It’s easy to plan a visit to London, Paris or New York. There are several landmarks in each of these cities that every guidebook, website and well-meaning friend will agree that you can’t miss. Drop these into your itinerary and your time is soon filled with checking off iconic photo opportunities before exiting through the gift shop.
But what if you arrive in a place where there’s nothing much to see? How do you keep yourself entertained and get to know your temporary surroundings without wishing you were somewhere more immediately appealing instead?
I recently flew to the island of Majuro, an atoll that serves as the capital of the Marshall Islands, one of the world’s most isolated nations in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. While the stereotype of a Pacific atoll may be something akin to paradise, with gently swaying palm trees over clear turquoise waters, at first glance Majuro fails to live up to this in spectacular fashion. Abandoned cars and shipping containers litter the road side, countless stray dogs lie lazily along the roadside and most of the buildings show the signs of years of chronic neglect. The thought that my flight out wasn’t for another five days left me wondering whether I should try and change my plans and get on the first plane out.
As it happens the days soon filled up with things to do and in the end I was left wishing I’d had more time to do some of the options that required a longer stay, such as diving on neighbouring reefs. I’ve had a similar experience on a visit to one of Europe’s poorest nations, Albania, where a fascinating few days came in spite of (or perhaps because of) there being nothing famous or unmissable to experience in the country.
So what is the secret to visiting places with little or no instantly recognisable attractions? Here are a few ideas that might be most usefully applied to ‘out of the way’ destinations, but in fact might be relevant wherever we go:
1. Do some research before you go – every place without exception has its own story to tell and a little advance reading will soon open up ideas of cultural activities, historical sites and even interesting people who you might want to meet. In the case of the Marshall Islands there is a fascinating history, with the islands previously under the control of Germany, Japan and the United States. The legacy of these occupying forces can be seen in different places around the islands. It was here too that the American nuclear tests in the early Cold War years and the islands now house the world’s best collection of wreck sites for divers to explore.
2. In places where tourists are few and far between, local people are typically that bit more hospitable to visitors than they are in tourism hot-spots. Make the most of this curiosity; talk to people, exchange stories about your respective home countries and accept invitations to be shown around or taken to a family home. These experiences are often far more rewarding and will live longer in the memory than standing in line for an hour just to look at a famous painting or stare from a popular viewpoint.
3. Ask local people about their islands. In the Marshall Islands we soon discovered the locals’ favourite beach and even visited a heavy industrial processing plant. Hardly something you’d normally do on a holiday but it turned out to be an insight into what keeps the economy of this struggling new nation afloat (coconuts, as it turns out).
I’m sure there are other good tips for how to make the most of an offbeat destination, but a good start is to know a little about where you’re going, be curious and willing to talk to local people and make your schedule flexible enough to accommodate the suggestions and invitations that might come your way.
#Disclosure: Guest post written by Andy Jarosz for Travel Insurance Cover (www.travelinsurancecover.com.au). Travel Insurance Cover is an Australian provider and offers a range of policies that protect against the unexpected when travelling. More on Andy can be found at Google+.