9 destinations you can only visit on a tour

Apr 4, 2020

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Tour groups get a bad rap for being an inauthentic way of seeing a new place. But there are some amazing destinations (and even entire countries) where most travellers can only legally visit with an organized tour or a licensed guide.

Not only are most of these places impossible to get to without some help, but being relieved of all the organizing that has to happen on self-planned excursions might just change your mind about guided trips.

Here is a list of tour-only locations that even the most independent traveller should consider.

Antarctica

Unless you’re a scientist headed to one of the research stations, visitors to the White Continent need to go through a travel agency that offers up expeditions for land or cruise-bound tours, or a combination of both. Depending on the trip, visitors get to watch penguins, kayak with whales, scuba dive, and visit a research station. A visit to the frozen continent could also get you can the elusive Port Lockroy passport stamp.

 Depending on your preference, ExpeditionTrips has many types of outings, as does National Geographic Expeditions. Viking will also offer expedition-style cruises in 2022. A list of all groups that are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic”, can be found here.

How to get there

There are no flights (or not usually) to Antarctica, but the majority of cruises will depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southernmost tip of South America. Aerolíneas Argentinas and LATAM fly nonstop between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. Domestic carriers like Austral Líneas Aéreas, JetSmart Argentina, and Norwegian Air Argentina, also fly from airports around Argentina and South America to Ushuaia.

The DMZ

Coming from either North or South Korea, tourists must visit on guided tours to see the 2.5 mile-wide demilitarized space, with the famous Joint Security Area (JSA) being the one site both sides get to see. 

The South Korean DMZ tours (Koridoor, Cosmojin, and Viator are a few of the options) all include a visit to the JSA’s bright blue Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, which straddles both countries and where negotiations between the two countries take place. On the South Korean side, which is the only way Americans can legally see the DMZ since 2017, U.S. military personnel take over as chaperones for the JSA part of the trip.

Other stops might include a hike down the unfinished infiltration tunnels allegedly built by the North, the Nuri Peace Park, the barricaded Freedom Bridge where prisoner exchanges formally took place, and Mount Odu Observatory, where powerful binoculars provide 360-degree views across the peninsula. 

How to get there

Most of the tours from the South Korean side start from Seoul, which has plenty of great airline options to chose from.

Chernobyl

After the recent success of the HBO show “Chernobyl,” visits to the site of the 1986 nuclear explosion are way up. The tours take you through parts of the exclusion zone that were deemed safe enough to visit by 2011, but trip goers still need to go on guided tours along specific routes, follow rules like no sitting down, and get checked for radiation on the way out.

Related: Visiting Chernobyl — Touring Inside a Nuclear Disaster Zone

The visit takes you through the abandoned towns of Prypiat, Zalissya, and Leliv, as well as a drive by to see the still-operational power plant, although the reactor responsible for the explosion is completely encased. Check early for tickets from groups like Chernobyl Tour and CHERNOBYLwel.come, as they tend to sell out.

How to get there

Chernobyl sits two hours north of Kyiv, where most tours meet up. Boryspil International Airport, the bigger of the two airports in Ukraine’s capital (the other, Kyiv International Airport, is primarily for private business flights), has almost two dozen carriers to choose from, giving you your pick of carriers for getting there. Ukraine International Airlines is Ukraine’s flagship carrier, and although though it’s not in an alliance, it is partnered with Air France-KLM’s Flying Blue program, letting you earn and redeem Flying Blue miles.

Bhutan

The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is famous for measuring the country’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), and the government uses this guiding principle to shape its strict tourism policies. All tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi, and Maldivian passport holders) not only require a visa but must book their holiday through a tour operator with specific, and limited, offerings. The fees go up to about £200 a day for up to three people but include the tour guide and driver, all meals, and sleeping accommodations in hotels with at least three stars (and you can pay extra for more luxurious digs).

Typical excursions include visits to the Tiger’s Nest, a cliffside temple complex and Bhutan’s most famous attraction, hikes, visiting a nunnery, archery practice at the Changlimithang Stadium, white water rafting, and a stop at a fertility temple covered in phallic symbols. Bhutan’s website has a list of licensed tour operators to choose from.  

How to get there

The only international airport, located in Paro, is served by two airlines: Bhutan Airlines and Druk Airlines, neither of which are part of any alliance. The two airlines fly in from cities across India, as well as Bangkok, Nepal, and Singapore. Bonus fact: Paro International Airport is considered one of the most dangerous airports to land, with slightly more than two dozen pilots licensed to do it, with strict rules around when planes can fly in.

ATM Caves 

Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Caves are a famous archaeological site containing the skeletal remains of Maya human sacrifices, pottery, and other ancient artefacts. Due to how environmentally sensitive the location is, only 125 visitors are allowed each day, and only with licensed guides with groups like MayaWalk Tours and Pacz Tours.

The journey starts with an hourlong hike through the jungle, including crossing shallow rivers. The cave’s entrance is protected by a spring-fed pool, forcing visitors to swim, and then wade, through a subterranean river for about half a mile. Once through, there are several vast caverns, including the “Cathedral,” which contains many of the Mayan artefacts and includes an altar carved out of the stone wall. Besides the ancient human artefacts, visitors can expect to come across wildlife in the cave, including freshwater crabs, catfish, and tropical fish, as well as predatory spiders like the “whip spider,” which apparently only “look” terrifying.

How to get there

Some tour guide groups will do pickups at the Belize City International Airport, which is served by a dozen airlines. Visitors can also fly with Tropic Air into Belmopan, the closest airport, and served by other Belize airports.

Corcovado National Park

The Costa Rican island reserve is home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife species, including crocodiles, jaguars, pumas, sloths, and monkeys. Since 2014, the government has tried to protect the biodiversity of the area, including making guides mandatory for any trip into the region. Located on the Osa Peninsula, the park contains the largest primary forest on the American Pacific coastline and encompasses 13 types of ecosystems, from highland cloud forests to mangroves to beaches.

With so many types of habitats, there’s a good chance hiking tours can spot plenty of unique species, including scarlet macaws, jaguars, harpy eagles, the highly endangered red-backed squirrel monkey, and some of the 100 species of butterflies that live there. Water-based trips can go looking for the four sea turtle species that nest in Corcovado, with whales and dolphins a little farther out.

Depending on the activity and length of trip, companies like Corcovado Tent Camp Lodge and Corcovado Hiking Tours offer a variety of options.

How to get there

Costa Rican’s Sansa Airlines has daily direct flights from the capital in San Jose to two of the park’s main access points on the Osa Peninsula: Puerto Jimenez or Drake Bay. Once there, Alfa Romeo Air Charters can get you directly to one of the park’s ranger stations in minutes.

Turkmenistan

Except for some visits by certain Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan passport holders, everyone needs a visa to visit this Central Asian country. Visitors need an invitation letter issued by a Turkmenistan travel agency, as well as provide a list of all the places they plan to visit. Once a tourist visa is approved, a guide will meet the travellers at the border or airport to keep them to the prearranged schedule. 

Roaming freely in Ashgabat, the capital, is allowed, letting visitors see the city in all its white marble and Soviet statue glory. Outside of Ashgabat, tours often hit up Kiva, an ancient walled city that was a stop on the Silk Road, archaeological sites, and desert camping. 

How to get there

Turkmenistan has five international airports, but Ashgabat International Airport has the most airline options, including flydubai, Turkish Airlines, S7, China Southern Airlines, Belavia, and Turkmenistan Airlines 

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu, the picturesque Incan citadel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be reached numerous ways, including the Inca Trail. The Peruvian Government caps the number of people allowed to hike it, as well as mandating that everyone must trek with a registered guide. Hopeful hikers have to apply to one of the 500 daily permits, which are offered on tour operators’ sites like Tour in Peru and Inca Trail Reservations. Sneaking on the ancient path won’t work — there are several government checkpoints along the trail. 

The trail has three options of different lengths: mollepata, classic, and one day. The first two options can take up to five days and have hikers climbing 13,800 feet above sea level, which can result in altitude sickness for some, so it’s best to give yourself a few days in Cuzco (situated at 11,000 feet) to adjust to the heights. But the Inca Trail, tucked into the Andes mountains and passing through cloud forests and alpine tundra environments and passing by ancient Incan ruins before ending at Machu Picchu, is worth the effort. 

How to get there

Cuzco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport is the closest place to fly into for the Inca trail and is served by Amaszonas, Avianca, LATAM Perú, Star Perú, and Viva Air Perú.

Niihau

The westernmost inhabited Hawaiian island only allows visitors that are invited by the owners of the isle, the Robinson family, by one of the 200 full-time Native Hawaiian residents or by a highly regulated tour. Niihau, nicknamed “The Forbidden Isle,” only allowed guests starting in 1987. Now, there are half-day helicopter trips to remote beaches for swimming and a picnic, where Hawaiian wildlife like sea turtles and monk seals can be seen.

How to get there

Nihau tours pick up on Kauai, the closest island, which Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, Southwest and Westjet all serve.

Feature image by Andrew Peacock/ Getty Images.

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