Bangka boat on Palawan, the Phillippines.

How to find the next big thing

I first heard about it from a taxi driver in Jakarta. I asked him about traveling and he started to talk about a book he read, covering indigenous people on remote island. One particular place captured my interest. It was three thousand miles away, but he described it as found around the next corner. “It’s one of the last undiscovered paradises”, he said, looking at me in the rear-view mirror. He smiled, showing off his white teeth. They glowed in the night. ”Pure white beaches. Crystal clear lagoons. Even more beautiful than the Maldives”. Three years later, I was on my way.


Don’t let the place find you

The best way to get disappointed when travelling is to go where everyone else is going. Especially if you think you are going where everyone else not is going. The good thing is that these places can be easily spotted. They use mainstream media channels, but disguise themselves as unique and exclusive. And they are finding you, not the other way around.

The best way to get disappointed when travelling is to go where everyone else is going. Especially if you think you are going where everyone else not is going.

How do you know that the tattooed muscle guy you just approached outside the Eldorado Aiport in Bogotá doesn’t want to rob you? Because you were doing the approaching. It works the same way in the travel industry. Destinations that approach you, through social media, airplane magazines, podcasts, advertising, are compromised and will most likely lead you in the wrong direction. The remedy? You change the channel.

Registan square, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Change your media diet

A good way of finding a place before everyone else is by changing the source of information. Instead of consulting the travel community itself, use a cross reference or related subject. Let’s say you are looking for a tropical island. You might search for a related subject, say tribe settlements around the world. Or you want to find a new weekend destination. Read about culturally important places. For nature experiences, check out the latest story on National Geographic.

A good way of finding a place before everyone else is by changing the source of information. Instead of consulting the travel community itself, use a cross reference or related subject.

You might also want to change the genre of information altogether, collecting ideas from literature, art, and motion pictures. Where did the protagonist in your favorite novel live? What places were portrayed by Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni? And where did the photographer find the motives featured at the local Museum of Modern Art exhibition? Places discovered by other reasons than travel, will often lead you in the right direction.

Chioggia, Veneto region, Italy.
Chioggia, Veneto region, Italy.

Embrace the inconvenience

The more convenient it is reaching a destination, the less authentic it is. People don’t gather at a specific place because it’s the “best”, they gather there because it’s the most convenient one. I call this the “trade-off rule”. That means you will need to allocate more time to the logistic part of your journey than the actual destination. I once traveled 3,000 kilometre Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan. In a 1970 taxi. It happened to be one of the last unexplored regions of the world, excluding war and conflict zones. Sometimes, the journey really is the goal.

The more convenient it is reaching a destination, the less authentic it is. That means you will need to allocate more time to the logistic part of your journey than the actual destination.

Just adding one domestic flight to your itinerary can make a huge difference. Something I experienced first hand when I traveled to El Calafate in southern Argentina or substituted Tasmania for at trip to Kangaroo Island. It also explains why the Philippines beats Thailand in every imaginary way and how come you are better off going to Wrocław instead of Warsaw.

Old Town, Wrocław, Poland.
Wrocław, Poland.

Having a long layover waiting for the next flight? Study the domestic departure screens and see where the locals are going. It gives you valuable insights into current trends and lays the groundwork for your next trip. Or even better, just spin the globe and put your finger on it, that is, randomly point out a location on Google Maps. You will be surprised how many places that are undiscovered by the mainstream travel industry.

Calling the neighbour

People generally go to places because they like the “experience” of something. A nice beach, a cozy village, exotic food, and so on. They don’t necessary go there because it’s the ”best” available location, rather the most famous one. However, the chance of finding a nearby place offering an equal but more unique experience is very high.

The Maya people didn’t just build the Chichén Itzá, the Romans built more than one amphitheater, and there is more to the Veneto region than Venice. That is how I found the Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, just a 40 minute flight south of Phuket, the most crowded area in Southeast Asia.

Horse Shoe Island, Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar.
Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar.

How do you know the place you found is a genuine one? Talking as a photographer, what you see, is what you get. Places giving you lots of unique, interesting images you want to share with people, are in general authentic places. If your images looks like a five star hotel brochure, it’s time to move on. Comparing my impressions of Shanghai to Taipei City, is like watching a Hollywood cliché and switching over to a Palme d’Or finalist.

The Maya people didn’t just build the Chichén Itzá, the Romans built more than one amphitheater, and there is more to the Veneto region than Venice.

How a place responds to you says more than how you respond to the place. A waiter who genuinely asks you about your hobby or a salesman giving advice without wanting anything in return is a good sign. So are places where you can buy personal artefacts, not souvenirs made for the next Western tourist passing by. A city where children fight each other to get into your photos, without twinkling $$$-eyes and a hey-mister give-me-money-attitude. Now, that is the kind of place you are looking for.

Port Barton, Palawan, the Philippines.
Port Barton, Palawan.

The traveler’s dilemma

If everyone is going to the same place, it will get crowded and no longer be attractive. Hence, everyone is better off by going somewhere else. This is the general dilemma for the travel industry. To attract tourists, destinations are often described as idyllic and exclusive. Alas, if too successful, they will get overcrowded and no longer be popular.

If everyone is going to the same place, it will get crowded and no longer be attractive. Hence, everyone is better off by going somewhere else.

Should you tell people about a place you just “discovered”, risking it will be ruined by mass tourism? That’s a complex question with no simple answer. To quote the lead character in the screen version of The Beach: “Spreading news is part of a traveler’s nature”. So, what was that place the taxi driver in Jakarta talked about? Follow me, and I will let you know here.


Copyright © 2021 Erik Ekberger.

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