Forty years from the end of Khmer Rouge control and 30 years after the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, Cambodia is emerging as an upmarket destination, tipped by more of our panel than anywhere else.
Among a swath of openings are two luxury resorts on the “Cambodian Riviera”. On the island of Koh Russey, the Singapore-based Alila group opened its first Cambodian outpost in November, while, close by, a Six Senses property is due to open in April. The latter will feature 40 villas with private pools dotted around the lush 30 acres of Krabey Island.
On the mainland, Shinta Mani Wild opened this week, a much anticipated safari-style camp in the southern Cardamom Mountains. Bill Bensley, its designer, says he was inspired by the 1967 visit of Jackie Kennedy, the former US first lady, and tried to re-create the kind of camping experience she might have had when, hosted by King Sihanouk, she travelled through the area. The result is 15 tents set along 4km of riverside and beside an elephant migration trail, a three-hour drive south-west of Phnom Penh and 25 miles from the coast.
“Visitors are venturing beyond the usual sights of Phnom Penh and the temples of Angkor and exploring more off-grid destinations such as Kampot and the Cardamom Mountains,” says George Morgan-Grenville of Red Savannah. “The kingdom is becoming a destination in its own right rather than simply being an add-on to other south-east Asian countries.”
The North Atlantic archipelago bills itself as “Europe’s best kept secret” but the secret is getting out. The dramatic — and highly Instagrammable — landscapes, wildlife, remote villages and emerging food scene are drawing growing numbers of visitors in search of a bracing, authentic and stress-free break (overnight stays were up 9 per cent in 2017 compared to the previous year). “It reminds us of Iceland when we first started selling holidays there 35 years ago,” says Georgina Hancock, marketing director at Discover the World, which will begin organising trips to the Faroes for the first time in 2019.
The islands’ gradually rising profile hasn’t come about by chance, however. In 2012, the government reorganised the tourist board, increasing funding for overseas marketing and setting a target of doubling tourism revenue by 2020. The strategy included quirky online campaigns such as a translation service (where users type in a phrase and islanders send back a video message with the Faroese translation) and “sheep view 360”, a version of Google Street View in which cameras were strapped to the backs of sheep.
That plan received a boost in 2017, with the opening of a new boutique hotel, the Havgrím in Tórshavn, and the country’s first Michelin star being won by a small restaurant called Koks. It retained the star in 2018 and moved to new premises: an 18th-century, turf-roofed and basalt-walled farmhouse in the wilderness valley of Leynavatn (the New Yorker called it “the world’s most remote foodie destination”). In September, the restaurant featured as the first Michelin-starred checkpoint for ultra marathon runners during the inaugural Útilív Festival, a five-day trail-running, adventure and music event (which in 2019 runs from September 4-8).
Simon Wrench, head of marketing at Inntravel, reports a significant rise in bookings and describes the islands as “untamed, unspoilt and unforgettable.”
Getting to Rwanda is getting easier, thanks to RwandAir’s new planes and routes (a New York service is due to launch by mid-2019) while travelling around is becoming quicker and more comfortable thanks to a huge programme of road improvements, much of it financed by China. Meanwhile, hotels and safari camps are moving swiftly upmarket. In May, Wilderness Safaris is due to open Magashi, a six-tent camp overlooking Lake Rwanyakazinga. The first high-end accommodation in Akagera national park, Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa says it is “a game-changer for the park — especially as it’s the only lodge in the north, where game densities are generally better.”
In August, the South African brand Singita is due to launch Kwitonda Lodge on the edge of Volcanoes national park (home to the mountain gorillas), linking it with flights to their lodges in the Serengeti. But McIntyre says the improved roads are also helping the growth of new tourism products aside from the gorillas, “including some great kayaking trips on the rural rivers and lakes”. Red Savannah report forward bookings up 21 per cent up on this time last year.
Muscat’s much-expanded airport opened this year and passenger and flight numbers are growing strongly. In October, the city’s Al Bustan Palace, pictured below, reopened after a lavish 18-month renovation, and in January, the Royal Opera House Muscat will launch a major new display space with an exhibition on 400 years of opera, in partnership with London’s V&A museum.
