Top 20 travel destinations – The 2011 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report

Every couple of years, the World Economic Forum crunches a bunch of numbers and releases a list of the top countries in the world to visit. While ranking 139 countries, they measure aspects such as pricing, culture, environmental protection, safety, and infrastructure. For the 2011 report, Switzerland remained at the number one spot – the returning champion from the last report in 2009. Nine out of the bottom ten countries are located in Africa, and seven out of the top ten are located in Europe. Chad ranked in at 139 out of 139. Italy, one of the most visited countries in the world, placed 27th. For the full list, download the PDF at the World Economic Forum website under the ‘reports’ tab.

20. Norway
19. New Zealand
18. Portugal
17. Finland
16. Denmark
15. Luxembourg
14. Netherlands
13. Australia
12. Hong Kong
11. Iceland
10. Singapore9. Canada
8. Spain
7. United Kingdom
6. United States
5. Sweden
4. Austria
3. France
2. Germany
1. Switzerland

flickr image via jeffwilcox

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Why Luxembourg matters

Europe has lots of tiny countries. The rest of the world reminds itself of this fact periodically, almost as a running joke. How Vatican City is the smallest “independent” state, but (come on people), is it really a country? Andorra sounds charming, too, until you go there and discover it’s only the European Union’s largest outlet mall. Likewise, Monaco‘s just a casino with a racecar track, and Liechtenstein‘s a drive-thru bank for dodgy Russians with Austrian passports.

Despite the less-romantic realities of present-day Europe, we travelers still get a kick out of these nifty, little hold-out principalities and monarchies. Somehow, they’ve prevailed in the tempest of European history, avoiding absorption into their larger neighbors all the way into the 21st century when we can ironically celebrate quirky existential nationhoods in the face of supranationalist sentiments.

I first visited Luxembourg on a whim–hopped a train in Brussels and three hours later, stepped off somewhere deep in the Ardennes. I was young, brave, and poor and it was late at night. I walked away from the one-room station in Arlon and disappeared into the forest, bumbling in the woods until the sounds of passing cars disappeared. When I found a comfortable spot, I pushed away the pine needles and lay down on the cold ground, using my lumpy canvas backpack as a pillow.I woke up well past midnight to the softest sound–approaching footsteps? A gentle, rhythm-less pit-pat all around me. It took me several minutes to figure out that all I was hearing were leaves–dead autumn leaves falling from ancient trees and hitting the ground, one by one. That is the silence of Luxembourg–you can hear each leaf hitting the ground.

A louder rustling woke me a few hours later–a little louder, a little closer, and a little more disconcerting. Panic, then peace set in: it was only a doe in the forest, rummaging, peeling bark from the pine trees and stepping timidly closer and closer to my little clouds of breath rising from the ground.

I shivered in the forest until dawn, then hiked back to a road where I fell asleep at a bus stop like a grungy homeless person. I woke up bleary-eyed and asked one of the more respectable citizens nearby if this was Luxembourg. It was.

This was long after the EU but also long before Google Maps. Nowadays you can just google Luxembourg and see how a thin grey line–an international border–simply traces the length of a road, jumps a stream and cuts corners through some farmer’s field (“Well, nine-tenths of my wheat’s right here in Luxembourg but the other tenth is over in Belgium”).

Somehow in the night I had entered this new country and now I was determined to explore it to the fullest extent. Using my finger and a map, I determined that Luxembourg’s fullest extent was around 30 miles–the length of road between Belgium and Germany. Thirty miles is nothing, really. I could walk that in a day, I thought. And so I did. I started that morning and ended at sunset when a bridge crossed the Moselle and I came to a polite, little square sign (chest-high) that barely announced “Deutschland”.

To figure out my to total walking distance across Luxembourg, I retraced my steps online. After punching in my start and end points, Google Maps shouts a stern warning in a yellow box: “Use Caution–This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.” Indeed. My jaunty one-day trek across one of the smallest countries in the world was performed without the assistance of sidewalks or pedestrian paths (or a compass or a map). Most of the time I spent walking in open fields, loving the quaint freedom of fenceless Europe.

