Bob Pardas of Advantage Travel and Tours in Poway, Calif., once told me that he specializes in "the PM countries." That is, pre-McDonalds. I met him in Libya in 2004, and I subsequently learned that with a trip to Afghanistan in 2013, he reached his goal of visiting every country on Earth.
I, too, am a big fan of PM countries. They are among the few places on Earth where American tourists might find that cynicism and commercial interests take a backseat to curiosity and expressions of goodwill.
During my Libya visit, Libyans were exceedingly friendly when they found out I was an American, calling me "brother," seeking ways to be helpful and demonstrating above-and-beyond levels of hospitality.
When, for example, I bought a CD in Tripoli by the Libyan reggae singer Zaid El Bob (his name is an homage to Bob Marley), the music store owner gave me a gift of tapes by two other local reggae bands.
After I purchased two handmade, painted ceramic bowls (for $1.75 each), the owner handed me a third that I had been considering, as a present.
A local man who had become an impromptu guide refused my offer to let me buy him coffee, and instead bought me a tape of Koranic recitation as a remembrance.
It wasn't, of course, the monetary value of these items that was striking but rather the spirit.
Similarly, a visit to Romania a few weeks after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been deposed resulted in exposure to earnest curiosity about America and expressions of hospitality that led to lifelong friendships.
These experiences were time-sensitive, and for these countries, the moment has already passed. There might well be Libyans who would welcome the opportunity to meet American tourists, but it is simply unsafe.
And some of the shine has come off America for many Romanians, who now have unfettered access to information and who see Americans on a regular basis.
That PM feeling has long since vanished from Vietnam and China, except in places off the beaten path, and Myanmar is undergoing rapid changes.
The PM list grows ever shorter.
Perhaps the greatest and most rewarding opportunity for a visit to a PM country at this particular moment is Iran.
Current sanctions against the country do not prohibit Americans from visiting. Yet, on average, only about 1,500 per year do so.
"That's about as many people as have come to visit New York City just during the time we've been talking," John Rose, COO of iJet International, said about 15 minutes into our conversation.
A geopolitical and threat-analysis company, iJet, among other things, monitors conditions in various locales and advises travelers.
Rose said his company has not received any reports of crime (beyond petty types) against Americans visiting Iran, and, to the contrary, the experience for most visitors has been "amazing."
"Americans are treated really, really well," he said, adding that Iranians "admire our culture, if not our politics. People who know the Middle East do not see a visit to Iran as scary."
That said, Rose cautioned that it's a country that has many religious-based laws that Americans need to be aware of. For example, once in Iran, women should wear head scarves and dress modestly, being sure to cover their legs.
A visit to Iran takes some planning. Visa processing alone can take 40 days, and one can't wander the country without a guide or on a tour, which must be prearranged.
And, Rose said, current sanctions do affect shopping; Americans can only bring back $100 in goods.
But should sanctions be lifted, I would not be surprised to see a major rise in interest from American travelers. And as with any PM country, it's better to visit sooner than later.
(Rose predicts that, should an accord with Iran be approved, airlift will increase significantly as business travelers from around the world flock to the country.)
Cuba might be similarly viewed as a country to be seen sooner rather than later, but I believe there's a big difference in visitor interactions there.
Let's call it the novelty factor. Cuba is physically close enough to the United States that, even with restrictions on information about the U.S., there isn't much that's mysterious about our country or its citizens.
I met many friendly Cubans when I was there this spring, but the general level of noncommercial engagement is not so different from some other Caribbean islands.
And beyond the unique opportunities for people-to-people contacts, Iran is a first-rate destination, with unique sights throughout the country.
"It's a great tourist destination; there's a lot of excitement," Rose said, adding that its rich history "stands out in the Middle East."
I had plans to see Iran -- in fact, I had purchased my flights and made reservations for a 10-day trip -- but my departure was scheduled for Sept. 17, 2001, and with the world still reeling from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (and rhetoric heating up), it did not seem like the right time to go.
It has been on my short list ever since. Whether or not sanctions are lifted, I plan to try to get there in the next 12 months.