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Where Are the Backpackers Going Now? And Will the Mainstream Follow? A Sequel

By Jason Cochran
updated February 21, 2017
In a constantly repeated pattern, penniless young people are the travel pioneers and select the destinations that will soon be overrun by standard tourists

They amble into town, admire its rock-bottom costs and cultural tolerance, and settle down to live. Then, sure as the sunrise, the news of their discovery spreads to the outside world-and free-spending, mainstream tourists follow in hordes. The backpackers sigh in despair, vacate the hostels, and move on to still another undiscovered city or island. Where the backpackers go, the mainstream eventually follows. That's been proved by the general popularity of Amsterdam, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Belize, and Roatan. And it will also happen, we believe, in ten new backpacker favorites that Budget Travel profiled in 2001 (we remind you of their names in a box on the next page).

Now, two years later, where are the backpackers traveling? And which of their cherished low-cost hangouts have the makings of a tourist paradise? We suggest another 12 places:

Asia Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China The draw: Sumptuous mountains, peaceful, pedestrian-only cobbled streets dating back a millennium, generous hospitality from the alpine Naxi people-this laid-back town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has expats thinking they've found Shangri-La. The downside: To find it, you must venture deep into China, which isn't the easiest country for English-speakers to roam. Getting there: About $1,200 round trip from San Francisco to Kunming (via Hong Kong) on Cathay Pacific and China Southern, then a ten-hour bus ride ($18) or $60 domestic flight.

Pia, Thailand The draw: It's Thailand untouched by time. This rural idyll (pronounced "pie") is graced with bamboo buildings, waterfalls, hot springs, a cliff-clinging monastery, and twilight clouds of bats billowing from the nearby Tham Lot caves system. A hut costs $1.50, less for meals of incomparable delicacy. The downside: Opium-trade wars and occasional gunplay between Thai and Burmese forces foul the peace. Getting there: Four hours by a nearly free bus from Chiang Mai, which is 12 hours by train from Bangkok, which itself is $700 round trip from the West Coast on many airlines.

Australia Monkey Mia, Western Australia The draw: One of the planet's longest wild coasts also hosts our oldest living organisms (the coral-like stromatolites) and a spectacular bay (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) stacked with thousands of years' worth of shells. Not enough? Splash in the Indian Ocean with a school of friendly dolphins that have visited almost daily since the '60s. The downside: There's nowhere farther away from East Coast America. (Maybe that's a good thing.) Getting there: Perth, served by Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and others, is the nearest city, a solid day's drive south. During Australia's winter, fly round trip from Los Angeles (via Sydney, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur) for about $1,200.

Byron Bay, Queensland The draw: Nearly half a million Americans visited Australia last year, and if they were under 30, they probably headed here, an Ozzie Sodom of beer-sodden hippies, Bob Marley songs, and surfing. Add to that rain forests, yoga retreats, diving, and the chance to hear whales singing underwater. And so many hostels that it's a sleeper's market. Why haven't you heard about it? The downside: When you get old, so does its nightlife. Getting there: Round trip from the West Coast to Sydney on Qantas, $900 to $1,100, then a) a 12-hour train north ($45) or b) a cheap $50 flight north to Brisbane and one-hour bus ride south.

North America Tulum, Riviera Maya, Mexico The draw: Endless oceanside lethargy, Mayan ruins on seaside cliffs, snow-white beaches, thatched bungalows for $15 a night, meals $4. Removed from Cancun's crassness but 80 miles south of its airport, it's the resort destination of tomorrow. The downside: Since few resorts have phone or e-mail, the best way to land a room is just to roll up (or try www.rivieramaya. com). Tulum itself, away from the coast, is an unappealing highway settlement. Getting there: Fleets of dirt-cheap charter flights hit Cancun from the U.S., including ones by Apple Vacations, Sun Country, and ATA. Taxis to Tulum are $55 (once you bargain), buses $10.

