot. Soaring mountains terraced in greens, a volcano with its head in the clouds, world-class watersports and sizzling, saucy festivals – but it was the sun that clinched the deal. With almost more days of sunshine than there are days in the year and with soft sandy beaches to boot, someone only had to say the words 'winter sun' and the islands were being marketed as the 'New Canary Islands'.

Panama

For Panama, the world economic crisis offered a perfect excuse to hit the reset button. After an unchecked growth spurt created a clutter of casinos, gated communities and glass towers in the name of Trump, the investment slump has forced a return to basics. For travellers, there’s a return to the authentic – local heartland festivals, jungle treks and lodgings in sand-floor huts in the independent Comarca de Kuna Yala. With plenty of the country still pristine, true adventure is only a boat or bus fare away. In 2011 Panama City gets greener, with the anticipated unveiling of the BíoMuseo, an innovative Frank Gehry-designed space celebrating ecological diversity. Panama City’s new Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) creates a green stripe of waterfront paths that finishes in Casco Viejo, a stunning historic neighbourhood remade after decades of neglect. Like elsewhere, climate change and habitat destruction are taking their toll here. Panama’s inch-long golden frogs, victims of a worldwide epidemic, are fast disappearing. But the Darién Gap, considered one of the world’s wildest places, still remains roadless. Countless Panamanian islands persist without name or a sole inhabitant. Costa Rica eat your heart out.

Bulgaria

For those who looked, Bulgaria has always had its moments – in its biggest cities, on its snow-capped peaks and great-value ski fields, on its golden-sand beaches and in ancient Black Sea port towns.  Yet, over the years, with history’s contribution, Bulgaria has got lost amid its more famous neighbours. From the south, the Ottoman soldiers of present-day Turkey ran Bulgaria for 500 years. Legendary toga-clad Greeks to the south mocked Bulgaria’s strong wines (before adopting the same). More recently, the Romanians claimed the share of fame via distinguishing Latin bloodlines and Transylvania’s mystic, fangy appeal. Bulgaria sometimes feels like the odd guy out in this corner of Europe. But things are changing. Now proudly part of the 21st-century EU, Bulgaria has enjoyed more attention – and self confidence. Its ski slopes are de facto destinations for Europeans looking for cheaper alternatives, empty patches of lovely Black Sea beaches can still be found, and its quietly brilliant wine industry is flourishing. Whatever happens, Bulgarians will take it in their stride. As one local song goes, 'We win, we lose…either way we get drunk, we’re Bulgarians!' That oughta be on a T-shirt.

Vanuatu

For those in search of authentic experiences, Vanuatu is hard to beat. From mighty mountains and thunderous waterfalls to remote villages, from huge lagoons to tropical islets, there’s so much on offer, far from the crowds. Don’t expect ritzy resorts and Cancun-style nightlife; with a good choice of family-run guesthouses in traditional villages and a smattering of comfortable, romantic hideaways, it’s tailor-made for ecotourists. With 83 islands, you’re spoilt for choice. Vanuatu has recently seen an increased number of direct flights from Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands – go now, before the secret’s out.

Italy

Italy is a beguiling, beautiful, charismatic mess. The press might be largely owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, stories of corruption, bribery and sex scandals might be everyday news, and the economy might be in the doldrums, but this is still one of the world’s most magnificent places to be. The food is delicious, sunshine is plentiful, scenery and towns are sublime, and there is millennia-worth of art to look at. There are 44 Unesco World Heritage Sites here, more than in any other country. That Italy is celebrating only 150 years as a country in 2011 (it was unified in 1861) highlights how clearly it still feels like a collection of regions. Local people hail from their region; their nationality comes second. Each region has a pronounced character and qualities worthy of the small nations they once were, which makes it particularly rewarding to explore Italy bit by bit.

Tanzania

It’s true, Tanzania is a place of great marvels – Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar… The names slip off the tongue like a roll call of Africa’s most alluring destinations. But that’s not all. It also has great herds of elephants in Ruaha, treeclimbing lions around Lake Manyara, chimpanzee sanctuaries in Gombe and Mahale and packs of wild dogs in Selous. There are also sunsets on the Rufiji River, when the water boils with hippos and crocodiles. In fact, the country has the whole panoply of east Africa’s wildlife – including such rarities as the red colobus monkey, black rhino, hawksbill and leatherback turtles and Pemba flying foxes – concentrated in an unrivalled collection of parks and reserves. So you think you’ve seen it all? We’re betting Tanzania still has a surprise or two for you.

Japan

Japan has an ill-deserved reputation as an expensive destination where the English language is in short supply. But US$100 cuts of Kobe beef and the occasional Lost in Translation moment aside, Japan is surprisingly affordable and user-friendly. Before you go, stop by your local travel agency and purchase a Japan Rail Pass, which grants you unlimited access to the country’s sophisticated transport network. While Tokyo was ultimately unsuccessful in its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the campaign resulted in increased English signage across the country. So, if Japan has been on your travel wishlist for a while, make this the year that you finally see the birthplace of sushi, sake and sumo.