Lonely Planet's Best in Travel: top 10 countries for 2012

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Which countries will come into their own as travel destinations in 2012? We've collated hundreds of ideas from everyone at Lonely Planet, including our extended family of travellers, bloggers and tweeters to work out the very best. This list of the top 10 countries for 2012 - in ranked order - was voted for by a panel of inhouse travel experts, based on topicality, excitement, value and that special X-factor.

1. Uganda

It’s taken nasty dictatorships and a brutal civil war to keep Uganda off the tourist radar, but stability is returning and it won’t be long before visitors come flocking back. After all, this is the source of the river Nile – that mythical place explorers sought since Roman times. It’s also where savannah meets the vast lakes of East Africa, and where snow-capped mountains bear down on sprawling jungles. Not so long ago, the tyrannical dictator and ‘Last King of Scotland’ Idi Amin helped hunt Uganda’s big game to the brink of extinction, but today the wildlife is returning with a vengeance. This year Uganda also celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence; Kampala, one of Africa’s safest capital cities, is bound to see off the event with a bang. Still, Uganda still isn’t without its problems. Human rights abuses aren’t uncommon, and the country breathes a collective sigh whenever President Museveni thinks of another ruse to stay in power for a few more years. But now, as ever, explorers in search of the source of the Nile won’t leave disappointed.

Travel alert: Lonely Planet refers would-be travellers to Uganda to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office travel advice on the country:

"There is very little social tolerance of homosexuality, which is illegal. There have been moves, initiated by a Ugandan MP, to introduce reactionary legislation that would further criminalise homosexuality and introduce the death penalty for some activity... you should be aware that homosexuality is generally seen as taboo and exists on the margins of society."

Travel to areas of northeastern Uganda is not recommended – seek specific advice if you are seeking to travel to Kidepo Valley National Park.

2. Myanmar (Burma)

‘We want people to come to Burma.’ That’s the words of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party that has urged foreigners to stay away since 1996. This changed in late 2010, when the NLD revised its boycott to encourage independent travel (as opposed to package tours) following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 of the past 20 years under house arrest. As a result, Myanmar is set to be a hot new destination for independent travellers. Rimmed by mountains and white-sand beaches, the kite-shaped country’s most accessible area is the centre, which is filled with timeless towns and countless pagodas, especially the 4000 examples found on Bagan’s 26-sq-km riverside plain. Beyond the attractions, there’s the fervently Buddhist locals, who might just be the world’s sweetest people. If you do go, be aware that the revised boycott doesn’t mean troubles are over.

3. Ukraine

When we don’t know much about a country, we just fill in the gaps with clichés – and Ukraine, the great unknown of Europe, has had plenty hurled at it. Wide-scale counter-espionage? No, not even in Odessa. Communist grime everywhere you look? One glimpse of glorious Old Town Kiev or the wildlife on unspoilt Crimean shores will set you straight. Cheap beer? You bet: it’s cheaper than water. Football? Funny you should mention that...It’s through the power of soccer that Ukraine is poised to showcase its charms to unprecedented numbers of visitors. It will co-host Euro 2012 (the European footballchampionships) and the four match venues have been cunningly selected to encourage further travel by visiting football fans. So Lviv becomes the jumping-off point for Carpathian exploration, while Kiev, which stages the final, will become base for forays to the Black Sea coast and, yep, the grim tourist attraction that is Chernobyl.

4. Jordan

The word is getting out that Jordan is not just about Petra and Indiana Jones. Yes, the ancient ‘Red Rose city’ is still the jewel in Jordan’s crown, but sights such as Wadi Rum, Jerash and Madaba are adding weight to the country’s tourism boom. One of the most open, friendly and welcoming nations in the Middle East, Jordan is an example to other states in the region of how to modernise while preserving cherished ancient traditions. This year marks the 64th birthday of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a relative baby on the global scene. Though poverty is still rife, Jordan’s economy is on the up, and its history and tourist infrastructure make it one of the most accessible Arab states for English-speaking travellers.

5. Denmark

Every year, Denmark tops a ‘quality of life’ list and is revealed as the coolest/happiest/best-looking place on earth, because not only is the living easy in this small, perfectly formed country, but it’s also easy on the eye. Viking raids aside, the Danes have long tried to make the world a better place (think generous foreign aid programs and the pursuit of green technology) and they make sure that they lead by example: their homes are stylish recycling-savvy havens of hygge (a sense of contented cosiness) and their public spaces are enjoyed by all. And all you have to do is hop on your bike – literally. Countrywide, you’ll find around 10,000km of bicycle routes and some four million bikes to share them with, plus you’re rarely more than a short pedal from the bracing seaside, the picturesque countryside or an architectural delight, making Denmark the perfect place to put pedal power into practice.

