Most travellers are always on a lookout for the next big destination. There are numerous lists of the “most underrated countries” along with the “best places to visit” that make the rounds each year. While these lists offer inspiration to many planning their getaways, they often create a somewhat skewed perception of a place. That in turn creates an expectation of what that destination will be like, which isn’t always what it is.
There are many places in both categories I’ve been to and found myself wondering if I was the only person that didn’t see the hype. When all you hear is positive, you tend to assume things are just as what others tell you. It doesn’t mean that every destination deemed “underrated” or “most popular” is bad. Quite the opposite, but the reality is that not all of them are what they are cracked up to be.
So, what makes a country underrated? For one, not a lot of people tend to go there as these countries tend not to be on the radar of your average tourist. There are many reasons for that, from conflict and war to economic challenges. Not all these countries have the infrastructure in place to support tourism nor do they make tourism easy and accessible to outsiders.
Onerous and expensive visa processes, lack of tourist amenities and lack of security (perceived or real) are often the reason visitors choose to go elsewhere on their holidays. Quite often, countries on this list also have complicated pasts due to political struggles, human rights issues and everything in between.
So why would anyone want to go there?
Pros and cons
As tourism becomes increasingly available, more countries see the financial benefits of visitors, including those previously not open to tourists. The underrated destinations are then marketed as inexpensive in comparison to those on the popular list. Hotels, excursions and food won’t break the bank and still provide an enjoyable experience. While you might save on cost, the level or service or availability of things most tourists are accustomed to might not be there.
Since the underrated and an-up-coming places are new to tourism, the locals are less likely to be able to communicate with you in your language nor have the same level of service you might be accustomed to. There is beauty in that, however, as they are not as influenced by the commercialism seen in more advanced counties. Visitors have an opportunity for a more intimate experience in a country they are visiting. You can connect with the locals and learn about their culture, quite often in their native tongue, in ways others won’t have an opportunity to do. Plus, you’re there before the crowds, meaning you can enjoy it unspoiled.
Perception vs reality of an underrated destination
Every country trying to attract tourists will put their best foot forward. Cultural and authentic experiences, culinary wonders, historical monuments and untouched landscapes quite often make the highlights of numerous attractions.
Potential visitors are seduced by the mystery and allure of the unknown, often getting their information from people paid to write about them. As a travel blogger myself, I understand the value of a press trip and the exposure it provides to the host. There is nothing wrong with that concept. The challenge presents itself when the readers only take in the good and are not aware of the bad. That translates to a very sobering reality for many.
A blogger on a press trip has a very different experience than a person travelling into the unknown without the same support. I don’t think all bloggers gloss over the bad, especially if they come across it, but they are less likely to do so (even unintentionally) if they are hosted by the destination. I want to stress that many bloggers I know are very diligent about showing the real side of their travels and don’t shy away from telling it like it is. It’s not about that.
When the “up-and-coming destination” disappoints
Quite often the excitement and mystery take on a life of its own. People expect the same experience they have read about especially when all they read is positive. When they don’t, it becomes a bitter memory and less than positive experienced. Been there, done that.
Before I went there, I became obsessed with Morocco. Everything I read about it was alluring, and exotic. An adventure for the senses. Everywhere I looked online, people were raving over Morocco, dreaming of going back and claiming to have lost their hearts there. Pictures of intricate architecture, adventures in shopping as well as tales of seductive smells and sounds were what majority of the online world presented about Morocco.
My experience wasn’t a positive one. I was disappointed and wondered why I was the only person not to like it. The funny thing was, once I came back and expresses my disappointment, I heard many similar stories. Those voices continue to be overshadowed by the those praising it. In fairness, we all experience travel differently. My experience might not reflect what others have, but there will be those that will.
Morocco – thank you, next
The reality for me, at least in Marrakesh, was very different from the tales I’ve read. As a solo female traveller, I didn’t feel comfortable or particularity safe. Nothing untoward happened to me, but there were times when I sensed someone following me. People, especially men, stared at me and clearly talked about me. It was a very disconcerting and off-putting experience. In restaurants I was never given back change nor was my service in any way great.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa square in the old Medina was not the colourful and fun place I read about. You couldn’t walk through without getting harassed by someone trying to sell you something or make you part ways with your money in less than honest way. The tales of scams pulled on tourist were very much alive here, and didn’t make for a positive memory.
There are many people who love the art of a haggle and the thrill the souks and bazaars offer. However, the ancient art of negotiation is not for me. I also don’t enjoy being constantly harassed. Even if it’s in a place deemed as “the destination to visit.” I am glad I went, but it’s not a place I will be rushing back to anytime soon.
Best places to visit
On the flip side of the tourism coin, are countries deemed as the best places to visit. These locations attract tourists in extraordinary numbers, often creating an overtourism problem. So, what makes them so attractive?
The best places to visit usually have a historical and cultural appeal, offer plenty of things to see and do, and are home to many “must see” sights. Tourists can easily get there and move around with ease. Many bucket lists are filled with items from best places to visit. There is an excitement and anticipation that usually accompanies someone going there for the first time.
