If you do enough traveling or are crazy enough to want to go everywhere, sooner or later you’ll encounter a few countries that aren’t especially known for being welcoming to travelers. Sadly, civil war, longstanding dictatorships, and massive corruption is the norm in several parts of the world.
For the independent traveler, these countries present special challenges. However, as I’ll show you in this essay, most of the challenges can be overcome – at least to the point where you get there and back safely.
Let’s start with a couple of assumptions, followed by the principle that makes this kind of travel possible. First, the assumptions:
1. You need $2 a day. We’ve previously established that almost anyone who reads this site can save $2 a day. Most people will probably not choose to put their pennies towards North Korea or Syria, but the cost is not the problem.
2. It helps to have a passport from a rich country.* If you are a citizen of a rich country or otherwise carry a rich country’s passport, it will be easier than if you live in a poor country. This is not required, but it does help with visas.
(*Rich countries include the U.S., Canada, European Union, Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland)
And now, the principle:
There is almost always an alternative way to do something or go somewhere.
This principle is true not only for visiting rogue states; it actually applies throughout much of life – but for now, we’ll apply it to this kind of travel. As I’ll show you here, you can visit North Korea on a day tour from Seoul. You can go to a safe part of Iraq without ever touching down in Baghdad. If you want to do it the hard way, you can — but understand that there is usually an easier way as well.
Now let’s look at how to get to specific rogue states and interesting places. If you’re reading this much later than the publication date (December 2008), be aware that some information may have changed.
Iraq – The best way to go to Iraq without all the drama is to go to Kurdistan. Where’s that? It’s sort of in Iraq, although you wouldn’t know it. You can book a commercial flight from Austria and arrive in the ancient city of Erbil without a visa. No one will bother you and you’ll be completely safe. I went there over the summer and was surprised at how anti-climactic it was. Of course, for all purposes other than map-drawing, Kurdistan is not really Iraq. Given the choice between flying there and flying to Baghdad, however, I recommend you choose Kurdistan.
Getting to Baghdad (if you must) isn’t that difficult either. Most Middle Eastern airlines and a couple of European airlines fly there at least several times a week. My choice is Royal Jordanian. For security, some of the flight times aren’t scheduled – you just show up at the airport at 8 a.m. and sign in. The plane leaves at 9, 10, 11, or 12 noon according to a schedule that isn’t made public. Like I said about something else recently, it’s not for beginners.
Afghanistan – There’s not a “sort of Afghanistan” region you can drop into like there is for Iraq, but commercial flights regularly arrive and depart from Kabul. As for the visa, I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks like you can get one fairly easily. For U.S. citizens, the cost is just $50 for two-week processing. You can fly on Ariana Airlines, the national airline, or on your choice of European or Middle Eastern carriers.
Burma (Myanmar) – Not difficult at all, and you can fly in from Bangkok on the nice Thai Airways. I recommend using a visa service (I use VisaHQ) to avoid dealing with the embassy. You’ll have to pay extra for this, but in this case it’s worth it. Once you get there you’ll have no problems, but do be careful talking to anyone about politics or the current rulers of the country.
Libya – Western visitors were recently allowed back into Libya after a long policy of non-admittance, but you have to go in a group of at least three people and the application process takes a long time. There is also a new policy that all foreigners complete an unusual translation requirement before entering the country:
Without prior notice, the Libyan government on November 11, 2007 “reinstated” a requirement that all foreign travelers must have an Arabic translation of their personal biographic data added to their passport in order to apply for a Libyan visa, or to enter Libya. This requirement includes foreigners who already received visas before the requirement was put into place, including those foreigners currently resident in Libya. Since that date, foreign travelers whose passports do not have Arabic translations have been denied entry into Libya or refused boarding by airlines on flights into Libya.
(Courtesy of the U.S. State Department)
I’m hoping that these requirements (passport translation, group travel) will ease up over the next couple of years so I can get there without all the hassle.
Syria – I wrote recently about how hard it was to get a visa to Syria. I went through all the trouble because I had read online (and in the love/hate Lonely Planet) that it was not possible to get a visa at the Lebanese border. Weeks later I turned up in a service taxi and dutifully presented my passport (with the visa), only to learn that I could have got it there on location after all. Oh well. I had a great time in Damascus and wanted to stay longer than I was able. If you can only go to one rogue state, this is a good one.
Zimbabwe – As I said a while back: great country, terrible government. I’d love to go to a Zimbabwe where people are free to make their own choices and where their savings are not depleted by the greed of a few. A trip to a Zimbabwe like that is not currently possible, but the logistics are easy enough – head first to Johannesburg, then fly South African Airlines or a couple of regional airlines that go there. If you’re brave, you could try Air Zimbabwe. Visas are available on arrival for $30 for U.S. and E.U. passport holders. (Note that Canadians need to apply in advance.)
Cuba – The U.S. embargo prohibits American citizens from going to Havana without a good reason. Naturally, this only applies to Americans, so everyone else can freely travel to Cuba. For its part, Cuba is happy to welcome American travelers, and in fact they’ll go along with the ruse by not stamping your passport if you ask upon arrival.