By walking, I saw tiny Luxembourg up close and personal. As countries go, it’s a good one. Much of it is very green, divided into forests, fields, and hills. Light yellow stone cliffs and the deep gorges offer a sense of wild landscape, untamed even by these most European of Europeans. Perky castles stand out in the countryside–real life castles where people live and a mailman still delivers the mail. Palaces fill the capital–grandeur and pomp without any particularly urgent purpose. (Remember, this is a country run by a duke, a nobleman who’s latest headlines involve his birthday party and a tumble dryer catching fire in his palace basement.)

Only half a million people live in this country–an odd mix of imported Eurocrats, happy farmers, tax refugees, rich people with titles, and polyglot investment bankers. Maybe it’s not the twee world we had hoped for (black-booted princes on horseback or whistling peasants sticking pitchforks into haystacks), but even in the midst of today’s bland supermarché EU Europe, Luxembourg retains its heirloom personality in its customs, unique government, thousand-year old culture and its even odder language.

In the city of Luxembourg, I attended a Catholic mass read in Luxembourgish (aka Lëtzebuergesch, Luxembourgeois, Luxemburgisch) and found myself delighted by the strange mashup of French and German pronounced like guttural Dutch. Geez, I thought, it’s a whole different language spoken by fewer people than live in the Tallahassee metropolitan area.

Luxembourg’s national motto is Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn or “We want to remain what we are.” The meaning is clear and pretty much sums up every country’s deepest patriotic longing. Because Luxembourg, too, is the red, white, and blue. Well, the red, white and light blue (turquoise?). This is a Grand Duchy folks–the only sovereign duchy left in the world–and the average American traveler to Europe overlooks it like they overlook high-fructose corn syrup. In the rush from Paris to Amsterdam to Munich and back, Luxembourg is the no-name brand of Europe that fails to inspire the uninitiated vacationer.

It’s a terrible mistake though, because honestly, nowhere is Europe more alive than in little Luxembourg. There is no Eiffel Tower or Oktoberfest or legalized marijuana but there is a glint of Europe as it once was–as it still is. Where quiet and pastoral comforts are much valued, where Sunday strolls pass over stone bridges and alongside flowered hedgerows, where no matter where you’ll look, you’ll find a tiny castle poking above the treeline in the distance. It’s nice.

In a time of megacities and mega-construction, we should be glad for a country like Luxembourg. Downtown Shanghai is larger than Luxembourg–Los Angeles County is four times as large. A lot of places are bigger than Luxembourg . . . and yet Luxembourg is the perfect size for travelers: big enough to be an actual country but still small enough to walk across in a day. Epcot Center attempts a similar feet with their 11-country World Showcase, but even your kids aren’t fooled by that set-up. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is the real deal.

I will be going back to Luxembourg–someday–and this time it won’t be for bragging rights. I can already say that I’ve walked across the entire country, but there is still so much of the country I have yet to see, for example, the North. Perhaps I will find a new route using Google Maps–a new, wandering path down the length of one of the smallest countries in the world; a long-winded itinerary that comes with a stern warning, “Caution: This Route May Be Missing Sidewalks.”

(Flickr Photos: Andrew Michaels [Flag], Hendrik [Yellow Field])

Hitchhiker’s Requiem

My father taught me to never, ever hitchhike because I would die. He illustrated the point with dinner table horror stories starring chopped up teenage bodies strewn along the highway and acid-crazed madmen speeding across America at 120 mph: “Those are the kind of people who pick up hitchhikers.”

I followed his advice until I turned 18, which–in this country–is the legal age to stop following your parents’ advice. I don’t remember my first time, though. I was probably in Europe and it just happened–I stuck out my thumb and got a free ride. It was so easy and I was so hooked. Others chased drugs and girls but I chased cars. Free travel is addictive.

I started small and safe, catching lifts with blonde families in minivans in the Benelux. I branched out and grew bolder in places like Sardinia, Poland, and the Sahara–I shrugged, pointed and thumbed my way across the map. I crossed foreign borders in the backseats of strangers, I rode shotgun in diesel-farting trucks and talked my way onto fishing boats that ferried me between islands. Once, when stranded up in the English Cotswolds, I managed to flag down enough cars to carry myself and ten grad school friends all the way home. I became a legend among my worrywart peers.

