[Ratings] Lonely Planet’s 2020 top-10 places to visit: Why Bhutan is the best

The Sher-Dor Madrasah in Uzbekistan, one of the countries that can be found along the Central Asia Silk Road. Photo: Getty Images. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

What’s the most on-trend travel destination going to be in 2020? It’s Bhutan, according to Lonely Planet, which has put the tiny Asian nation at the top of its Best in Travel 2020 book, an annual publication of its top 10 countries, cities, regions and best-value destinations for the year ahead. The inclusion of Bhutan is all about sustainability. Jamie Carter specially for the South China Morning Post.

Often described as the world’s last Shangri-La, the Himalayan kingdom is aiming to become the world’s first 100 per cent organic nation next year, banning the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in all farms. It is already the only carbon-negative country, removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it contributes.

“Bhutan really taps into one of the themes of this year’s Best in Travel, which is the growing awareness in sustainability and in looking after the things that make our world so beautiful,” says Tom Hall, vice-president of experience at Lonely Planet. “Bhutan is playing a leading role in that.”

There are many other reasons to visit Bhutan: incredible monasteries, fantastic festivals and classic Himalayan trekking.

“It’s got a lot of things that travellers are interested in at the moment,” says Hall.

It is not a cheap place to visit, though; the book points out its strict “high-value, low-impact” tourism policy that issues seven- or 14-day entry permits to foreigners, which are only valid for Thimphu, the capital, and the town of Paro. Most of the country is otherwise restricted.

“[The country] has a per-day charge [for tourists], but it’s not bad value if you consider what experiences are on offer there,” says Hall. The daily fee – US$200 or US$250 for most travellers, depending on the time of year you visit – means, at least, it will not be getting much more crowded after its recognition by Lonely Planet.

The Central Asia Silk Road – covering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – takes top spot in the top 10 regions list ahead of Italy’s Le Marche, Tohoku in northeast Japan and China’s Guizhou Province.

“Central Asia is one of those bucket-list destinations,” says Hall. “Places like Tashkent and Samarkand are remote, but colourful, vibrant and very Instagram-friendly – images are such an important way of how people are consuming travel and travel content, and awareness of this region has grown as a result.”

Japan’s Tohoku region, still recovering from the 2011 earthquake and, much more recently, Typhoon Hagibis, makes the list as “it’s a much less visited part of Japan, but it’s easily accessible and you can explore saké breweries, mountain temples and onsen,” says Hall.

Guizhou Province also drew praise from Lonely Planet as a must-visit region.

“The centre of its capital, Guiyang, has a lot of character, with artisan business, quiet alleyways, cafes and craft bars,” says Hall. “Out in the countryside there’s a feeling of ‘old China’, but it’s all connected by high speed rail so it’s easier to get to than ever.”

Asian destinations featured in other categories, too.

The intimate city of Kochi in Kerala, South India, placed seventh in the top 10 cities list, while the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – home to the erotic sculptures at the Khajuraho group of Hindu and Jain temples, and stunning wildlife in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and Pench National Park – placed third in top 10 list for best value destinations.

However, topping that list is Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara; specifically, the area east of the famous Komodo National Park that was recently threatened with closure to visitors.

“If you move east of Bali and Lombok you leave the crowds behind,” says Hall, singling out diving on the Alor Archipelago and the many pristine beaches as highlights. “It’s a place for independent travel and it’s like Indonesia was 15 years ago, but it’s [also] changing very quickly.”

Every year, Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel lists start with nominations from its community of editors, researchers, locals and influencers, which are ranked by a panel of judges to create a list containing unique, compelling and topical reasons to visit various destinations in the year ahead.

England came second on the top 10 countries list, with North Macedonia in third.

“England represents better value now than it has for a while because of the drop in its currency,” says Hall. “It’s worth keeping an eye on. Anyone coming to England will find that it’s an extremely welcoming place for visitors – as it always has been.”

However, the main reason for its inclusion is the opening in 2020 of the England Coast Path, which will be the longest managed and waymarked coastal path in the world.

“It’s a long walk – about 3,000 miles [4,830km] – but it’s a really interesting way to explore England,” says Hall.

Perhaps the bigger surprise is the inclusion of North Macedonia, which was previously known as Macedonia but changed its name in February after a dispute with Greece.

“It’s less of a surprise to anyone who’s been there,” says Hall. “If you go outside June and August, you can have remote villages all to yourself, which is hard to do in Europe.”

Lonely Planet’s best travel destinations for 2020

Top 10 Countries

1. Bhutan
2. England
3. North Macedonia
4. Aruba
5. Eswatini
6. Costa Rica
7. The Netherlands
8. Liberia
9. Morocco
10. Uruguay

Top 10 Regions

1. Central Asian Silk Road
2. Le Marche, Italy
3. Tohoku, Japan
4. Maine, USA
5. Lord Howe Island, Australia
6. Guizhou Province, China
7. Cadiz Province, Spain
8. Northeast Argentina
9. Kvarner Gulf, Croatia
10. Brazilian Amazon

Top 10 Cities

1. Salzburg, Austria
2. Washington, DC, USA
3. Cairo, Egypt
4. Galway, Ireland
5. Bonn, Germany
6. La Paz, Bolivia
7. Kochi, India
8. Vancouver, Canada
9. Dubai, UAE
10. Denver, USA

Top 10 Best Value

1. East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
2. Budapest, Hungary
3. Madhya Pradesh, India
4. Buffalo, USA
5. Azerbaijan
6. Serbia
7. Tunisia
8. Cape Winelands, South Africa
9. Athens, Greece
10. Zanzibar, Tanzania

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