6. Bhutan

Image by jmhullot

Beautiful Buddhist Bhutan has always coyly shielded its charms from the wider world, but new areas of this remarkable mountainous land are finally opening for business. Of course, you’ve been able to visit for years, but most tours hit the same highlights: a part-awesome, part-terrifying flight into peak-protected Paro, a jaunt around western Bhutan’s cultural sights, then perhaps a trek through pristine mountains (Bhutan’s conservation credentials are exemplary). There’s no independent travel here; itineraries are sanctioned by the Tourism Council and guides are compulsory. But now, at last, it’s possible to visit other parts of this famously reclusive country. Royal Manas National Park, prowled by some of the planet’s last remaining tigers, has reopened. And the far east, where most locals have seen more yetis than tourists, is accessible and is getting better infrastructure. The only downside? It's not for those on a budget at US$200 a day (though admittedly this covers many on-the-ground costs).

7. Cuba

For years people have been saying it, and for years (53 and counting) the Castro brothers have staved off the inevitable – that Cuba has to change. Its socialist credentials are gradually crumbling in the face of international capitalism, as evidenced by dramatic public sector cuts and the relaxation of restrictions on private enterprise. This is good news for Cubans, but bad news for fans of peeling Plymouths, crumbling colonial charm, impromptu salsa sessions in half-collapsed yet elegant houses, all-day coffee-and-rum breaks, and horse-drawn carts in the fastlane of highways. The beaches will still be pristine 10 years from now, and the world’s best mojitos will still flow. But the country mightn’t be quite so, well, distinctive. Or fun. Go while the clock is still stopped at 1959.

8. New Caledonia

How strange it feels. You’re greeted with a bonjour when you step off the plane, then you breakfast on croissants and baguettes at a pavement cafe in Nouméa – yet you’re in the heart of the South Pacific. At first glance, New Caledonia resembles nothing less than a chunk of France teleported directly into the tropics. Nouméa could be easily mistaken for city in the French Riviera. But beyond the très French panache of the capital and the west coast of the main island, Grande Terre, the indigenous Melanesian culture quickly comes to the fore. The rebirth of Kanak traditions has been gaining momentum for the past 30 years, and today is at an all-time high. Head to the Loyalty Islands or Ile des Pins and you’ll enter another world. For the enquiring visitor, it’s a fascinating opportunity to experience New Caledonia from a different perspective. Amazingly, despite its fabulous islandscapes and unique mélange of Gallic and Melanesian cultures, New Caledonia rarely makes it onto people’s travel shortlists.

9. Taiwan

Taiwan has always had a jaw-dropping landscape – oversized sea cliffs and denselyforested mountains barely start to describe its majesty. And then there’s the museums,which are simply bursting with treasures (including the best of imperial China, spirited across the strait after WWII), plus a thriving folk culture that includes some wild displays of Taoist and Buddhist worship. In terms of cuisine, Taiwan is a fusion and slow-food showcase. So why is 2012 the time to visit? Because Taiwan is best seen on two wheels and in recent years the authorities have embraced the biking market with surprising enthusiasm, vision and (most importantly) funding. This year sees the linking of thousands of kilometres of paths, including two round-the-island routes, and a host of other cycling friendly infrastructure projects.

10. Switzerland

Whether it’s economic growth, political stability or sustainable snow, little-miss perfect Switzerland always finishes at the top of the European class. With its model railways, chocolate-box towns and outrageously beautiful mountains, the country should be the envy of all. But, critics say, doesn’t perfect actually mean dull? Isn’t Switzerland all holey cheese, skis and lights out by 10pm? Well, not quite. Stand in the wave-shaped shadow of Renzo Piano’s Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, party in Züri-West’s industrial-chic clubs and experience a heart-stopping moment while glacier bungee jumping in Interlaken, and you’ll discover a Switzerland with art, attitude and an insatiable appetite for adventure. This year Switzerland’s gloriously accessible Alps will become even easier to reach, thanks to the launch of 19 new TGVs from Paris, and the construction of the groundbreaking Gotthard rail tunnel getting underway.