We may not be getting our State of the Union address on schedule, but we in travel heard what amounted to a state of the industry presentation at Travel Leaders Group's new midtown Manhattan offices last week.
While CEO Ninan Chacko was not elected to speak for everyone, he has pretty good visibility, courtesy of the organization's 23 travel agency brands and parent company Certares' stake in American Express Global Business Travel, AmaWaterways and France's largest integrated travel company, Marietton Developpement.
"We have truly arrived at the golden age of travel," Chacko said, citing how, for a variety of reasons, more places are accessible to more travelers.
Challenges were not ignored, and among those he mentioned was overtourism.
That particular problem has created a host of new rules, regulations and taxes aimed at controlling (or exploiting) tourist access to popular sites in Rome, Amsterdam, Venice, Ireland and Machu Picchu.
The most pernicious aspect of overtourism is not these restrictions but the joyless experience of being in a beautiful place with too, too many people. And it does seem that in my own recent travels, I've had the feeling that I arrived somewhere "too late." While in many ways my family vacation to Bali last summer was wonderful, my experiences walking the streets of Ubud were less like strolls through unfamiliar terrain than trying to walk down New York's 34th Street in front of Macy's the week before Christmas.
It makes one reflect on the meaning of travel's "golden age." Many of my favorite travel memories are from times when I seemed to have places -- even then-famous places -- practically to myself. Being with only four other people in the Taj Mahal when it was open on full-moon nights. Seeing the Mona Lisa without having to crane my neck. Soaking in Iceland's Blue Lagoon with plenty of elbow room. Photographing classic images of Machu Picchu without a single human being in the frame.
Fortunately, many of the same things that have made more places accessible to more people can be employed to get closer to less-popular destinations that restore the joy of travel. And those places far outnumber areas where overtourism is a concern. As Adam Goldstein, vice chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., said at an overtourism roundtable preceding the World Travel and Tourism Global Summit last year, "The cruise industry goes to about 1,000 places. The vast majority want more tourists from us, not less."
So, with some trepidation that calling attention to my favorite undertouristed places might be too successful -- I don't exactly want to cure "undertourism" -- here's my short list of incredible places not yet on most travelers' radars:
Lalibela, Ethiopia: If it were easier to get to, it could be as famous as the pyramids. Eleven intricately carved monolithic rock-hewn churches, dating from the 11th to 13th centuries, in the middle of nowhere. You can visit them as a tourist, but better yet, attend a service at one. An unforgettable experience.
Sapanta, Romania: It's a long way to go to see a cemetery, but it's worth it. A local maker of wooden gravestones decided to personalize each one with a carved and painted image of the deceased and a poem about their lives; the cemetery serves double duty as an incredible open-air folk art museum (visitors welcome).
Skopje, Macedonia: To my mind, the most underappreciated European capital. From its interesting old bazaar with (lowercase) bohemian bars and (uppercase) Old World restaurants to wide, modern streets and plazas filled with somewhat surreal (some say gaudy) statuary, Skopje was a continual surprise and delight.
Rapa Nui, Chile: While this is hardly a secret, it's remote enough, and relatively expensive enough, that one can still view the world-famous giant head moai without crowds. While there, be sure to attend Mass in Hanga Roa at a Catholic church like none other in the world.
The Golden Eagle Festival, Mongolia: I haven't yet attended, but this is high on my wish list. Kazakh and Mongolian culture meet in the Gobi Desert once a year for unusual contests, races and celebration. If you feel Burning Man has become overcrowded with posers, consider this.
One mile off any road at Yellowstone National Park: You'll have to fight crowds to get there, but if you can hike and camp one mile away from the park's paved arteries, you'll have America's finest wilderness practically to yourself. Only 5% of visitors get even that far off the beaten path.
Tasmania: This one's on the watch list; its popularity has increased significantly over the past five years. But whereas its capital, Hobart, used to be the sleepiest state capital south of the equator, I heard it described recently as "slightly weird to cool," thanks in part to eccentric resident David Walsh, whose private Museum of Old and New Art has created the "MONA effect" of encouraging other eccentric expressions.
Svalbard, Norway: While Antarctica gets all the attention, be the first on your block to circumnavigate this large island north of the Arctic Circle. More an expedition than a tour -- no guarantees on animal sightings -- but a good chance to see polar bears, whales, reindeer, walruses and puffins. Get there quick, before the ice melts.