8 Places That Are No Longer Off-Limits to Travelers

A long coast on a sunny day

JM Travel Photography / Shutterstock

Some places are completely off-limits to travelers. A history of violent conflicts or totalitarian governments can cause would-be tourists to simply black out a country or an entire region on their travel maps. Often, a negative image will follow a country even after peace has been declared.

But former no-go zones can be some of the most interesting places to travel. Early visitors will get the excitement of traveling somewhere that has an authentic off-the-tourist-trail feel. Likewise, the local population in these little-visited lands won't see you as “just one of a million tourists,” but as a (usually) welcome visitor or even a guest. Here are some formerly off-limits regions that have become interesting destinations.

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Mozambique

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Much of Mozambique was a war zone for three decades. The struggle for independence from colonial power Portugal started in the 1960s, and a bloody civil war raged until the early '90s. It was only after a lasting peace seemed certain that the first travelers started to arrive in this Southeast African nation. Still, after nearly two decades of relative stability, many people are just starting to see the tourism potential of Mozambique. Long stretches of idyllic beach landscapes, coral reefs that are perfect for diving, vibrant and accessible cities (especially the capitol, Maputo), and a blossoming arts and music scene give this country all the trappings of an up-and-coming tourism hot spot.

Mozambique also has a variety of wildlife viewing options, with both Gorongosa National Park and the Niassa Reserve offering ideal safari conditions. Gorongosa is home to elephants, lions, hippos and zebras. Stability has allowed for some tourist infrastructure to be built, but Mozambique retains an off-the-beaten-path feel that makes it attractive to those who like their trips spiced with a little bit of adventure.

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Colombia

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Once in the news only for its rebel groups, kidnappings and ruthless cocaine cartels, Colombia is much more peaceful today than it has been in a long time. Some rebel groups still operate in remote jungle areas, but most of the country is safer than it was even a few years ago. The Caribbean beaches and atmospheric Old Town of Cartagena, the salsa beats of Cali, the history-filled avenues of Bogota, and the endless menu of natural landscapes and different ecosystems make this a truly wonderful country for a diverse travel experience. Decent domestic air service and comfortable long-haul buses make it possible to see different parts of Colombia even if you have just a week or two to spare.

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Sierra Leone

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Sierra Leone came out of a brutal civil war in 2002. The country is still lacking in terms of infrastructure, but is beginning to realize some of its vast tourism potential. Contrary to the image it had only a decade ago, Sierra Leone is now a reasonably safe country by West African standards. Accommodations are easy to find, though often quite basic. The beaches near the capitol city of Freetown are not crowded and used mostly by locals, not tourists.

The forests of Banana Island, off the coast, are pristine and filled with wildlife, while inland attractions like Outamba-Kilimi National Park boast classic African savannahs, dense forests and abundant wildlife. Sierra Leone is not quite as tourist-ready as some of the other destinations on this list, but its friendly people and unspoilt nature make it a viable option for travelers seeking adventure in West Africa. It is possible to combine a trip here with a visit to nearby Gambia, a tiny West Coast nation that has a great tourist infrastructure and sees hundreds of thousands of international arrivals each year.

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East Timor

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After a violent conflict that led to its independence from Indonesia a little over a decade ago, East Timor (officially, Timor Leste) suffered from crippling poverty and political uncertainty. Still quite poor and lacking the tourism infrastructure of more popular Southeast Asian destinations, East Timor remains off the tourist map for all but the most intrepid backpackers and ambitious international entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, untouched beaches, endless inland mountains and forests, and colorful celebrations — including one of Southeast Asia's best Carnival parades — provide plenty of options for a well-rounded culture and adventure-rich vacation.

Unrest is occasionally an issue, though any violence these days is not usually targeted at foreigners. Trekking outfitters and dive shops offer tours and dive packages out of the Timorese capitol of Dili. East Timor is certainly still rough around the edges, but it does have one unexpected convenience: U.S. dollars are the main form of currency, so there is no need for American travelers to worry about exchange rates.

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Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is probably the most accessible destination on our list. The area still drew tourists during the 25-year-long conflict between the government and the separatist movement popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. Though much of the fighting was concentrated in remote areas, bombings and terror attacks were not unheard of. However, after a decisive military victory in 2009, Sri Lanka is now completely at peace and tourists can access the entire country without being afraid of getting caught in the crossfire. (There are still landmine problems in some areas, however).

Sri Lanka is probably best known for its legendary beaches. Those located in the south and west of the island are ideal for water sports (or just lazing on the uncrowded sands enjoying the tropical idyll), while the eastern coast draws windsurfers, kite surfers and sailors. Ancient cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa feature crumbling ruins that have been touched little since ancient times. Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority, unique cultural influences, and colorful colonial history make it a very different place from neighboring India (with which it is unfairly grouped in many tourists' minds).

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The Balkans

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Two decades ago, the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia led to Europe's bloodiest fighting since World War II. During the conflicts, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia were the last places in Europe that any traveler would want to spend time in. Once peace and stability came to the region, the trickle of tourists started. Today, spots like Croatia's Dalmatian Coast are considered the next big thing in Europe's tourism industry, and cities like Zagreb and Belgrade are hot spots for culture, shopping and nightlife. Montenegro and Bosnia are growing adventure and eco-tourism destinations. Land mines are still a problem for eco-tourists in some areas, but the mix of rural charm, natural beauty, and big city fun make all the countries of the former Yugoslavia wonderful places for travelers in search of something beyond the usual European vacation experience.

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Myanmar

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Myanmar, formerly Burma, was until recently ruled by a military government that was known for its heavy-handed responses to any sort of opposition. Though it never suffered from an all-out civil war, the political situation made travel difficult and occasionally dangerous, if not impossible. The combination of a huge and mostly peaceful democracy movement, foreign pressure and an aging leadership finally led to elections and the opening up of Myanmar to international tourists and journalists in 2011. Myanmar is still rough-around-the-edges, lacking a lot of the tourist infrastructure that is found in neighboring Thailand. But the crumbling colonial-era buildings, teeming streets and markets of Yangon, the legendary city of Mandalay in the north, untouched beaches in the south, and amazing ancient sites like the ruins of the ancient temple complex at Bagan truly make this an attractive country for intrepid travelers. With even remote Laos and the formerly wild streets of Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City now firmly on the tourist map, Myanmar is one of the last countries where you can get an unfiltered look at Southeast Asia.

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Somaliland

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Officially part of the troubled East African country of Somalia, Somaliland is an autonomous region in the far north of the country that, in effect, operates as an independent nation. With its own leadership, economy and police force, it is completely separate from Somalia in practice, though no other country or international organization recognizes its independent status. The conflicts and famines that have devastated the south and central parts of Somalia have not touched this region as deeply, and as a result, it is quite stable today.

Still not a mainstream destination by any definition, Somaliland is not without attractions. The capitol of Hargeisa is a cosmopolitan place with modern hotels that offers easy access to places like Laas Geel, which boasts cave paintings that are thought to be several thousands of years old. Coastal towns like Berbera and Zeila offer access to the sea and to beautiful untouched beaches. Somaliland is reasonably safe these days, but it is by far the most difficult place on our list in which to travel. With little tourist infrastructure to speak of, travelers have to rely on informal guides and slow-moving, inconsistent transportation options. Nonetheless to people who value exotic locales, Somaliland will seem like the East African version of Shangri-la.