Many nations stand ready to welcome you with open arms. They enjoy your company, your interest in their culture, and, most especially, your money pouring into their economy. But not everyone is excited to shepherd an army of tourists through the front door. Some countries are surprisingly difficult to visit, whether by design, by dint of geography, or due to the nature of politics.
Here are 7 countries you’ll have a tough time scratching off your list. All the same: where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.
1. Saudi Arabia
For many years, Saudi Arabia didn’t even issue tourist visas to non-Muslims, though millions of the faithful flock to the country every year to participate in the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca which is an important observance in Islam. One intrepid traveler from the West determined to set foot in the kingdom even resorted to disguising himself as a member of an archaeological team in order to get in.
Saudi Arabia could always afford to eschew tourism because its principal source of income has long been its oil deposits. Besides, what repressive regime wants to open itself to foreigners who may expose its people to ideas like pluralism and personal liberty?
Very recently, with Gulf states looking toward a post-oil future, circumstances have started to change. As of 2018, Saudi Arabia began issue tourist visas, though there is still a fairly rigorous application process. Women may not enter the kingdom unaccompanied, applicants must use a travel agency approved by the Saudi government, and there is an up-front fee. Finally, do not even think of applying for a visa if your passport contains any evidence that you’ve been to Israel. You will not be allowed into the country.
If you’ve never heard of Eritrea (pronounced ‘air-it-TRAY-uh’ or ‘air-it-tree-uh’), you’re not alone. It is perhaps the most difficult place on earth to visit, so there are few returning visitors to regale us with tales from the horn of Africa.
Eritrea only achieved its independence in 1993. Prior to that, it was occupied by the Italians, then by the British, then by the Ethiopians. Since the end of its 30-year war of independence against the latter, Eritrea has remained shy of foreign attention.
Unless you’re from Kenya, Uganda, or Sudan, you will need to apply for a visa ahead of time. Even if you book a tour through a travel agency, you cannot obtain a tourist visa on arrival. You will have to apply at least a month ahead of your planned visit, and more likely several months ahead. Applications are only accepted at Eritrean embassies, of which there are relatively few (although there is one in Washington), and tales abound of applications being rejected for no apparent reasons.
The paranoia of their approach to tourism is a feature of the government in general. Eritrea is a police state, often considered the most repressive on the continent. Its one-party dictatorship has been helmed by the same man, Isaias Afwerki, since 1993. Human rights groups have warned that Afwerki routinely tortures and wantonly imprisons his own people, and the Eritrean press has been ranked the least free on earth by Reporters Without Borders for eight years in a row.
That makes it even worse than…
3. North Korea
There, we mentioned it. We had no choice.
For Americans, this is technically the most difficult destination to visit, because it’s literally impossible. Since September 2017, the State Department forbids the use of U.S. passports for travel to or through North Korea. Likewise, North Korea’s official travel agency refuses to serve Americans — and to enter the country any other way is to take your life in your hands.
But even before these restrictions were entrenched, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) was probably the most disagreeable vacation spot on earth. While there, “tourists” have virtually no latitude of action; they remain always under the watchful eyes of handlers, who keep them from seeing the real North Korea and its suffering people. Instead, guests are treated to an itinerary full of Potemkin villages, propaganda museums, imaginary farms, and monuments to the Dear Leaders.
Perhaps worst of all, visitors are not excused from participating in the slavish cult of personality that ensconces the Kim family. Even outsiders are expected to bow reverently and lay flowers on shrines to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. If you’re not prepared to do this, you could never visit the DPRK in any event.
Bhutan should be recognized as the most improved nation on this list. It’s a fairly small nation in the Himalayas, nestled between Tibetan China and India. Up until the late 20th century, it was virtually inaccessible for foreigners, simply by virtue of geography and poor infrastructure.
Today, two airlines service Bhutan (though you’ll almost certainly have to switch flights), and roads are much improved. The catch is that tourism is regulated fairly tightly. You’ll have to pay an approved travel agent up-front for an all-inclusive tour. The cost is $250 per person per day during peak season, or $200 during off season. That fee includes accommodations, tour fees, food, and drink.
The only way to visit Bhutan without taking an official tour is to be invited by someone important.
But for those who do visit, they’ll encounter breathtaking mountain views, and a fascinating people. Bhutan is the only extant Buddhist kingdom. It’s a benevolent constitutional monarchy, where happiness and fulfilment are cherished more than money.
It’s not that they don’t want you to visit Kiribati. It’s just that this string of atolls is quite literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, meaning you’ll probably have to island hop to get there. The total land area of the whole country is around 300 square miles, but it’s spread across more than 1.3 million square miles of ocean. And while the people are friendly and welcoming, don’t expect a fleet of luxury resorts to be waiting for you when you arrive.
If you’re determined to visit, the best way to reach Kiribati is likely via Fiji — if not, out of Australia.
Compared to Poland, Russia, and the neighboring Baltic states, Belarus is a tourism black hole. It is often described as Europe’s last Soviet-style dictatorship, having chafed under the autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Apart from its poor human rights record and reputation as a Cold War time capsule, Belarus also keeps would-be visitors at bay by charging exorbitant visa fees. For example, Americans could pay as much as $420 just to enter the country, which is more than it would cost to fly there from any hub in Europe. Is it any wonder the tourists stay away?
Iran is rich with memory, home to what remains of the Persian civilization — one of the most venerable in human history. The people are said to be among the friendliest and most welcoming on earth, defying the stereotypes presented in Western media. And the country has been working to open itself up to tourism in recent years.
That being said, for political reasons, it remains difficult for Americans to secure a visa. You must book a tour with an approved company before applying for a visa. The application process itself is run through the Pakistani embassy in Washington. The Iranian travel company you book with can help you through the visa process, but it can be frustratingly unreliable, so you’ll want to plan all this far in advance.
Some of these countries are tough to visit because of nature, some because of politics. Some maybe aren’t worth visiting at all. Still: I don’t know about you, but this list leaves me wishing the world were a freer, more open place for everyone.