Top 10 places to travel in 2021 – the ones to watch

This time last year, when we started to look forward to 2020, we made some predictions about what 2020 might hold. With the advent of a global pandemic, all of these were wrong. This year has without a doubt been the most dismal year for international travel that we’ve ever known, with pretty much all of our destinations shutting down in one way or another since March. For those that haven’t, many continue to be subject to Foreign Office advisories that don’t seem to take any account of the reality of infection rates or safe travel protocols.

However, we’re heartened to see some positive signs emerging as the year nears its end. With the promise of numerous vaccines on the horizon, the reduction in the quarantine period, and the gradual loosening of international travel restrictions, we’re feeling a little more optimistic about the new year.

So, at the risk of ending up with egg on our faces again, here’s our selection of trips and emerging destinations to watch out for 2021.

Native Eye’s top places to travel in 2021

1. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia was gearing up for a big year in tourism in 2020, with the recent re-introduction of tourist visas after a long hiatus. Then Covid struck.

We’ve taken the opportunity of having ‘a few quiet months’ to redesign and revamp our annual group tour to the country. As well as including the historic highlights of the country – the stunning Nabataean tombs of Madain Saleh being of course the best known – we’ve decided to also incorporate some of the lesser-known wonders and awe-inspiring landscapes that Saudi Arabia is home to. At the ‘Edge of the World’ we enjoy stunning sunset views over the desert landscapes from a dramatic escarpment, while the canyon of Wadi Deise offers superb opportunities for exploration on foot. In the northeast of the country, we visit Tayed Ism, the ‘Valley of Moses’, with its enormous cliffs, and explore the lesser-known Nabataean site of Maydan. Together with historic mud-built villages, ancient forts, the atmospheric Red Sea city of Jeddah, and the unique cultures of the Asir Mountains, Saudi Arabia is more than ready to live up to its potential as a destination for adventurous travellers.

How to get there?

Saudi Arabia – The Forbidden Kingdom

Emerging destinations for 2021 - Saudi Arabia
Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia

2. Socotra

One of our most remote destinations, the island of Socotra is also one of our most exciting. Sitting in the Indian Ocean, isolated from the Yemeni mainland, Socotra is a treasure chest of endemic wildlife and incredible scenery, yet receives very few visitors.

In 2019 the introduction of a regular flight from Cairo made this unique island accessible once more, and we ran a couple of trips here before global travel shut down. Socotra is due to open up to visitors again within the coming months, and with that we’ll be restarting tours here again. With just one large town on the island – the ‘capital’ of Hadibo – Socotra is all about exploring its great outdoors. Turquoise blue waters are home to rays, turtles and dolphins, while enormous dunes tumble down to the ocean. Inland lie plateaus dotted with Socotra’s iconic ‘dragon’s blood tree’, and lush canyons and deep caves beg exploration.

How to get there?

Socotra Discoverer

Socotra - Yemen - emerging destinations for 2021
Socotra Island – Yemen

3. Sudan

With Sudan finally having been brought back in from the cold after normalising relations with the US, it’s time for this African giant to assume a bigger role on the travel radar.

With more pyramids than Egypt, yet a fraction of the visitors, travelling in Sudan is a refreshingly authentic experience compared to its northern neighbour. Stopping for a cup of tea with nomads in the desert is far from the contrived encounter that can often mar more established destinations, and you’ll often be able to explore world-class archaeological sites without another visitor in sight.

We offer a couple of trips here – one for those of you who prefer to end the day in a comfy bed and surrounded by four walls, and another for those who crave the endless landscapes of the desert and sleeping under the stars. Both include the spectacular collection of pyramids at Meroe, the temples of Jebel Barkal and the ancient Christian site of Old Dongola, among Sudan’s many wonders.

How to get there?

Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs
The Nile Valley and Western Desert

Sudan - emerging destination for 2021
Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

4. The Balkans

The Balkans are an eclectic mish-mash of religious and cultural influences, from Islam to Orthodoxy to Catholicism, and lie on the fault line that separates Europe from the Orient. It’s this neverending variety that makes the region the most exciting part of Europe, in our opinion.

