While places like South Georgia (a territory just north of Antarctica and reachable only by a 3-day voyage) remain largely off the grid, others are difficult to reach because of unrest, deteriorating diplomatic ties, or difficult visa approval processes. Among the tricky countries to visit, a handful are still possible to check out, so long as the approach is well-planned, thoughtful, and sensitively arranged. A few examples of ways to sample these forbidden fruits are below:
Americans can, and do, visit Iran. To enter this country, home to mosaic mosques, lush gardens, and ancient sites like Persepolis, you’ll need to book a tour or private guide. They’ll help facilitate the visa paperwork and help you navigate the cities.
Visiting this Pacific island—a republic with less than 9,000 residents and not too much to see—requires a $100 tourist visa, obtained from one of only 12 consulates in the world, and a flight (one a week) on Our Airline.
What does it take to see Eritrea’s gorgeous Art Deco architecture and turquoise coasts in person? A six-to-eight-week-long visa process that frequently results in unexplained rejections. If you do get approved, you'll need ot hop on a very expensive flight from select airports throughout Africa and Europe. On top of that, travel to this small state on the Horn of Africa is discouraged by the U.S. Department of State due to the country’s increasingly poor foreign relations (they rank below even North Korea on journalistic freedom). Safety, however, does not appear to be a major concern.
To get a visa to go to Russia, Americans must file a lengthy visa application, which demands details on every country you’ve visited in the last decade, and all charity organizations to which you belong. When you’re finally granted access, of course, you’ll be rewarded with the country’s dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime sights: the Bolshoi Theater, Red Square, St. Basil’s, Lenin’s Tomb, and the Kremlin, to name a few.
You can apply for a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia, but the oil-rich country will probably deny you entrance (sources say they're not interested in tourist dollars). Not only that, but the U.S. Department of State warns against attacks on U.S. citizens committed by ISIL and other Islamic extremists. And women can’t go at all unless accompanied by a husband, father, brother, or uncle. If you've got to go, pass through this Middle Eastern country on a 72-hour transit visa, or by arranging a tour through a local agency.
Even with an official Letter of Invitation, a 24-hour guide, and a fully-planned itinerary, it’s not uncommon to be rejected. If you can’t secure a tourist visa, you can aim for a three-day transit visa (granted to travelers biking or driving across the country). Make sure to pencil in time to see Yangykala Canyon and the Door to Hell: a 23-foot-wide crater that has been burning for more than 40 years.
It’s easier than ever for Americans to visit Cuba, but layers of restrictions are still in place. True tourism is still not permitted; trips must be made according to one of 12 permissible categories. Your best bet? Arranging a people-to-people tour with a U.S.-based tour operator, or splurging for one of the new cruise routes. For extra information on how to visit this Caribbean island, read more here.
Tourist visas are distributed very infrequently, and Americans have an exceptionally tough time. Apply for one at least eight weeks in advance, and make sure you submit your Letter of Invitation and yellow fever vaccination certification. If you’re given a visa, you’ll have to catch a rare flight into the country from Africa, Europe, or South America.
Melanie Lieberman is the Assistant Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn.