Tourist Passion for Quirky Holidays Helps South

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Conventional thinking holds that any country with a poor or non-existent reputation in the international media will not attract tourists. But this conventional thinking is wrong: The hottest tourist trend for 2009 is directly benefiting the South’s more out-of-the-way and under-appreciated countries. So says a travel expert who specializes in overlooked travel destinations.

Prior to the economic downturn, tourism accounted for more than 10 percent of global GDP and 8 percent of total employment worldwide. It grew by 6 percent in 2007, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Tourism in the Asia-Pacific region grew by 10 percent and Africa by 8 percent.

But it has since declined by 8 percent between January and April of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. Destinations worldwide recorded a total of 247 million international tourist arrivals in those four months, down from 269 million in 2008 (UNWTO World Tourism Barometer).

This means competition is heating up for tourists. Well-travelled tourists are now looking for out-of-the-way places and places far off the beaten track. They want to be unique and have a tale to tell when they get home.

Tony Wheeler, author of the book Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil and co-founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides, said “Lots of tourists want to be the first through the door.”

During the Fitur Travel Fair in Madrid in January 2009, Myanmar (formerly Burma) appeared for the first time. Europe’s biggest travel fair also saw Zimbabwe, the Palestinian territories and Iran chasing travellers to come and see the sights.

Wheeler told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that, ironically, the more negative reports in the media a country gets, the more this new breed of tourist want to visit and find out the truth.

And his travel experiences have taught him, for example, the Burmese people do not believe in isolation and boycotts, as he wrote in the Guardian.

“Over the three decades since my first visit, tourism has grown from 20,000 tourists a year to more than 100,000.”
“Cutting the country off from the rest of the world isn’t going to help. We recently received a letter from one of our Burma authors saying the psychological damage of being isolated can be as bad as the economic damage.”

North Korea – which was labelled part of the “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush – saw its foreign tourist numbers rise to 4,500 in 2008 from just 600 in 2001.

Ross Kennedy of Africa Albida Tourism, which operates safari lodges in Zimbabwe, said bad headlines hurt but presenting an alternative view can reverse apprehension and lure tourists to come.

The lodges saw a 4 percent rise in visitors in 2008 in spite of chaotic elections in Zimbabwe that drew negative press.

“You certainly can’t write off an entire destination because of the choices or behaviour of a few individuals,” Kennedy told the Telegraph.

Tourism is now generally recognized to be one of the largest industries in the world, if not the largest. It has grown rapidly and almost continuously over the past 20 years, and is now one of the world’s most significant sources of employment and of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Tourism particularly benefits the economies of developing countries, where most of the sector’s new tourism jobs and businesses are being created.

Tourism, because it is a labor-intensive industry, is seen as a great way both to reduce poverty and to meet all the Millennium Development Goals. It favours small-scale businesses, it is decentralized and can diversify regional economies, it is relatively non-polluting and can contribute to the conservation and promotion of natural and cultural heritage, and most importantly it can act as a catalyst for kick-starting other sectors of the economy.

In Iran, the Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel, located in the province of East Azerbaijan in the north-west of the country, has been luring in tourists with the villages’ cave homes. Located in the village of Kandovan, where residents speak a Turkish dialect, the homes look like craggy sandcastles with holes in them; around 700 people live in the hollowed out rocks.

Prior to the hotel opening, it was only possible to visit for a day and the locals, who make their money harvesting fruit and walnuts, were suspicious of outsiders.

Kandovan means “Land of the Unknown Carvers”. An added attraction to visiting Kandovan is the mystery surrounding the houses. No one knows how long people have been there or when the homes were carved out of the rock. Others claim it is the biblical land of Nod, where Cain was left to wander after murdering his brother Abel.

The hotel occupies a hillside of caves and has a large restaurant and rooms that blend traditional décor like Persian rugs with modernist touches like recessed lighting. The rooms offer under-floor heating and some even have whirlpool baths. The hotel currently has 10 rooms, but plans to expand to 30.


  • United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
  • Magic Carpet Travel: It specializes in trips to Iran and bookings for the Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel. Website:
  • African Travel and Tourism Association: ATTA creates the platform for buyers across Europe to meet suppliers of African tourism products at networking events, trade shows and through its links with the media. Website:
  • Planeta: One of the first ecotourism resources to go online (since 1994) and still offers plenty of information for those wanting to start a business. Website:
  • Off The Beaten Track Travel Magazine: Off The Beaten Track is a site for the traveller who avoids the beaten path of mass tourism. Website:
  • World Tourism Cities: Developing Tourism Off the Beaten Track, edited by Robert Maitland and Peter Newman, Publisher: Routledge. Website:
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