You can get to Cuba by:
a) Flying to Jamaica (or elsewhere in the Caribbean) and then taking Air Jamaica
b) Flying through Mexico (Aeromexico), Canada (Air Canada and several charter companies), or the U.K. (Virgin Atlantic and others)
c) Going through the process to get “permission” from the U.S. government to visit Cuba. This can be done through a university exchange, a journalist visa, or a few other approved exceptions.
As for me, I’m waiting it out because there are a lot of other places I need to go first, and since I come and go so often, I don’t want to get put on some kind of TSA terrorist list because my passport was scanned in Havana. Of course, if you’re not a U.S. citizen, then it’s not difficult at all to get to Cuba.
Iran – This one is doable but not easy. You’ll need to go through an approved Iranian travel agency and agree to take the tour they provide. Depending on how long of a tour you choose, you may or may not have the chance to do some things on your own – but obviously, you shouldn’t count on it. If the situation hasn’t changed, I’m thinking about doing this sometime in 2010. Want to sign up to go with me?
Sudan – Not surprisingly, the government responsible for genocide in Darfur does not welcome Westerners with open arms. The visa costs at least $151 (more if you use a service), and before you can even apply, you need an invitation letter from Khartoum. To get this done, you’ll need an inside contact, legitimate or otherwise.
(Side Note: I found it amusing that the web site for the Sudanese Embassy in D.C. offers a “free monthly newsletter.” I signed up, but nothing has arrived yet. Hmmmm.)
North Korea – As the world’s most isolated major country, independent travel is virtually impossible in North Korea. To get there at all, you have a couple of choices:
1. Extended tour (The Hard Way)
It requires a minimum of one week and at least $1500, but you can sign up for a carefully-escorted tour to the land of Kim Jong-il. The trip starts in Beijing since there are no flights between North and South Korea. You’ll be accompanied the entire time and only allowed to speak to carefully selected citizens, but who knows? It could certainly be interesting. This group is one of the leading tour companies.
2. Quick tour from Seoul (The Easy Way)
If you can’t commit to a week and $1500, how about one day and $100? Instead of flying to Pyongyang, you can fly to Seoul (completely democratic, no shortage of coffee, lots of fun) and book a special tour that takes you to the DMZ between the North and South. The tour concludes in a negotiating room where you can literally cross into “North Korean territory” for a few minutes. The rules are strict – no t-shirts, jeans, or cell phones allowed.
Voila! There is North Korea for you on the cheap. Ever since I saw Michael Palin do this in one of his travel documentaries, I’ve wanted to do it myself. My only problem is that I’VE MISSED THE TOUR THREE TIMES. Yes, no kidding – I’ve been in Seoul three times now, each time intending to take the tour so I could technically cross into North Korea, and each time they have not offered the tour on the days I was there. Once it was Monday (no tours on Monday, apparently), another time it was a Korean holiday, and another time a military exercise closed down the base for a week.
This Google search gives you more info and lots of results.
- What about places that aren’t safe?
This kind of travel is at your own risk. Western governments typically counsel their citizens against traveling to rogue states and other interesting places, and the presence of an embassy may be limited or non-existent.
That said, in my experiences I’ve always been treated well. I prefer not to go anywhere where I would legitimately fear for my safety (Somalia, Baghdad, perhaps a few other places) – but this list is very short compared to everywhere else.
- How much do tickets cost?
Airfare to rogue states can be expensive. In addition to security concerns and widespread corruption in some of them, there is the “need to go” factor that drives up airfare – most civilians who go to Iraq or Sudan are journalists or aid workers, meaning that they have to be there and their organizations are forced to pay high prices.
To avoid this, I recommend (again) the use of Round-the-World tickets through OneWorld or Star Alliance. You can include a number of rogue states on a RTW trip at no additional cost. I went to Burma on a Circle Pacific ticket (like a Round-the-World ticket, but only for Asia), and I’m hoping to visit the Sudan on next year’s trip. If you’re doing the DMZ tour from South Korea, either alliance will get you to Seoul, and you can also get to Zimbabwe (South African Airways) and Syria (Royal Jordanian) using Star Alliance and OneWorld respectively.
Barring a Round-the-World trip, you can also book regular round-trip flights to your preferred rogue state. Awards tickets booked with Frequent Flyer miles can be a good choice for these trips, since the price is high but mileage charts are standardized.
By the way, if you don’t see flights for a particular rogue state when you search online, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. You may need to call up a travel agent to get more info, since they aren’t always linked to the open databases.
Lastly, a Fair Warning
For some of these places, the joy is in the journey… because there’s not always much to do or see when you get there. Keep your expectations in check. You might have a great time (like I did in Syria), or you might be glad to leave when the trip is over. It’s difficult to predict in advance what your experience will be like in one of these places. Some of us enjoy that reality and others don’t, so as they say — your mileage may vary.
Have you been to any rogue states (or other interesting places) lately? Would you be willing to go?
Image of Pyongyang Airport, North Korea by YGG