I devised a “hitch rate” for countries–the average number of cars that passed by before I got a lift. France has a better hitch rate than Spain, Spain better than Italy, Italian Switzerland worse than German Switzerland. Russians always pick up, as long as you have cash. Scandinavia is surprisingly good. The smaller the island, the better the hitching–unless it’s a British colony. And then there’s stuck-up bourgeois countries like Slovenia, where I waited 2 hours and walked over 10 miles before getting a lift from a bleach-blonde Austrian man who had crossed the border to buy a vacuum cleaner.

It wasn’t always movie montage bliss. I’ve had my fair share of scares:There was the self-proclaimed, card-carrying terroriste in Corsica with his pair of hound dogs atop a pair of loaded shotguns in the backseat. I played it cool, showed great interest in the Corsican liberation movement and nonchalantly pointed to an upcoming crossroads where he could drop me off. He drove past it, turned up unpaved roads that winded higher and higher into the lost mountains of the interior. I panicked and mentally practiced a Dukes-of-Hazard exit from the moving car window but there was no need. Le terroriste only wanted to show me the sunset from his village before driving me on to the next larger town.

There was the Ukrainian sailor in Crimea who rode his little Lada like a speedboat, chain-smoking with all windows rolled up, chewing and puffing on his cigarettes and conversing wildly, dropping inches of grey ash each time he shifted gears. Also, maybe he was a little bit drunk.

And I won’t edit out all the pervy creeps out there, like the beady-eyed, fifty-something French baker who wanted a male friend on this, his day off. Although, the one good thing about creeps is that most of them look like creeps. Hitching is all about judging a book by its cover and I’ve probably refused as many rides as I’ve accepted. I also accept that my own occasional creepiness has worked against me.

Like the time in Polynesia–sweat-soaked, red-faced and unshaven–when I stuck out a thumb and waited hours before getting a lift from a nice old lady in a flowery dress. I promptly fell asleep in her car (oh no, was I snoring?). Twenty minutes later she gently woke me at my destination. I thanked her and wiped the drool from my cheek, feeling like a numskull.

Hitching humbles you and makes you grateful for others. As I got older and wiser and less broke, I stopped taking so many lifts and started giving them.

In Costa Rica I picked up two Nicaraguans-a young mother and daughter who worked illegally in the banana plantations. In Zimbabwe–where a car with gas in the tank is viewed much like a free bus–I managed to fit 15 people in the back of an open truck. My passengers knocked on the window when they wanted to get off, then clapped their hands in thanks. In New Zealand, I picked up two Eurokids at the tail end of their gap year. They pretended everything was cool but displayed classic symptoms of backpacker poverty. They were out of cash and hungry with three more days before their return flight home. I drove them all the way to Christchurch and gave them dinner, then watched from the rearview mirror as they set up their sleeping bags under a bridge. Every true traveler needs to be broke on the road at least once. Everyone else is a poseur.

Like in Iceland when I picked up this soaking pair of entitled German campers with blonde dreadlocks and matching nose rings. They complained about the lack of space in my rental car, dripped their icky hippy wetness all over the backseat and demanded a monetary contribution for their organic, low-impact lifestyle. I offered them a fistful of blue pixie stix and dropped their ungrateful, low-impact asses off in a rainy parking lot. Kids these days; they got no respect.

There are no rules to hitchhiking but there are definite social graces–a delicate etiquette between giver and receiver. In America, that relationship of trust was broken long ago.

I don’t need to spell out all the gruesome ways people have been killed hitchhiking or giving lifts–I have a word limit and besides, you can read it all on Wikipedia, right under “serial killer”. Basically, a lot of people have died hitchhiking in America. It’s just one out of many head-shaking United States’ ironies–that in spite of our great freedom and multiple first amendment rights, imitating On the Road is against the law in most states because you might die. Meanwhile in “repressed” Europe, hitchhiking is legal, a rite of passage and the latest trend in charity fundraisers, kind of like our lamer walk-a-thons but way more fun.

