The unexpected destinations where bookings are surging – against all odds

Hazel Plush
·3-min read
"Maybe, the idea of visiting countries that were previously perceived as unsafe doesn’t seem so gung-ho or reckless" - getty
"Maybe, the idea of visiting countries that were previously perceived as unsafe doesn’t seem so gung-ho or reckless" - getty

While the pandemic has caused a global slump in holiday bookings, some tour operators are reporting an unexpected surge in interest – for leisure trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. 

Appetite for Afghanistan holidays has spiked, says Jonny Bealby, founder of adventure travel specialist Wild Frontiers. “Our bookings for 2020 and 2021 are double those recorded over the past four years. Pakistan has also proved very popular this season.” 

At Undiscovered Destinations, 90 per cent of enquiries are for its ‘Pioneering’ trips – the company’s most intrepid style of holiday. “We have seen a lot of interest in our tours to places such as Sudan, Haiti, Iraq and Uzbekistan,” says Aled Evans, head of business development. “The more off the beaten track the country is, the more interest we are seeing.”

Pre-pandemic, cautionary advice from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was a rarity. However now, as the likes of Spain, Portugal and France carry warnings against 'all but essential travel', Britons may be reassessing their attitudes towards risk. “There has been a realisation during Covid that we have to live with risk every day of our lives,” says Bealby. “So the idea of visiting countries that were previously perceived as unsafe, maybe now doesn’t seem so gung-ho or reckless.

“Some people may also be realising how much travel means to them, so they are pushing the boat out and doing something completely outside their comfort zone – the complete opposite of being locked at home for six months.”

The rising booking numbers are, admittedly, still modest: group sizes for trips of this style tend to be capped at around 12, but demand is prompting operators to add additional departures, or explore new areas. “We specialise in northern Pakistan, but have just commenced trips to the south of the country too,” says James Wilcox, founder of Untamed Borders. “It’s certainly unexpected to be adding new trips in the middle of a pandemic, but Afghanistan was one of the first countries to reopen its borders.” The country now requires a negative PCR test for all international arrivals, though travellers returning to the UK must quarantine for 14 days when they get home.

“Most people are surprised that a country like Afghanistan has an arguably more proactive approach to testing on arrival than Britain,” says Wilcox. “And private Covid tests are readily available in Afghanistan, too.”

Of course, all tour operators must adhere to the health guidance of each destination and airline – but they often go above and beyond official advice, conducting daily temperature testing and adapting itineraries to avoid crowded areas, for example. And there has also been a change in preferred group sizes: “We are mainly arranging private, individual tours,” says Shane Horan, founder of Rocky Road Travel. “Normally it would be group tours but people are requesting more and more private trips now – perhaps because of the added flexibility.”

“Obviously it's been a very difficult year, but with the loosening of some travel restrictions in certain countries there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Has the operators’ experience in risk-assessment made a return to business run more smoothly? “We’re no strangers to adapting,” says Wilcox. “We already go to places that have malaria or ebola – as well as civil unrest or regime changes. Not to take Covid lightly, but we’re used to working in uncertain environments.”