Sri Lanka is a tropical island with soft-sand beaches, sapphires in the earth and white-lace butterflies in the air. Fine green tea leaves flutter on hillsides, and handsome colonial architecture overlooks striking ravines, idyllic lakes, luscious rolling mountains and the occasional waterfall. "Nothing of our poor European vegetation could give an idea of the magnificence of this Sinhalese nature," wrote French author Octave Mirbeau back at the turn of the 20th century. "These are new colors that none of our artists have yet known."
Yet this paradise has remained staunchly devoid of tourists.
They were repelled by a civil war that popularized the concept of suicide bombing and killed 70,000 people over the past 37 years. Just when the first tourists were starting to come, the 2004 Asian tsunami hit, taking the lives of 38,000 locals and drowning the nascent tourism industry. But with the coastlines rebuilt for travelers and the government closing in on the Tamil Tigers on their last sliver of land in the northeast, a country that has long lived on the edge is hoping, finally, to reap the benefits of tourism.
Sri Lanka is hardly the only destination seeking to transform itself from a hellhole to a hot spot. Many nations with great cultural and historic legacies and stunning natural beauty have seen their tourism potential hobbled by a grim past or rampant instability: Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bolivia, to name a few. In countries further along on the tourism-development path—like Cambodia, Lebanon and Peru—the industry is still highly vulnerable to surges of instability. (In a time of drug battles and a terrifying flu outbreak, even an established sun worshipers' mecca like Mexico can get weak-kneed and devalue its tourism.) But these destabilized countries are investing in snazzy new hotels, developing tourist attractions, repairing infrastructure and creating amenities to woo visitors. For intrepid tourists looking to beat the crowds, improve the world and stretch their vacation dollars, back-from-the-apocalypse destinations offer opportunities like no other.
RWANDA Fifteen years after genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people, the nation's tourism industry is showing signs of life, perhaps most impressively at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, which opened in 2007. Its eight elegant chalets—decorated in colorful African prints—are pitched on the side of a volcano that offers views of the lush mist-laden hills that are home to the endangered mountain gorillas studied by renowned zoologist Dian Fossey. The lodge offers $500 guided treks to rare-gorilla gatherings in the nearby Park National des Volcans, with its towering 5,000-meter volcanoes. Other treks allow visitors to admire golden monkeys frolicking in the bamboo forests that cover the Virunga mountain slopes. As a member of a local community trust, the lodge is required to use fees to support conservation, community empowerment and local skills training. Rooms list at the developed-world rate of more than $400 per person (governorscamp.com).
BOLIVIA A barely functioning democracy, Bolivia suffers from confrontational politics, grinding poverty and a reputation as a peripheral target in the U.S. drug war in Latin America. Therefore, it has remained largely off the list of regional tourist destinations. But few countries have such topographical diversity on offer, from the crystalline high-altitude Lake Titicaca, to the mid-altitude forests where the nation's sacred coca leaf is grown, to low-lying tropical forests full of rare animal species, including a tiny monkey barely larger than a man's hand. It is also home to the awe-inspiring Uyuni salt plains. And there, next to the largest salt deposit on earth—all 12,000 square kilometers of it—is the Hotel Luna Salada, also known as the Salt Palace and Spa. Nearly everything in the hotel—the pillars, walls, chairs, floors, tables, beds and ceilings—is made of salt. Perched at 3,700 meters above sea level, visitors can admire impressive telescopic views of volcanoes, flamingos, geysers and cacti, but what they will most remember is the way the sunlight reflects off pools of rain in the ocean of salt crystals. Rustic rooms start under $100 (lunasaladahotel.com.bo).
SRI LANKA The last home of the island's kings is the central town of Kandy, where more than 100 colorful and affordably priced guesthouses sprout on lush mountains or by the lake—including one that features a swimming pool meandering around sprawling trees. But the island nation has a remarkable diversity of alluring accommodations elsewhere. The mountaintop Rainforest Edge retreat has a breathtaking view of the Sinharaja—a UNESCO World Heritage Forest—and offers bird watching, organic produce from the garden and tasteful ecofriendly rooms lit by solar power or more traditional kerosene lamps. The views of the forested mountains are stellar. Staff comes from the local village, as do most construction materials. Low-season singles start at about $150 (rainforestedge.com).
Those in search of a supremely comfortable, old English-style experience (read: colonial), should head to the Ceylon Tea Trails resort, nestled amid the dark green highlands of Bogawantalawa Valley. There, four estate-manager bungalows have been elegantly repurposed as a luxury retreat amid a sprawling (and still-functioning) tea plantation. Each bungalow has its own building manager, butler, chef and houseboys. Individual rooms start at about $280 per night for a single, while an entire bungalow that can house 10 to 12 people lists for $3,260. Still, prices include all meals, wine, cocktails, endless tea and a plantation tour with the planter in residence (teatrails.com).
CAMBODIA Most famous for its "killing fields" and recurrent strife that ended only recently, Cambodia is also a nation of sensual tropical pleasures: exotic fruits, coarse silks and a cornucopia of rivers and lakes. The coastal town of Kep, which was compared to France's Côte d'Azur before it was leveled by the Khmer Rouge, is swiftly being rebuilt.
In Siem Reap, on the edge of the majestic ancient Angkor temple complex, numerous elegant guesthouses and increasingly fine hotels support local orphanages, children's hospitals, environmental preservation and social services as part of their business model. One recent addition, the tiny Be Angkor Hotel, has three stylish Khmer rooms, which feature iPod docking stations and are decorated with the work of local artists. It offers in-room spa treatments and sits atop a breezy French-Khmer tapas restaurant that serves everything from duck confit to dried snake salad. Be Angkor also encourages guests to participate in local "Cool Karma" philanthropic projects, such as those that help land-mine victims and orphans. The hotel practices what it preaches, recycling religiously, using solar water-heating and urging guests to utilize carbon-offset programs (rooms from $95 per night; hotelbeangkor.com).
MEXICO Those brave enough to ignore the headlines on drug wars and swine flu—and the numerous U.S. State Department warnings—will find that tourism in Mexico is more affordable every day. True, declines in the stock market, foreign remittances and exports are pummeling the country's economy, but the fall of the peso against the dollar (from 11 to 13.5) has made visiting there a bargain. The truth is that the drug wars have little direct impact on tourist-friendly areas, and the nation's silky white-sand beaches, rich cultural heritage and culinary wealth will outlast the flu season.
In Oaxaca, the elegant five-star Camino Real Hotel is a gorgeously restored 16th-century colonial-era Dominican convent that has also served as a school, a government office, a town jail and even a movie theater. Today it offers colonial-style furnishings, tasteful frescoes, plenty of terra-cotta tiles and bougainvilleas thriving in the expansive courtyard. The plush hotel is offering a hard-times rate of as little as $239 per night. Given the climate, it is worth asking about further price reductions and courtesy upgrades (camino-real-oaxaca.com/rooms.htm).