The real change for the country, however, is that visitors are looking beyond the five-star fly-and-flop hotels of Muscat and pushing into the mountains and deserts in search of adventure. In the Hajar mountains, at an altitude of 2,000 metres, the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar resort has been expanding its activities for adventurous families to include climbing, mountain biking, zip-lining and wadi swimming. The nearby Alila Jabal Akhdar offers various via ferrata routes, stargazing and caving.
In the far south, new hotels in Salalah make it easier to explore the history of the region’s frankincense trade, and to strike out into the Rub’al Khali, the Empty Quarter. There, a growing number of mobile camps allow visitors to get a taste of the world’s largest sand desert without sacrificing comfort.
For more serious sport enthusiasts, last month saw the first Oman ultra-marathon, an 85-mile race organised by the team behind the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix (it will run again on November 28-30). March will see the first Haute Route Oman, a three-day cycling challenge that is an offshoot of the popular events in the Alps.
“It’s a great destination for winter sun, culture and a bit of adventure but with excellent tourist infrastructure,” says Jonny Bealby of Wild Frontiers, which saw its passenger numbers to Oman double this year.
Ethiopia has been enjoying a quiet surge of tourism in recent years — up from about 400,000 in 2008 to an estimated 1.1m in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. In July, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a truce, formally ending the war which began in 1998, prompting tour operators to hope tourists, as well as trade, will flow across the border. Combining the two (there are now several daily, 85-minute flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara) raises the prospect of visiting the mountains and rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia then heading on to see the Modernist architecture of Asmara before relaxing on the Red Sea coast.
The Eritrean capital grew quickly in the 1930s under Italian rule, and numerous government and commercial buildings were designed in the rationalist idiom of the time. Many remain, alongside a thriving café culture, and last year Unesco declared the city a World Heritage site. “Visiting Asmara is an extraordinary journey through time,” says Will Jones of Journeys by Design. “Go from there to 120-odd islands of the Dahlak archipelago and you have an extraordinary, off-grid experience.”
Uzbekistan, tipped in the 2017 equivalent of this article, has become increasingly accessible, with a new e-visa system, more flights from Europe to Tashkent, and high-speed rail links from Tashkent on to Samarkand and Bukhara. Neighbouring Tajikistan remains much more off the beaten track, but earlier this year the border was opened between Samarkand and Panjakent, in the north-western corner of Tajikistan. “You could be gazing at the glittering Timurid domes of Samarkand in the morning and wandering through a remote Yagnob village in the spectacular Fann mountains by tea time,” says Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent of Silkroad Adventures.
In a Boxing Day address to parliament, President Emomali Rahmon said that visitor numbers had doubled in 2018, compared to the previous year, and pledged to develop the country’s infrastructure “to create a conducive environment” for tourism.
The former British colony has made great strides in marine conservation, and in June the barrier reef was removed from the Unesco “world heritage in danger” list. The diving and snorkelling are among the world’s best and new eco-resorts are beginning to open along the coast. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is creating a much-anticipated green retreat at Blackadore Caye (though the opening date remains unclear), and Four Seasons is due to open a resort in 2021, but for now the laidback communities on Belize’s coast and cayes remain much less commercialised than other parts of the Caribbean.
Matera, the atmospheric southern city once infamous for extreme poverty, has been gathering growing numbers of boutique hotels, galleries and stylish bars. In 2019 it will complete is renaissance, and find itself thrust on to the mainstream tourist map, as one of two European Capitals of Culture (the other is Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
Meanwhile, Jennifer Atkinson of ITC Travel predicts the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death will provide fresh impetus for travel to other Italian cities where his works are on show, including Florence, where the Uffizi recently opened a new room displaying his paintings. Less highbrow, but possibly even higher profile, George Clooney’s forthcoming six-part adaptation of Catch-22 was largely filmed in Rome and Sardinia.
Jennifer Atkinson, chief executive of ITC Travel Group
Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, director of Silkroad Adventures
Georgina Hancock, marketing director of Discover the World
Will Jones, managing director of Journeys by Design
Jarrod Kyte, product director of Steppes Travel
Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa and author of African guidebooks
George Morgan-Grenville, founder of Red Savannah
Thomas Power, is co-founder of Pura Aventura
Alex Wix, founder of Wix Squared
Simon Wrench, head of marketing for Inntravel