Havana, Cuba The draw: Foreign budgeteers embrace Cuba as an authentic destination-a veritable time machine of culture, politics, and hearty food-and are spending money where money's needed on cycling trips, fishing tours, and loafing. The downside: Well, Castro gets no cigar. And the U.S. forbids citizens from spending cash there, although plenty do anyway. Getting there: We don't advise it in the current political climate, but if Americans must, they have to be sneaky and pre-buy everything internationally (Canada is popular). Consult a lawyer. The rest of the world can just fly to Havana.

South America Las Lenas, Argentina The draw: From July to September (when it's winter below the equator and flights there are cheapest), skiers and snowboarders rage on jagged peaks all day, party like a peaked Jagger all night. Hostel beds go for $4.50, meals $2.25, beers 65¢. Why leave? Well, many don't. The downside: The plummeting peso threatens to spark political instability and petty crime (but so far, so good). Getting there: Fly into Mendoza ($650 round trip from Houston on a combo of airlines) and hail a six-hour bus ride. Or hit Buenos Aires ($550 on LanChile, Avianca, United) and bus 16 hours.

Coroico, Bolivia The draw: This seductive mountain hamlet, stashed deep in the Yungas, has a peculiar humid microclimate that permits you to suntan, swim laps, and mountain hike in the same day. Or stroll through coca fields, brave some of the world's most intense mountain biking, and sleep for $8 per couple. The downside: In this case, "downside" is quite literal. Getting there requires nerves of titanium as you thread perilously down mountain roads along sheer drops. Getting there: Fly to La Paz ($700 round trip from Miami on American) and take the harrowing bus ride ($40) two-and-a-half hours from there.

Africa Malawi The draw: A peaceful mid-African backwater with an idyllic central lake, mellow towns, and a tradition of welcoming foreigners. A terrific place to forget how to hurry and learn how to experience Africa. The downside: Infrastructure's minimal, and malaria and bilharzia are endemic. Some rural areas suffer from AIDS and famine-then again, that's why tourist dollars are needed. (Few travelers report trouble.) Getting there: Most visitors drop by when they're in Africa. Type A visitors fly to Blantyre or Lilongwe via Johannesburg (about $1,700 round trip on South African Airways from the U.S.).

Zanzibar, Tanzania The draw: The name alone seems the definition of exotic, and this spice island off the east coast is a compelling tropical mix of Africa, Arabia, and India. Winding, arch-filled lanes made Stone Town another UNESCO World Heritage Site. And its political tension is now history. The downside: Past the stunning, beach-lined budget area on the northeastern shore, prices skyrocket. Many hostels burned down in a recent conflagration (but low-cost options survive: $10 per night, $6 per meal). Getting there: KLM flies via Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam (about $900), and you'll take a ferry from there for $40.

Europe Dubrovnik, Croatia The draw: One of Europe's most mythic cities (once attracting ten million sunseekers a year), with the continent's finest surviving city walls stretching above the crystal-clear lip of the Mediterranean. Restored after a brutal 1991 shelling by the Serbs, lodging is $15 ($45 for luxury), meals $7, but it's not bringing the tourists back. The downside: Many wounds are still unhealed, which tempers amusement somewhat. Getting there: From New York (via Zagreb) on British Airways, $766 round trip, or $581 round trip from New York to Budapest, plus a daylong train/bus trip.

Reykjavik, Iceland The draw: Geothermal mud baths, absolutely pure air, plus big-sky Northern Lights country among glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, and active volcanoes a few hours east. Everyone speaks fluent English. Nightlife rages until dawn, which in the North Atlantic can be as late as noon. It's only hours from America. And just taste that tap water! The downside: Since everything's imported, food's costly. Summer's brilliant, but winter, while not overly frigid, brings little daylight. Getting there: Icelandair frequently erupts with bargains such as $369 round-trip midweek from New York, Minneapolis, Boston, and Baltimore.

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