The 2012 Bucket List


Forget safaris and wine country. Think Guyana.

By Heidi Mitchell

As the world flattens around us, the map is being redrawn for the intrepid traveler: a closed-off country opens its borders, a wildlife-rich landscape is cutting back on visitors. Here are new hotspots set to change in the coming year.

Cuba

Though travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba has been highly restricted for most of the past half century, the Obama administration has removed many of the hurdles facing educational travel to the Caribbean island nation, though that could change if the 44th president is not reelected. Fidel Castro's declining health and talk of rolling back sanctions signal that Americans may be able to visit Cuba freely some day (and buy up land to build tacky resorts). But experts don't see that happening for years. Until then, one of the only legal ways to visit, according to Tom Popper, president of travel company Insight Cuba, is through a licensed "people-to-people" tour operator, whose trips to Cuba have specific educational, cultural, artistic, historic, or humanitarian purposes. Demand for these is high: Insight Cuba has 150 departures from the States for the remainder of 2012 and 2013.

Highlights: Much of Havana's beautifully decaying infrastructure remains, along with stunning beaches and a rich Afro-Cuban culture--all on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores with barely a Coca-Cola in sight.

Mongolia

Genghis Khan would hardly recognize his former kingdom. Though Mongolia is still one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, its capital, Ulan Bator, has one of the best-performing stock exchanges, and recently welcomed a Louis Vuitton boutique to its streets. New luxury hotels, direct flights from as far afield as Berlin, and the construction of the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the south are all major forces of economic change. Experts estimate that the country's economy will be the world's fastest-growing over the next decade as it exploits its natural resources; tourism, both business and leisure, has increased 12.4 percent (up to a whopping half million visitors) in the past year. "Mongolia's vast unspoiled lands where nomadic ways of life thrived for centuries are facing an unprecedented scale and pace of development," says Jalsa Urubshurow, owner of Nomadic Expeditions and a Mongolian American. "The influx of international mining corporations are at the very heart of the drastic changes Mongolia is about to undergo, including the construction of a modern city with airports, hotels, and highways where there was no prior human settlement."

Highlights: Come for the annual Naadam festival in July, where thousands gather to compete in archery, horse riding, and wrestling, or fly out to a remote yurt in the western regions and watch throat singing, falconry, and camel fairs.

Uganda

In 2012, Uganda celebrates its 50th year of independence, though last year's Kenyan elections cut off fuel supplies to this land-locked country as trucks were delayed, according to Steven Mukiibi of Wild Places Africa. Nonetheless, several airlines see promise in the nation, with passenger flights showing an increase of 7.5 percent last year, the majority of which were carrying tourists. To keep the numbers in check, the government implemented a $500 per person per day fee to visit gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, though the cost is rumored to go up.

Highlights: Visit the emerald-carpeted Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the last remaining silverback mountain gorillas, which share 97 percent of their DNA with humans.

Burma

Call it the Hillary Effect. Since the secretary of state visited last November, visa applications have skyrocketed--so much so that the few luxury hotels in the country are booked solid through the end of the year; there is chatter about bringing in "floating hotels" to meet the demand. …

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