Once upon a time, you could visit the great bucket list wonders of the world—officially designated or otherwise—and practically have the place to yourself. That’s how I experienced Petra, Sukothai, Abu Simbel, and Aya Sofia as a backpacker in the 1990s. They were emptier still in the 1970s and some of them (like Angkor Wat) weren’t even open to visitors. Before international tourism doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled in this century, nearly all the great wonders were places you could once visit without massive crowds, back before the word “overtourism” passed anyone’s lips.
For a brief moment in their history, they’ve been devoid of crowds again. Many great wonders went from 5,000 or 10,000 visitors per day to zero. For those who can sprint to the entrance when borders open again to world travelers, these bucket list attractions will be magical again for a while.
Once everyone gets vaccinated and group tours are a thing again, the crowds will return in force. We in the industry are hoping for a more sensible path forward for tourism and a more enlightened way to balance sustainability and commerce. But I’m not going to hold my breath. As soon as charter flights, package tours, cruise ships, and tour buses are a thing again, the throngs of tourists in a hurry will return to the places they’ve dreamed about in force.
They’ll be coming at the end of this reopening process though, not the beginning. There will be an opportunity to get ahead of the pack, to be one of the first to waltz in and take photos with no people in them. You’re not going to be able to do it all though, so take some time to think about what would really get your heart racing.
Then figure out what you’ll need to do. It’s not as simple as just checking the requirements to obtain the Visa for Turkey. Yes, you might want to pay for some help with that depending on your country of origin. But you’re also not going to be able to see Topkapi Palace until you’ve met the new anti-virus requirements as well.
For now, most open countries are requiring a negative PCB test from the last two or three days. Others are making you quarantine somewhere. Some require travel insurance coverage of $100K, or a deposit of cash in case you get hospitalized. Then when a vaccine is widely available, you’ll probably need to get jabbed before you can travel to somewhere like Australia at a minimum, maybe anywhere for a few years at least.
Here are some ways to make the most of this opportunity.
Visit the Man-made Crowd Pleasers
On Perceptive Travel, we’re usually talking up the lesser-known spots, the gems that don’t get magazine cover stories, the places where you stick around a while and dig deeper into the culture. For a while though, forget all that. Head to the greatest hits of travel!
You won’t have to strategize about how to avoid the crowds when there are no crowds to speak of really. This is not true everywhere in the world, as we saw in U.S. national parks in 2020. But in countries without a big domestic tourism industry (and millions of RVs), the big international draws are sitting empty, waiting. Even if they’re already open now, like Machu Picchu, capacity is limited to maintain safe distances.
I don’t know what’s on your personal bucket list, but here are a few famous sites that have long suffered from overcrowding and will inevitably suffer from it again in a couple of years.
Great Pyramids, Luxor (Egypt)
Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
Roman Coliseum (Italy)
Ephesus, Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace (Turkey)
The Acropolis, Meteora (Greece)
Borobudur and Prambanan (Indonesia)
Grand Palace/Wat Po (Bangkok)
Great Wall of China
The Taj Mahal (India)
Machu Picchu (Peru)
Chichen Itza (Mexico)
Visit the (Usually) Crowded Bucket List Places
High season in Paris? The summer crush in Italy? Hey, no problem! No season will be high season in 2021 in most of the world, not until the general public feels they can move around freely and safely. So for a while you can forget about low season, shoulder season, or mid-week timing to avoid travel crowds. There probably won’t even be many seasonal fluctuations in flight prices since the airlines are so hurting for business.
Visit the place you want, when you want, and get your pick of places to stay. Visit the museums when you feel like it, no queueing up early to be the rush.
Here are a few cities and regions to consider that showed up as overtourism powder kegs as recently as 2019. If one has been on your “visit soon” list for a while, 2021 might be your year to make it happen.
Ring of Kerry
Chase Waterfalls and Explore Natural Wonders
It’s not just the man-made attractions and cities that bring in the crowds. Nature’s attractions get loved to death too. Plus when people are trying to avoid indoor spaces where the virus can spread more easily, outdoor wonders have more of a pull.
Some of the most popular and accessible ones have not missed a beat during this pandemic, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Others have been near-empty, however, so beat the rush if you want easy pickings for selfies you don’t have to wait in line for.
Here are a few usually crowded natural great attractions that will be much less so when borders are fully open.
Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil)
Torres del Paine (Chile)
Easter Island/Rapa Nui (Chile)
Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina)
Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
Monteverde Cloudforest (Costa Rica)
Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland)
The Dead Sea (Jordan/Israel)
Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe-Zambia)
African game reserves (Bostwana, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania)
Gorilla sanctuaries (Rwanda, Uganda)
Ha Long Bay (Vietnam)
Phi Phi Islands (Thailand)
Komodo National Park (Indonesia)
Ayers Rock/Uluru (Australia)
Milford Sound (New Zealand)
No, I’m not claiming that this is a comprehensive rundown of formerly crowded places that might be on someone’s bucket list. So if I left off some usually packed place that you’ve been wanting to visit, your list is the only one that matters.
Book a flight (which you can probably change if needed), book a hotel or apartment, then start dreaming with a date in mind! Maybe the second half of the year if the picture is still cloudy on opening.
When we circle back at the end of next year, we’ll probably be talking about tourist attractions that are “starting to get busy again” and it might be too late. Time to prioritize that bucket list and see what should move to the top.