Forget the economic woes, endless war and healthcare mess of the news: The real sign of America’s troubles is that Rousseau’s social contract has failed at this most basic level-between hitcher and driver, lift and lifted.

There’s a hundred ways to philosophize this phenomenon: As a car culture, all respectable Americans own cars or have friends with cars–hitchhikers are Americans without cars and therefore undesirable vagrants of ill character. Or that Americans prize freedom of expression above quality of expression (see American Idol), which inevitably leads to victory of the lowest, loudest element. Whatever the reasoning, something bad happened in my country that turned hitchhiking into a vehicle for death.

I never hitchhike in America, nor do I give lifts to strangers. Maybe my dad’s stories still haunt me, maybe I know better now, and maybe I have my own stories to tell: things that I’ve read in the paper, melodramatic TV newscasts, horrible stuff that’s happened during my own lifetime.

As the English say, it’s a pity really . . . how we’ve squandered this innocence, how we’ve closed the open road just a little bit, how our unfettered wanderlust is lost to precaution and cautionary tales. The American fairy tale of hitchhiking hovers on the verge of mythology–a belief rooted in history that might inspire young travelers, but nonetheless remains a kind of modern fiction.

It’s a pity really because some of my happiest travel moments occurred while hitchhiking. Like getting a ride in Scotland on some long rocky isle in the Outer Hebrides. A farmer motioned me into the back of his pickup and I sprawled out across a pile of freshly chopped logs. Everything smelled like sea and pinewood; the ocean wind whipped my hair wildly. I watched the world pull away from me, backwards, the red-brown moorland swept up into high crags and then over the edge of broken sea cliffs. To this day, this is how I remember Scotland: from the back of a truck.

And that’s still the way I like my travel: from the back of a truck.

* One man’s search for the best pizza in Naples, Italy, the birthplace of the pizza.
* Another man’s exploration into rediscovering a city he thought he knew completely.

Or watch the guys visit the “top of New York” and dive into the spiciest food the city that never sleeps offers. (Spoiler alert: Only one of them ends up sick, in the bathroom.)

Adventure Tourism Development Index rates top adventure destinations

The Adventure Tourism Development Index is a study put together by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, in conjunction with George Washington University and Xola Consulting. The joint effort examines 192 countries and ranks them based on their commitment to sustainable adventure tourism, as well as a number of other factors that influence their ability to host an adventure travel market and offer unique experience to travelers.

The ATDI uses what it calls the “10 Pillars of Adventure Tourism Market Competitiveness” to determine its rankings. Those pillars include Sustainable Development Policy, Safety and Security, Tourism Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, Adventure Activity Resources, Entrepreneurship, Humanitarian, Health, and Image.

The study used a combination of surveys, gathered from top adventure travel specialists from around the planet, and quantifiable data from each of the countries to establish a list of the top adventure destinations in both the developed and developing world.

The results of the research are quite interesting, offering up some destinations that might not have seemed like viable options in the past. The top ten developing countries are as follows:

1. Slovak Republic
2. Israel
3. Czech Republic
4. Estonia
5. Slovenia
6. Chile
7. Bulgaria
8. Latvia
9. Botswana
10. Lithuania

And the top ten developed countries are:1. Iceland
2. Switzerland
3. New Zealand
4. United Kingdom
5. Australia
6. Luxembourg
7. Denmark
8. Ireland
9. Germany
10. Spain

A quick look at both lists offers some perennial favorites, especially on the rankings of the developed countries. For instance, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia have long been top destinations for adventure travelers. The list of developing countries is far more interesting however, with long time favorites Chile and Botswana making the list. But even more important is the emergence of the Eastern European countries as increasingly viable options. That region is quickly gaining a reputation for great hiking, backpacking, and paddling destinations, with amazing scenery and fantastic cultures to explore. It doesn’t hurt that they travel in the region is very affordable and not yet over run with tourists too.

To download and read the full ATDI report, click here.