Destination: World's dangerous places

They're considered dangerous, distant and difficult. The U.S. State Department warns against visiting, and your mother probably would, too. But for a certain breed of American traveler, destinations more associated with trouble than tourism are the place to go.

And where there's demand, there's usually someone happy to supply. Here's a look at new developments on the tourism front in some of the world's current hot spots.

New guide to Iraq

When the Iraqi tourism office reopened in May 2003, spokesman Saddi Younis told then-USA TODAY reporter César Soriano it might take about three years for visitation to rise to pre-2001 Gulf War levels, when a half-million tourists visited annually.

Younis' optimism was a tad premature. But it may surprise many that travelers are trickling into Iraq's northern Kurdish reaches, far from the turmoil in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Soriano recently returned from a month spent primarily in Kurdish northern Iraq while researching a chapter for the latest edition of the Lonely Planet series Middle East guidebook, due out next spring. It marks the first time in almost 20 years that the publisher has sent a writer into that country.

"I would completely dissuade anyone from visiting Arab Iraq — which is basically two-thirds of the country," Soriano says. "But you never hear about the one-third that is safe."

Publisher Brice Gosnell echoes the sentiment, noting that the guidebook's information on troubled southern Iraq is aimed at private contractors, media, military and others who have to be there.

Though Soriano didn't encounter many other travelers in the north, some locales there have ambitious tourism strategies. In the city of Erbil, for instance, long-term plans call for five-star hotels, a Formula One race track and a safari park.

Even now, tourism infrastructure is better than Soriano expected — and it's uncrowded. In Dohuk, a city near the Turkish border, there's an amusement park called Dream City and a new deluxe hotel that appeared empty when he visited.

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Southern Iraqis head north to escape the heat, but for Western visitors, "it's completely virgin territory," Soriano says. "There are places in Iraqi Kurdistan where they've never seen a non-Iraqi."

Still, people were for the most part friendly, if occasionally suspicious, of outsiders.

"And rightly so," he says. "It's the one stable area of Iraq, and they want to keep it that way."

Sold-out tours to North Korea

Visitors no longer are forced to bow before the Grand Monument, a 65-foot likeness of North Korea's founder and "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. But photography and cellphone restrictions remain, and tourists hoping to mix it up with the locals on the streets of Pyongyang will be sorely disappointed.

Regardless, tours to the rogue nation for this year's Grand Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performance — the only occasion on which North Korea allows Americans in — have sold briskly.

Chicago-based Asia Pacific Travel, the only U.S.-based operator authorized to deal directly with the North Koreans, is shepherding eight groups of 15 or so from now into September. Participants have paid $2,985 to $3,595 each for eight- to 11-day tours, including four nights in North Korea.

The highlight: the stadium spectacle, known as the Arirang festival, which features 100,000 performers doing synchronized moves in a 150,000-seat venue.

Mass extravaganzas aside, Asia Pacific Travel's Winnie Lu acknowledges that the trip isn't for everyone.

"Two kinds of people go there: those who have been everywhere, and academics studying Korean or Asian culture," she says.

Lu wouldn't go so far as to call the trips "fun. But they're interesting, educational. And once you're there, you don't feel threatened.

"Of course, you don't see anything they don't want you to see."

New turf in Afghanistan

Travelers who find exotic locales such as Nepal a "been there, done that" destination are turning their sights toward Afghanistan.

The capital, Kabul, was once a popular stop on the Hippie Trail. But the Russian invasion in the 1970s, followed by Taliban rule and then the post-9/11 bombings, had snuffed out tourism for decades. Now, a number of adventure travel companies are leading tours into relatively peaceful central and northern Afghanistan.

"What's made it possible today is a large part of the country is stabilized," says Jonny Bealby, whose U.K.-based Wild Frontiers has been running tours in Afghanistan since 2003.

"The violence is localized. As long as you steer clear of those areas, a lot of Afghanistan is getting along pretty normally."

Still, tourist numbers remain small — about 1,000 a year, he estimates. The typical circuit is concentrated in the Hindu Kush Mountains of central Afghanistan, where Bamiyan, site of the giant stone Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, and the surreal blue lakes of Band-i-Amir are located.

Andre Mann, co-owner of Kabul-based Great Game Travel, sees potential growth in the eastern panhandle, in the remote Wakhan Corridor where Tajikistan, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan come together. It's a pristine spot known as the "Roof of the World."

Getting there requires a five-day drive over dusty roads just to reach the trailhead. Great Game's 12-day treks using horse and yak caravans cross 15,000-foot passes, where participants camp out with nomads.

"It's untouched by modernity," Mann says. "It may be the last frontier — anywhere."

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