When a particular region or a whole country acquires a bad reputation, it can take a long time for the stigma to wash away. Tell your friends you’ve booked a romantic city break in Transylvania, and they might start to wonder whether you sleep in a coffin and have nightmares about garlic bread.
But the most infamous destinations can also be the most scenic and rewarding. Sadly, beauty and trouble often go together. Be sure to check with the United States Department of State — or your country’s equivalent — for specific travel advisories before finalizing any travel plans just to be safe as political climates can change quickly.
We should also remember that time can heal all things. A terror attack or civil war doesn’t necessarily render an area permanently off-limits for tourists. In fact, there are plenty of places you wouldn’t have visited ten years ago that are now surprisingly safe and open for business.
In that spirit, here are nine formerly dangerous destinations.
1. Medellin, Colombia
The city of Medellin was, and perhaps still is, synonymous with Pablo Escobar, the notorious cocaine kingpin whose gang took their name from the city itself. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Escobar’s cartel dominated the area, making tourism a dicey proposition.
But Medellin has actually changed a lot since the Narcos days. Nestled on the slopes of the Andes, the city has constructed a network of ‘metrocables’ to carry its 2.5 million residents from barrio to barrio, all while offering a stunning view of the Aburrá Valley below. Known for its mild climate, bounteous gardens, and annual flower festival, Medellin has blossomed into a symbol of modern Colombia’s aspirations.
Myanmar (or, as I like to call it, “the artist formerly known as Burma”) was under the thumb of an oppressive military junta for fifty years. During the second half of the last century, it was often described as the most isolated country on earth after North Korea. However, circumstances improved greatly when the junta lost its power in 2011.
Since then, a growing number of tourists have had the opportunity to take in the spectacular Buddhist temples and pagodas from Myanmar’s distant past. To be sure, Myanmar is a bit off the beaten path and suffers from lack of infrastructure. But if you want to feel like you’ve travelled back into the mists of time, it may be worth the sojourn.
NOTE: The current government has endured severe criticism in recent months over its treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who are being systematically driven from their homes into neighbouring Bangladesh by the Myanmar Army. Myanmar may be safe for you, but it may not be safe for your conscience until this crisis has ended.
3. Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, an island nation off the southeast coast of India, has not traditionally been a place you go to “get away from it all.” Between 1983 and 2009, the country was ravaged by a brutal civil war between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Since the war ended, Sri Lanka has emerged as a trendy new destination. It boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, as well as verdant wildlife preserves – particularly attractive if you’re a birdwatcher or an elephant lover. If you prefer to snorkel or go whale watching, you can visit the seaside town of Trincomalee.
This one might surprise you. Relations between the West and Iran have often been contentious; it even made President George W. Bush’s famous “axis of evil.” It can be all too easy to think in stereotypical terms that Iran is a hotbed of fundamentalism, and unwelcoming to foreigners.
But Iran has actually been opening itself to tourists in recent years. In 2014, they promoted their country to travellers with the encouraging slogan “You’re invited.” In 2015, Rough Guide actually named Iran their #1 destination. Considering that Iran offers everything from ancient ruins to desert treks to skiing, it might just be worth a spot on your bucket list.
For up-to-date information on safety in Iran, visit the U.S. Department of State’s Iran Countries and Areas page.
5. Belfast, Northern Ireland
From 1968-1998, Belfast was the epicenter of ‘the Troubles’, the bloody 30-year conflict between the Irish Republican Army, Ulster loyalists, and the UK government. During this time, terror attacks were all too common in Belfast, with some parts of the city being virtual no-go zones. The result was more than 50,000 casualties across three decades.
But things have improved quickly in Belfast. The historic Victorian and Edwardian colonnades have now been joined by new restaurants and bars. On the site where the RMS Titanic was constructed more than a hundred years ago, the city has developed a bustling cultural district fittingly called the Titanic Quarter. You can also visit a castle, spend an afternoon at a museum, or go for a walk and take in the city’s haunting political murals.
6. Kibuye, Rwanda
For many people, the word Rwanda means one thing: genocide. In 1994, as many as a million civilians were murdered by militias while helpless UN peacekeepers looked on. But this tiny, landlocked East African nation is also blessed with remarkable natural beauty – and, nowadays, with relative stability.
One of its most underrated attractions is the town of Kibuye, which sits on the banks of Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes. The hills around this beach resort are perfect for biking, and offer striking panoramic views of the lake. A stay in Kibuye also puts you within driving distance of two national parks.
Zimbabwe has been a pariah state since 2000, under the erratic and ineffective leadership of Robert Mugabe. The country saw deteriorating rule of law, over 50% unemployment, and unimaginable inflation (we’re talking billions to buy a loaf of bread). Is it any wonder tourists have stayed away?
But now, after 37 years in power, Mugabe has been removed, and some degree of hope has returned to the country. Maybe foreign visitors will return as well.
After all, Zimbabwe should be a natural hotspot for globetrotters. Its attractions include Victoria Falls, one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. This mile-long veil of water by itself ought to draw millions of visitors a year on its own, and hopefully it will again.
8. El Salvador
This small Central American country on the Pacific coast suffered through decades of incompetent government, civil war, assassination, and chaos, from the 1930s right through to the 1990s.
Today, the situation has stabilized considerably. Crime is still a problem in El Salvador, particularly where gangs are concerned. But in the countryside, travellers will find a lush, diverse country, dotted with volcanoes. The locals have therefore made an effort to promote ecotourism; if you want to go green, you should consider El Salvador.
Cambodia’s modern history has been blotted by memories of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist party that ruled the country from 1975-79, killing as much as 25% of the population in the process. It was only in 1993 that Cambodia was able to fully separate itself from this troubled past.
Cambodia remains poor, with much of the population living on less than $1 a day. But in beauty and history, it is rich beyond measure. Cambodia boasts white beaches, hike-able mountains, and must-see sites like Siam Reap and Angkor Wat.