Our Highlights of the Balkans trip visits four of the countries that once made up the Republic of Yugoslavia – Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia, countries which have a difficult and complex history, particularly in recent years. We explore the historic cities of Belgrade, Nis and Niovi Pazar with their Ottoman heritage and the mountains, lakes and forests of the mountainous nation of Montengero. On the coast, walled cities like Kotor and the better known Dubrovnik hark back to the glory days of the Ottoman empire and the city-state of Venice, while in Bosnia the towns of Mostar and Sarajevo bear witness to the turbulent and tragic times of the Balkans War. We explore old fortresses, the pristine lakes of Plitvice and the monasteries of Fruska Gora, and delve into the region’s old traditions and customs. This is Europe, but perhaps not as you know it.

How to get there?

Highlights of the Balkans

The Balkans - emerging destinations for travel 2021
Sarajevo, The Balkans

5. Mauritania

Mauritania is where West Africa meets the Sahara meets the Maghreb, a country dominated by its vast deserts and still home to a strong nomadic culture.

In 2021 we’re running an exploratory tour to some of its more remote regions. Of course, we’ll explore the old trading towns of Chinguetti and Ouadane, once important stops on the Saharan trade routes, but from here on the road becomes even less travelled. We visit ancient meteorite craters and the rock art of Trig Chauail, before entering the vast sand sea of Erg Ouarane. This is a vast area, covering hundreds of kilometres, and we navigate carefully through the dunes until we reach the remote mountains of Aoukar.

The Mauritanian desert is littered with the remains of previous settlers, dating back to prehistory, and we journey past the remnants of old villages to the site of Aoudaghost, the northernmost town of the ancient empire of Ghana.

From here, we loop back through the south to the capital of Nouakchott, having undertaken a challenging journey through one of Africa’s more remote corners. This is one for the real desert enthusiasts.

How to get there?

Mauritania Desert Adventure 

Emerging destinations for travel 2021 - Mauritania
Crossing a sea of sand, Mauritania

6. El Salvador and Nicaragua

Tiny El Salvador and its neighbour Nicaragua don’t feature on too many itineraries – most of Central American tourism concentrates on the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula or the wildlife-filled jungles of Costa Rica. But in recent years these two countries have been getting a little more attention – deservedly so, in our opinion.

Starting in San Salvador we visit national parks and pretty rural villages before heading to the archaeological site of Joya de Ceren and the beautiful colonial city of Suchitoto, with its cobbled streets and brightly painted buildings. We learn about the turbulent recent history of El Salvador in the company of an ex-guerrilla soldier and explore lush mangrove forests in search of wildlife.

Nicaragua offers some of Central America’s most impressive colonial architecture in cities like Leon and Granada, as well as volcanoes to climb – one, Masaya, has an active lava lake. On Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe Island gives us the opportunity to visit traditional communities while further south the gorgeous Solentiname Islands are home to ancient petroglyphs. Nicaragua is also home to some great reserves and national parks, which we explore looking for jaguar, manatee and sloths, among other species.

This is Central America away from the ‘gringo trail’.

How to get there?

Colonial Cities and Lava Lakes

Catedral de Granada, Nicaragua - emerging destination for 2021
Catedral de Granada, Nicaragua

7. West Papua

This is about as off the map as you can get in our modern world. West Papua – the western half of the island of the island of New Guinea – is a treasure trove of traditional cultures and ethnic groups that continue to live much as their ancestors did a hundred years ago.

In the Baliem Valley live the Dani people, largely isolated from the outside world and only ‘discovered’ in the 1930s. Men wear the tusks of wild boars through their noses, and decorative penis sheaths, while women still remove their fingers to mourn the loss of a relative. As well as this the Dani venerate their forefathers and keep the mummified remains of powerful chiefs in their villages, to be brought out for special occasions.

Further south live the Korowai people, who make their homes in swampy forests and live in elaborate tree houses constructed high in the canopy. First contact with the Korowai was only made in 1974, and is well within living memory for many, meaning that their traditions are still largely intact.

As you might expect, travelling here can be a challenge, and it’s not for those who seek luxury. But for those prepared to put up with a few discomforts, there’s nothing else like it.

How to get there?