Places like Paris, Barcelona, Rome or London are tourist magnets and have been written about ad nauseam. Anyone heading over will find abundant resources to assist with their trip. They probably will know more about that location before they even get on the plane to get there. Sounds like a dream, no? Sometimes more isn’t always better.
Pros and cons
Turns out there is no such thing. Best places to visit get that distinction for a reason. These are places and experiences that are an important part of our past and culture. They have played the tourist destination role for centuries, proving their value and importance. You shouldn’t discount them, because they are valuable and interesting places to visit and learn. After all, you can only see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum just as you can only see Pompeii in Italy.
However, with the moniker come other, not so great issues. Cities like Amsterdam, Venice and Dubrovnik struggle with the negative impacts of tourism. Sheer number of people descending on these places creates overcrowding and can negatively impact anyone’s experience. These cities are also fighting back, imposing fines and stricter rules on visitors. That can also impact your perception and experience.
Perception vs reality of best places to visit
You can throw the proverbial rock and hit an article on best brunch/dinner/vegan places in any city and just as many with things to see and do. There is a reason popular destination are also deemed as the best ones to visit. Just as many visitors flock to them, there as just as many bloggers writing about them. The competition is fierce.
While you might dream about a romantic drive down the Amalfi Coast, visit the Eifel Tower or stroll through the Colosseum, you will most likely have to wait in long lines and battle other tourists for a spot. Want that perfect pic by the Trevi fountain? Forget about it, because so does everyone else.
While the idea of being surrounded by masses of tourists might be unappealing, you should still visit these places even if it’s off season. They are deemed the best, because they offer an incredible experience for you and millions of your friends.
There are times, when even the best places to visit prove disappointing.
I dreamt of Prague
Prague was in the top five on my bucket list of destinations. Everything I have ever read and seen told me that Prague was unlike any other city. After all, how many places can claim to be known as the Paris of Eastern Europe? A city with an impressive Old Town Square and medieval astronomical clock, cobbled streets, striking architecture and abundance of beer, Prague seemed like my kind of place. It had all the elements I was looking for.
From the moment we arrived, we were faced with rudeness. From taxi drivers and shopkeepers to restaurant and hotel staff, the level of service was sub-par and unlike anything I have ever experienced. It felt like we were a great inconvenience and everyone wanted to rip us off.
There were several times when we were given one price just to be charged a totally different amount when the bill arrived.
Even the medieval clock didn’t seem that fascinating and the beer was just ok. There were many people begging on the streets, which is not unusual in a large, touristy city, but here it made us very uncomfortable.
Prague does have spectacular architecture and is worth seeing at least once, but it is not a place I’m likely to return to. Been there, done that.
Barcelona, I’m just not that into you
We were optimistic for Barcelona. Everyone said it was a blast and we prepared to love it from the start. Barcelona is home to the famous Sagrada Família church and many other architectural wonders by the modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. From what I’ve seen, it was all worth a quick look. We quickly discovered that to see any of the attractions, we had to buy tickets and usually way ahead of time.
While you can purchase admission tickets to many European attractions ahead of time, you often have an option of buying them on location. Not in Barcelona. We had issues getting tickets online and had to wait for available times later in our trip. The Parc Güell was particularly disappointing at 9 Euros a person. Turns out they’ve only been charging admission for about three years. Overtourism control methods at their best.
We found Barcelona very underwhelming. It was a nice city, but somehow did nothing for us. It’s hard to describe other than meh. Food, drinks and weather were great, which made up for the other disappointments. Another place that I would probably not rush to get back to.
Expectations are just that
It doesn’t really matter if you are visiting the best places or those deemed as underrated or up-and-coming. There is no guarantee that you will love the best places nor that you will hate the underrated ones. That’s the beauty of travel. It opens our minds, teaches us about ourselves and other, but most importantly, allows us to get out of our bubbles see how other people live.
It doesn’t matter if you’re going somewhere because it’s on your bucket list or that you crave something different. Each place has its plusses and minuses. What bothers me might not be important to others, while my amazing experience might differ significantly from someone else’s.
As a travel blogger, I will always try to find something positive about every experience, but I will also make sure to be honest with myself and my readers when things don’t turn out as expected. There needs to be a balance of opinions so the readers can draw their own conclusions.
It’s all about how you deal with it
I am the type of traveller that likes to see a lot of things. Planning multi-destinations trips is a favourite of mine. It allows me to discovery new places and provides an out when a place doesn’t deliver.
I think you can comfortably see any city in about three days. It’s a great amount of time to decide how you feel about it and whether you’d go back. Three days are also long enough if you want to change your plans and move on elsewhere.
The reality is, you’ll not going to love every place you visit, nor should you. Travel is about being out of your comfort zone. That experience moulds how you travel and shapes the person you become.
Have you ever been to a place that didn’t live up to your expectations? Let me know!