Verboten vacations: 9 reasons forbidden is “in” this year

When it comes to travel, forbidden is in.

Cuba, Iran and North Korea — long off-limits to most American visitors — might be added to the “allowed” list under an Obama administration. Other destinations that were considered too dangerous or hostile to Americans are becoming fashionable again as travelers jettison boring “staycations” for something more exotic.

“People who love to travel will take their chances,” says Glenn Strachan, a wireless communications consultant in Annapolis, Md. He’s been to several “forbidden” places, including everyone’s favorite no-no vacation hotspot, Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia when they were still closed to Americans.

“Had we been caught,” he says of his visit to Cambodia years ago, “we likely would have been killed.”

That’s the thing about these verboten vacations: They can be risky. The State Department publishes a list of travel warnings that shouldn’t be ignored. They range from Cote d’Ivoire, which is experiencing periodic episodes of political unrest and violence since a failed coup a few years ago, to the Philippines, where Americans are at risk from terrorist attacks.

Never mind the health hazards of vacationing somewhere that’s off the beaten path. Or on the war path.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes health advisories for most countries. If you’re traveling to Somalia, for example, you should consider vaccines for yellow fever, Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies and polio. Going to Myanmar? Add a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis and take your malaria pills, please. “We very rarely tell people that they should not go to a particular country,” says CDC spokeswoman Shelly Sikes Diaz.

So when they do, you might want to heed their warning.

Still interested in going off the grid on your next getaway? Here are nine tips.

1. There’s no such thing as safe
Even if you decide to travel somewhere familiar — or at least government-sanctioned — there’s no guarantee you’ll come back alive. “Let’s face it,” says Joy Thrun, who owns Classic Travel, a travel agency in Okemos, Mich., “there is no safe place.” Curiously, some of the destinations that are thought to be dangerous, including Israel, Nepal, Kenya, Colombia Sri Lanka, Haiti, Syria and the Philippines, are not as hazardous to your health as the government would have you believe, she adds. “I would not hesitate to travel there,” she says. “They’re wonderful travel destinations.”

2. Ask around
That’s the advice of Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and author of “Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil.” “It’s very interesting to compare the U.S. Department of State advisories with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advisories and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade,” he told me, adding that the British ones are generally the “most measured.” When he visited Afghanistan and Iraq a few years ago, he remembers the British advisories essentially saying, “This bit is really bad, this bit is probably OK, take care anywhere,” he says. “They didn’t simply say ‘don’t go.’”

3. Remember, you’re not the first American
Brandon Wilson, author of “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa” says if you want to go somewhere forbidden, odds are other Americans have already been there. “Fortunately, there are some great fellow-traveler resources, such as blogs and forums, where folks can address your concerns,” he says. “Tap into their knowledge and see how they may have skirted around the needless bureaucracy.”

4. Brush up on customs
A breach of etiquette may sink your entire trip, warns Martha Wharton, a vice president at TCS Expeditions in Seattle. For instance, if you’re a woman traveling to Iran, don’t forget to have a separate passport photo taken for your visa, in which you’re wearing a headscarf. “Also, in Muslim countries, no alcohol is allowed, and in Burma, there is no cell phone or non-government controlled Internet access,” she adds. “Such is the nature of expedition.”

5. Got money?
Your ATM card and credit card may not work in a country that’s “off limits.” “It’s pretty tricky,” says Peter Frank, who edits the travel site Concierge.com. “Travelers cheques are probably useless, and the last thing you want to do is carry around a big wad of cash. But depending on the destination, that may be your only choice.”

6. Mind your own government
The biggest hurdle to visiting a “forbidden” place may not be that country’s regime, but your own government. Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica, Calif., Middle East activist and blogger, says her trips abroad have left her with an FBI file listing her pre-invasion and post-invasion trips to Iraq. “It’s not easy traveling to countries that the U.S. has deemed off-limits,” she says. Among the challenges: securing visas, researching accommodations and getting wheels once you’re in the country. “Some of these countries, like Iran and North Korea, require American tourists to have full-time minders, which really increases the cost for single travelers dramatically,” she told me.

7. Don’t break any rules — push to change them
Another challenge in traveling to an off-limits country is making sure that you don’t violate any laws, according to James Friedlander, the president of New York-based Academic Arrangements Abroad. Without the necessary permits, your trip may be illegal. “Many times, getting permission is possible through high-level cultural institutions or political contacts,” he says. For instance, the U.S. government routinely allows academics and journalists to visit these banned countries. But the long-term solution is to push for these rules to be lifted. “With the change in administration in Washington, some regulations regarding travel to Cuba, for example, will be relaxed,” he says.

8. Have a security plan
While many of these destinations aren’t as dangerous as you might think, you still have to plan ahead and take certain precautions. Philip Farina, a San Antonio-based security expert, recommends you design a back-up plan that enables you to get to a safe environment if you find yourself in danger. “This includes letting your friends and family know where you will be heading, checking with the U.S. Department of State and the Overseas Security Advisory Council to see who the danger-players in that country are, and how they operate,” he says. Farina says you should carry a hidden kit containing a copy of your passport, emergency cash, a local phone card, a map of the travel region and the telephone number of a company that specializes in high-risk evacuations — just in case.

9. Shut up
You’ll be tempted to tell the world about your Cuba vacation, but you might want to think twice. Not only could you face fines and imprisonment, but your friends might take a dim view of your choice of destination. “I think that the biggest hurdles to traveling to a forbidden destination are the propaganda machine and the hostile, uninformed reactions of fellow Americans who really know nothing about the countries in question or about the laws regarding travel there,” says Julie Schwietert Collazo, the managing editor of Matador Travel and a frequent visitor to Cuba. “There’s also the fear that we’re doing something terribly unpatriotic by going to these off-limits places. I don’t think there’s anything further from the truth.”