West Papua – The Last Frontier

West Papua - ceremony
Dani women, West Papua

8. Pakistan

Often overshadowed by its larger neighbour to the east, Pakistan has in recent years suffered from negative stereotypes and an association with the troubles of its other neighbour, Afghanistan. This is a land where the subcontinent meets Central Asia, with a deep historical legacy, dazzling landscapes and curious traditions.

North from the capital Islamabad lies the Karakorum Highway, wending its way through the world’s highest peaks on its journey to the roof of the world. Crossing high passes and barren plateaus, the road leads to ancient kingdoms which were the last to be absorbed into the Indian Raj, and today the people here are proud of their unique traditions. Among these are the Kalash, still following their ancient pagan customs in just a few valleys – their annual festivals are among Asia’s most fascinating celebrations.

In the hot and steamy south of the country cities such as Lahore and Multan are repositories for some of Islam’s best architectural examples, and a great place to absorb the country’s intense spirituality. Join pilgrims as they worship at the tombs of Sufi saints, and explore the old fortresses left behind by the Mughal rulers of old.

After a long time in the cold, we think 2021 might just be the year when the world wakes up and realises what this incredible country has to offer the adventurous traveller.

How to get there?

North Pakistan Explorer

Indus Valley Explorer

Emerging destinations - Pakistan
Kalash villagers, Pakistan

9. Mongolia

With a landscape ranging from searing desert to snowy peaks, vast plains to endless lakes, Mongolia has it all for the outdoor enthusiast. One of our favourite parts of this enormous landlocked nation is the far western Altai region, pushed up against the borders of Siberia, China and Kazakhstan. This is home to a unique tradition practiced by the local Kazakh inhabitants – hunting with golden eagles.

Eagle hunters are known as berkutchi; the eagles are berkut. Hunting normally takes place in the winter months, from October onwards – the berkutchi ride out to the hunting grounds with eagles perched upon their arms, looking for high ground from which the eagle can spot prey.

The practice of hunting with eagles is around a thousand years old, and originates with the Mongolians – descendants of theirs settled around the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. When the Russians conquered the region in the 1860s, they began suppressing eagle hunting and other militaristic customs of the warrior-nomads. Many Kazakhs fled into lawless border region of western China and Mongolia. With the rise of Stalin and Mao, eagle hunting was suppressed entirely in the Soviet Union and China. The isolated and largely ignored western region of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia became the only place to continue the tradition.

Rather than attend the rather touristy ‘eagle festival’, held in Ulgii each year before the hunting season actually starts, we spend time with the hunters themselves as they practice their craft – a unique and powerful experience.

How to get there?

Mongolian Eagle Adventure

Eagle hunter in Mongolia, a destination for 2021
Eagle hunter, Mongolia

10. Afghanistan

It’s not surprising that Afghanistan hasn’t featured much on travel plans in recent years. Much of the country seems to swing from one crisis to the next, and security in many places can best be described as ‘wanting’. There’s one remote corner of the country where things are a little different, though.

The Wakhan Corridor is a geographical oddity, part of Afghanistan only due to the machinations of the 19th century ‘Great Game’ between the imperial powers of Russia and Britain. As their empires gradually expanded, the Wakhan was felt to be a suitable buffer to prevent Tsarist and British forces facing each other across an international border and was hastily tacked on to the independent state of Afghanistan.

The people here are Wakhi, and Afghan only in name, eking out an existence in some of the harshest terrain in Asia and following customs that borrow as much from ancient pagan traditions as from Islam. The very remoteness of this area is its appeal – there are few places where the sense of exploration is quite as tangible – and the landscape, with its jagged peaks and bare rocks, has an austere beauty that is hard to define. Staying in isolated settlements, venturing ever further from anything that resembles the modern world – the Wakhan is the very essence of off the beaten track travel.

How to get there?

Wakhan Adventure

Afghanistan mountains - destinations for 2021
The Wakhan Corridor, Afganistan

Find out more about our top places to travel in 2021

We specialise in unusual destinations, off-the-beaten-track adventures and traditional, often tribal cultures and offer some of the most exciting and ground-breaking small group adventure tours on the planet. If you would like to find out more about any of our destinations, just ring us on 01473 328 546 or e-mail using our contact form.

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Remote travel destinations – top trips
Best cultural festivals for intrepid travellers
The world’s most unusual travel experiences
West Africa holidays for first-timers