Many people pride themselves on traveling independently, however that will only get you so far. Whether due to climate or political instability, here are 5 places around the world that you can only visit with a tour group
For many world-weary travelers who have already crossed all the continents that aren’t made of ice, Antarctica is the last truly unexplored place to visit. For others, it is a chance to go see penguins up close. Either way, tourists to Antarctica can only visit with authorized tour groups, which usually depart from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia.
Your ship will take three days to arrive in Antarctica, and your tour will take you to see some of the natural marvels of the icy continent. The penguins are the main draw, but you can also see a variety of seals, whales, and quite a few icebergs. Some conservationists are worried that mounting tourism is putting a strain on the Antarctic environment: shop around to find a tour operator that practices responsible tourism, and remember to leave no trace and not bother the animals.
2. North Korea
As you can probably imagine, North Korea isn’t a place you can simply book a flight to and explore independently. (In fact, as of last year, Americans can’t visit North Korea at all without special permission.)
The country is famous for its totalitarian oppression of its citizens, and its attitude to tourism isn’t much different. You can only visit North Korea as part of a tour group, and you will be supervised at all times by government representatives.
You absolutely cannot go unless you’re willing to get a little taste of what it’s like to live under Kim Jong-un. Your passport will be confiscated, your conversations monitored, and you will have no say in the itinerary or the activities. You will not have the opportunity to speak to locals, and you are at risk of being imprisoned for any dissent or perceived slight. If these restrictions do not dissuade you, you can book a tour to North Korea from China with a specialist agency.
Another place that you can only visit with a guide is the Korea Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land along the North-South Korea border. Korea DMZ tours usually leave from Seoul and take you up to the Joint Security Area, also known as the Truce Village of Panmunjom. This is the location for all negotiation between the two countries, and can be an interesting day trip for those who are interested in North Korea yet unwilling – or unable – to commit to the full tour experience.
Few places in the Himalayas have the cultural significance and enduring appeal of Tibet. Unfortunately, few places are also so heavily contested and controversial, and there is significant regulation from the Chinese government making access to the region difficult.
You can only access Tibet from mainland China or Nepal, and you require a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit to do so. One of the requirements for the permit is that you book a guide for the entirety of your stay and pre-arrange private transport for trips outside of Lhasa, the main city. Going anywhere but Lhasa also requires specific permits. For that reason, while booking a private guide is possible, the cheaper and easier option is booking an organized tour group.
One other thing to watch out for is the customs border. You may be checked for reading materials or objects that are “detrimental to China“, which means some Tibet guidebooks and any media about or featuring the Dalai Lama could be confiscated.
Another Himalayan destination, albeit a less popular one, is the secretive Kingdom of Bhutan. Unless you are a citizen of India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives, the only way in is through a tour operator, with all-inclusive tours that do not often come cheaply. This is because Bhutan includes a minimum daily fee of $250 on its visitors, a tax intended to restrict visitation in Bhutan to high-quality, low-impact tourists.
The flipside of this is that Bhutan remains beautifully unspoiled by tourism and development, making it a stunning destination for wildlife, trekking, and Buddhist culture. If you have the budget, you’ll probably find it worth the cost.
5. The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail at Machu Picchu is one of the main things on the Peru visitor’s checklist, so it can come as a bit of a disappointment to independent travelers to find out that you need to do it with a guide. There is also a limit of 500 permits a day for the trail, which means it may be worth booking well in advance during peak season. These restrictions protect the site from excessive wear and keep it from becoming unpleasantly crowded.
It is worth remembering that as one of the most popular attractions in the country — and indeed the continent — you were never really going to be able to enjoy the Inca Trail alone. So, if you are going to be surrounded by tourists anyways, you may as well enjoy the bonding experience of doing it with a tour group. You could also book a private guide for the trek, but it is considerably pricier.
If you’re absolutely dead set on seeing any of these these locations, make sure you take all the necessary preparations (and precautions). By and large, these aren’t your average trips!
Interested in more once-in-a-lifetime destinations? Consider visiting the Sahara through Egypt or Morocco.