Even if more countries are open to Americans than ever before — and even if more Americans want to visit these undiscovered destinations — it’s still likely that large parts of the globe will continued to be free of Western visitors. At least, for now. That’s the assessment of Babs Ryan, who wrote a book about globalization called “America’s Corporate Brain Drain.”

“Unfortunately,” she told me, “the beautiful, history-rich Middle Eastern countries will still be ignored by most Americans. Even frequent travelers lump Muslims and Arabs into one category or are ignorant about the difference in cultures in that region.”

And in that case, ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

Traveling in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba

Don’t pack your bags for Havana just yet.

Fidel Castro may have announced his resignation, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be touring the Plaza de la Catedral, strolling along Varadero Beach or diving on Isla de la Juventud any time soon.

“It’s still early for the American tourist to plan on sipping a mojito at the Hotel Nacional,” says David Guggenheim, who directs the Cuba program at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas. “But change just might be in the wind.”

It could take time — months, or even years — before Cuba becomes the hot destination it used to be for American visitors, according to experts. But the doors to this once-closed island nation are already open to some Americans, and Castro’s retirement is likely to open them even wider.

Nothing is likely to change while President Bush remains in office. However, after the presidential election in November, and just in time for tourist season in the Caribbean, people expect a thaw. “Raúl Castro has indicated in the past that he would be open to a dialogue with the U.S., and presidential candidate Barack Obama has expressed his willingness to open a dialogue with Cuba,” says Guggenheim.

Not quite closed
Travel to Cuba isn’t illegal for Americans — at least, not all of them. Government officials, journalists, researchers and people attending conferences are allowed to visit the island nation, according to the State Department. Technically, travel to Cuba is limited under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and the Trading With the Enemy Act.

About 65,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2006. Among them were students at Ohio Northern University’s 11-week program in Environmental Management at the University of Havana. Terry Maris, an Ohio Northern University management professor who has visited Cuba many times as an academic, estimates that approximately 150,000 American tourists visit Cuba each year illegally. “If the embargo were to be lifted by the U.S. government, it is estimated that from 3 to 5 million American tourists would visit the island in the first year alone,” he says.

And that’s just the start. Several years after travel restrictions are loosened, Havana could conceivably become a subtropical Las Vegas — which is more or less what it was before Castro came to power.

“In the post-World War II period, Cuba outranked all countries in the world in the volume of passenger flow to and from the United States,” says Lisandro Pérez, a sociology professor and Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami. “With jet airplanes, the actual flight is less than half and hour. Havana and Varadero are closer to Miami than Disney World.”

So what if there’s an embargo?
Once you have a license to visit, you can fly directly to Cuba from Miami, New York and Los Angeles on charter flights operated by some of the major U.S. airlines. But there are other ways to reach Havana. Some of the most popular routes include stopovers in Mexico, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and the Bahamas. (A helpful site for planning a Cuba vacation is the Cuba Tourist Board’s Canadian Web site.

Among the options:

– For larger groups, Miami-based ABC Charters offers flights to licensed groups visiting Cuba.

Signature Travel, one of the largest tour operators in Canada, has all-inclusive “dollar stretching” Cuban packages to Varadero, Cayo Coco, Holguin, Cayo Largo and Havana.

– Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Tico Travel runs tours to Cuba for licensed U.S. travelers, but it is also a good resource for visitors who would prefer to go the legal route.

Sure, getting to the island can be something of a hassle. But experts don’t think it will stay that way for much longer. “There’s momentum in Congress to make travel to Cuba easier,” says Susan Eckstein, a sociology professor at Boston University. “As U.S. business interests in Cuba pick up, there is support for lifting travel restrictions.”

But for most Americans, it may be a good idea to sit tight until the embargo is lifted. Not just for practical reasons, but also because it’s the right thing to do, says Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Even with Castro gone, Cuba remains a totalitarian police state, according to the State Department. Halvorssen likens conditions in present-day Cuba to Apartheid South Africa, at least when comparing the plight of ordinary Cubans with tourists.

“Local people are not allowed to enter the hotels where tourists can stay,” he says. “Tourists eat like kings at the hotel buffet which Cubans — even if they have the cash — are not allowed to use.”

Americans, he adds, “should avoid the hypocrisy of visiting that kind of country.”

What’s next?
When I lived in South Florida, I met many Cuban immigrants who longed for the day Castro was gone and they could return home. For me, there was no better symbol of that desire than the Southernmost Point buoy in Key West, which announced Havana was only 90 miles away. In the near term, at least, Havana might as well be on another planet, say people who are familiar with the situation.

“As far as legal travel, nothing has changed,” says Maria Lopez, host of the TV show “Judge Maria Lopez” and a Cuban immigrant who has visited Cuba more than 30 times in the last decade. “Hopefully Fidel Castro’s departure will help change U.S. policy to allow unrestricted travel to the island.”

Part of the problem, say people who have seen Cuba recently, is that its tourism infrastructure would buckle under the weight of all the American tourists. That’s one good reason to wait.

“Cuba only opened to tourism in the early 1990s, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Jack Kenny, author of the book “Cuba” (Corazon Press, 2005). The hotels built back then, he adds, were only meant to support a few million visitors from Europe and Canada. But the prospects of more Americans coming should spawn more investment in hotels and tourist attractions, which could ultimately support throngs of tourists from the mainland.

Until then, travelers who want to experience Cuba might want to book a ticket to Miami. At least that’s the view of William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will take some time before Cuba can put in place the same infrastructure that Miami has,” he says. “Besides, we have the Latin flavor here.”