1. Sri Lanka
Cut-price paradise back on the map
Best for: Culture, off the beaten track, value for money
Battered tragically by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and wracked by civil war from 1983 to 2009, many areas of the country have remained off limits to even the most intrepid traveller. Now the bitter conflict is over, investment is fuelling the tourism industry, and visitor numbers are steadily increasing. Prices are affordable, and with low-cost flights from the convenient travel hub of Bangkok, Sri Lanka is emerging as one of the planet’s best-value destinations.
Emerging superstar with wild beauty
Best for: Activities, adventure, off the beaten track
Nature has been prolific and creative in Montenegro, producing such iconic draws as the bewitching Bay of Kotor and the buzzy beaches along its Riviera. But be sure to pack a pair of hiking boots along with your swimsuit, for Montenegro’s beauty is no less intense in the wild and rugged interior. A new – and steadily growing – network of hiking and biking trails and improved infrastructure is making this glorious quilt of nature ever more accessible, while creating new employment for locals.
3. South Korea
Geared up for the Great Outdoors
Best for: Activities, events, off the beaten track
Without fanfare, South Korea has quietly developed into an outdoor recreation destination with untapped potential in golfing, hiking and fishing. Though not quite undiscovered, few people outside the country know about it. That anonymity will likely fade away in 2013 as it bursts onto the world stage hosting a series of major sporting events.
Reborn railways open up rainforest
Best for: Food, off the beaten track, activities
Ecuador's railway network is scheduled to radically revamp in 2013 with new lines linking increasingly cosmopolitan Quito and the coastal port of Guayaquil. Tracks will also connect Ecuador’s famed 5900m-high volcano Cotopaxi and the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), claiming the steepest (and most hair-raising) stretch of railway in the western world. Developers believe the gamble will pay off and pull in unprecedented tourist numbers.
Makeover for cultured corner of Europe
Best for: Culture, adventure, off the beaten track
Two decades on from the Velvet Revolution, Slovakia has galvanised to form one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, joined the EU and ranks right up there in Google searches for bargain ski packages and stag weekends. Now the tourism industry is keen to distance the nation from being all cheap pistes and piss-ups. The image overhaul has been overdue but it’s here, and in time for the inevitable party in 2013.
6. Solomon Islands
South Pacific as it used to be
Best for: Adventure, off the beaten track, activities
Forget what travelling the Pacific used to be like – around the Solomon Islands it’s still that way. Forget mass-market or luxury retreats; think engaging eco-resorts, village homestays and some of the best scuba diving anywhere. In the past limited flights, difficult internal transport, a lack of infrastructure, a civil war and some particularly exotic strains of malaria all put travellers off. Today travel is much easier, the civil strife is off the radar and lately even the mosquitoes aren’t so threatening.
Strange land inspires devotion
Best for: Activities, off the beaten track, value for money
Ask any tourist during your trip to Iceland and you’ll quickly see that everyone develops an unconditional love for the little island nation, whether it’s for the mind-bending scenery, the platefuls of delicious lamb and fish dishes, or the sincere local hospitality. The currency crash – which effectively devalued the króna by 75% – also helped make a trip much more favourable to the wallet. As the global economy starts to heal, prices are climbing once more. The spoils of Iceland are no longer a secret, but they’re still yours for the taking – and in 2013 you’ll still be well ahead of the curve.
Step off the beaten path
Best for: Off the beaten path, culture, food
New low-cost airlines are opening up the southeast of Turkey, and excellent bus services make getting around easy. Explore the historic old towns of Mardin and Midyat, feast on fantastic food in Gaziantep and see the recently uncovered ruins of Göbekli Tepe near Sanliurfa. Experience the Turkish section of the recently inaugurated Abraham’s Path walking trail, where accommodation is in simple Kurdish homestays, a long way from the tourist buzz of the coast or Istanbul’s Old Town.
9. Dominican Republic
The Caribbean's 'Next Big Thing'
Best for: Activities, value for money, events
In the first quarter of 2012 the Dominican Republic saw an 8.4% increase in tourism. With more airlines offering stops to the country’s eight international airports, as well as cruise ships adding the DR as a major port of call, more people are escaping to the land of sun, sand, and surf comparable to anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Noah's Ark rides out the storm
Best for: Activities, adventure, off the beaten track
After years of political instability and uncertainty, which has hampered tourism development, Madagascar might finally be the verge of recovery. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2013, which could herald a move towards greater democracy (although they have been repeatedly postponed). For visitors, the time to go is now, before the country reappears in travel agents’ windows. Be prepared to be overwhelmed: in both fauna and landscapes, the world’s fourth-biggest island is otherworldly. To those seeking a place out of the ordinary, Madagascar cannot fail to delight.
Find out which cities and regions made the cut for Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013: