10 Places Destined to Be Vacation Hot Spots

Boka Kotor Bay in Montenegro

Oleg_P / Shutterstock

These days it's possible to get to almost anywhere on Earth with no more than a couple of connecting flights. Low-cost airlines and the advancement of the ultra-long-haul market have put formerly off-the-beaten-path destinations within reach, making it easier for Lonely Planet types to find new tourism frontiers.

As a result, some unexpected destinations are getting noticed, including Montenegro. These places have made big bets on tourism, and the gamble is starting to pay off. Here are several surprising countries with rapidly growing tourism industries.

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Qatar

Photo: Fitria Ramli/Shutterstock

This tiny country was virtually unknown to most tourists until it won (somewhat controversially) the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar, on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has become a center for commerce and finance in the Middle East. Until recently, its rise in the leisure tourism industry has been overshadowed by the glitzy emirates of the UAE, but that is changing.

Qatar saw more than 2 million visitors during the first nine months of 2016. The rise of Qatar Airways has helped bring attention to the country as an easy-to-get-to destination, and an increasing number of cruise ships dock here during the winter season. Why do more people want to come to Qatar? The country boasts an array of outdoor sports, desert excursions, a vibrant arts scene, and the chance to experience shopping in souks, the vibrant markets where artisans offer their wares.

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Kyrgyzstan

Photo: Thomas Depenbusch/flickr

A landlocked country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has long been in the shadow of its larger neighbors when it comes to international tourism. People from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, whose travel and hospitality industries have been on the rise, choose to head to Kyrgyz lakes, like Issyk-Kul (pictured), and mountain resorts, but few people from outside of the region have discovered these places. Now, tourist-friendly visa rules, more aggressive promotion and better air connections are moving the regional tourism dynamic in Kyrgyzstan's favor.

In 2015, the World Travel and Tourism Council projected that the Kyrgyz tourism industry's contribution to the national GDP would increase by more than 8 percent annually over the next decade. If this estimate proves true, the country's travel trade will grow more than any other country in the world over the next decade.

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Cuba

Photo: Kamira/Shutterstock

Last year, American travelers showed a strong preference for the Caribbean. The region enjoyed an increase of more than 4 percent in international arrivals. One of the fastest growing places was Cuba. Washington, D.C., made it much easier for Americans to travel to the once-forbidden island, and airlines stepped up to provide service between the U.S. and Cuba after rules barring commercial flights were eased. [Read: How Cuba could shake up Caribbean tourism]

These changes have resulted in a huge increase in the number of Americans traveling to Cuba. Travel insurance site Squaremouth collected data that suggested that the number of U.S passport holders going to Cuba rose by 153 percent in 2016. In addition to the commercial airlines, more cruise ships are now stopping in Cuba, and travel companies are offering package tours that focus on the history, nature and culture of the Caribbean's hottest new destination.

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Iceland

Photo: Moyan Brenn/flickr

Just a few years ago, Iceland's economy was struggling, but something good came out of this recession. Favorable exchange rates made it cheaper for tourists to visit — and they are still visiting. In the Squaremouth survey mentioned in the last slide, Iceland came in second to Cuba in terms of inbound U.S. travelers in 2016, with an 88 percent increase over 2015. The island nation is expecting the number of international arrivals to grow by 35 percent this year.

Iceland is known for its volcanoes, thermal springs and otherworldly landscapes, like the Haifoss waterfalls (pictured). Thanks to weather patterns, the country does not get as cold as you might expect. Low-cost carriers like WOW Air serve the main hub, Keflavik Airport, regularly, so it's still cheap to get here, even though the Icelandic krona is getting stronger as the country's economy continues to recover from its downturn.

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Myanmar

Photo: Ralf Siemieniec/Shutterstock

In 2010, Myanmar saw about 800,000 tourist arrivals. Just five years later, the number of international inbound travelers was 4.6 million. The impressive increase coincided with the country's transition from military to civilian government and the gradual lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and other countries. A new airport is in the works, and new hotel and infrastructure investment shows that Myanmar's leaders are hoping to build on this early interest.

Myanmar has been romanticized since the eras of Kipling and Orwell. Modern development has started, but gilded temples, crumbling colonial era buildings and natural beauty still remain the focal points for most visitors. River cruise companies have been doing a booming trade over the past couple of years as the land-based infrastructure is still lacking in some areas, and traveling by hotel boat is the most comfortable way for tourists to get around.

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Montenegro

Photo: Vereshchagin Dmitry/Shutterstock

Montenegro has been earning buzz from the travel media for nearly a decade. Outlets like the New York Times and Lonely Planet tagged it as one of the best up-and-coming destinations not long after it gained independence. Now, it seems that the tiny Balkan country is poised to cash in on this hype. The growth of investment in the travel sector is greater in Montenegro than in any other country in the world.

The country, characterized by mountains and picturesque seaside towns, has been attracting investment for hotels, resorts and new marinas. Financiers from as far away as China are taking part in a variety of projects. The overall attractiveness of the country and its investment push led the World Travel and Tourism Council to project that over the next decade, Montenegro will be the third-fastest growing tourist destination in the world [PDF].

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The Gambia

Photo: Damian Pankowiec/Shutterstock

Tourism is vital in this tiny West African country, one of only two countries with an official "the" in front of its name. (The other is the Bahamas.) Once tagged as its continent's fastest-growing travel destination, the Gambia has taken a step back because of recent political turmoil. A new president is now in power after contested elections, and the situation has calmed down. Immediately after, tourists started to return to this country, known for its beautiful beaches, accessible attractions and reasonably-priced package tours.

Tourism generates 20 percent of the government's revenue and plays an even bigger role in the overall GDP. There's already a push to increase advertising to increase tourism numbers even more. The general feeling is that now that the uncertain times are in the past, the Gambia can fulfill its long-promised potential as one of Africa's must-visit destinations.

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Mozambique

Photo: Stig Nygaard/flickr

Sitting on the southeastern coast of Africa, Lusophone Mozambique has seen it share of trouble over the past century. Despite having many of the assets that make neighboring South Africa one of the world's most sought-after tourist destinations, Mozambique is only now just coming into the spotlight. Decades of civil war left the country's infrastructure in tatters, and it has taken two decades of peace for the country to capitalize on its untouched beaches, pristine islands and wildlife-rich national parks.

Now that safari tourism has taken hold and beaches and islands are getting sparkling new resorts and boutique hotels, things are looking up. Long term, tourism in Mozambique is expected to become a major part of a growing GDP. Because of its national parks and its focus on ecotourism, this is becoming a great destination for environmentally-conscious travelers.

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Paraguay

Photo: Deni Williams/flickr

For the past decade, the landlocked South American destination of Paraguay has averaged about 500,000 international visitors per year. In 2015, that number leaped to 1.2 million. That is surprising considering the fact that its neighbors — Brazil, Argentina and Chile — already experienced a tourism boom in the earliest years of the new century while Paraguay seemed to have been left behind.

Paraguay is inexpensive, even compared to other places in Latin America. It's rich in natural and historic attractions, boasting jungle, wetlands and vast plains. And, of course, Paraguay, which gets a lot of its wealth from exporting hydroelectricity, is one of the three countries that borders the spectacular Iguazu Falls (pictured).

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Japan

Photo: Krunja/Shutterstock

Japan is certainly not an undiscovered destination. Unlike the Gambia or Montenegro, it's easy to pick out on a world map. However, Japan's tourism industry still has plenty of room to grow. When the country started a major campaign to draw more international tourists in 2003, it received 5.2 million visitors. A decade later, in 2014, that number jumped to more than 13 million. Last year, an impressive 24 million international travelers landed in Japan.

Two things contributed to this spike in foreign travelers. First, the Japanese yen weakened, making it cheaper for people from other countries to visit. It seems that many jumped at the chance to see what is often considered a notoriously expensive destination. The other reason for the tourism growth: Chinese tourists have been choosing to travel internationally, and Japan, just a short flight away from the PRC's main airports, is a convenient option. Japan was one of the first countries to notice the potential in the Chinese market and cater to Chinese tourists.