There is perhaps no phrase more common in travel writing than “off the beaten track”. It’s applied liberally to all manner of things, from the vast Mongolian Steppe to an empty bar down a Bangkok sidestreet. Clearly, it symbolises the avid traveller’s ultimate goal: to have fresh experiences in unspoilt places with unjaded people. And yet so few manage to find the true secluded ideal.
To inspire travellers to get off the famed beaten track, we list below the least visited countries in the world, based on data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
Least visited countries in the world
Annual visitors: 1k
Tuvalu is likely the least visited country in the world with only one thousand registered visitors in 2014. The tiny nation is spread across nine islands with a total area of just 26 square kilometres (10 square miles). The secluded islands lie north of Fiji halfway between Hawaii and Australia, which should go some way in explaining why so few tourists make it there.
Tuvalu is perhaps most famous for its .tv web domain. For a long time, it was unable to join the United Nations because it couldn’t afford the $100,000 entrance fee. In 2000, the country negotiated a 12-year $50m lease contract for its desirable .tv domain, and again in 2011. It has used the profits to put electricity on outer islands, create scholarships and finally join the UN.
How to reach Tuvalu: Fiji Airways runs a route from Suva in Fiji. Book tickets via skyscanner.net. Note that there are no domestic flights between the nine islands.
2. Marshall Islands
Annual visitors: 5k
The Marshall Islands comprise two chains of coral atolls along with over 1,000 islets just north of the equator. With an average altitude of just seven metres above sea level, the Marshall Islands are the most endangered island nation and have the highest risk of flooding due to climate change.
Situated in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, residents rely heavily on fishing but are not allowed to fish for shark. In 2011, the government reserved an area of nearly 2,000,000 sq km (772,000 sq mi) as a shark sanctuary, establishing the largest one in the world.
How to reach Marshall Islands: United Airlines fly from Hawaii. Air Marshall provides some domestic flights but check before flying as flights have been grounded in the past. Book tickets via skyscanner.net.
Annual visitors: 6k
Kiribati is this list’s third Pacific island nation. It comprises 33 atolls and reef islands, and one raised coral island. The country has a total land area of 800 sq km (310 sq mi) but, incredibly, is spread over 3.5 million sq km (1,350,000 sq mi) of ocean.
In fact, Kiribati is the only country in the world to fall into all four hemispheres, straddling the equator and extending into the eastern and western hemispheres. It was also the first country to see the dawn of the third millennium on 1st January 2000.
How to reach Kiribati: Fiji Airways and Air Kiribati fly from Nadi in Fiji. Air Nauru (now ‘Our Airline’) offers flights from Australia via the Solomon Islands and Nauru. Coral Sun Airways provides some internal flights. Book tickets via skyscanner.net.
4. São Tomé & Príncipe
Annual visitors: 8k
With just eight thousand visitors in 2014, the African island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe is one of the least visited countries in the world.
The two main islands and their smaller islets lay uninhabited until discovery by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. The islands were gradually settled by Portugal throughout the 16th century and served as a commercial center for the Atlantic slave trade.
Together, the islands comprise the second-smallest African country after Seychelles and, at 225 km (140 mi) off the northwestern coast of Gabon, are seldom visited because of their relative remoteness.
How to reach São Tomé & Príncipe: TAP and STP Airways fly from Lisbon to São Tomé. Continental flights are also available from Angola, Cape Verde, Gabon and Cameroon. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices.
Annual visitors: 15k
After over 20 coups or attempted coups, this African island nation is finally gaining some stability and putting in place tourist infrastructure.
A collection of four major islands and a number of smaller ones, Comoros lies in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. The country has a complex ethnic mix which includes African natives, Malay immigrants and descendants of Arab traders.
Interestingly, Comoros is the only state with membership of the African Union, Francophonie, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League and the Indian Ocean Commission. Its majority religion is Islam and official languages are Comorian, Arabic and French.
How to reach Comoros: Flights operate from Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar as well as Dubai, France and Yemen. Domestic flights between islands are run by AB Aviation and Inter Iles Aviation. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices.
6. Solomon Islands
Annual visitors: 24k
The Solomon Islands comprise six major islands and over 900 smaller islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean.
The country has a wildly turbulent history – ranging from fierce fighting during World War II to intense ethnic violence in the late 90s and early 2000s – but is now calmer and more open to tourism.
Situated east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu, the country is not a luxury beach destination but offers an authentic Melanesian experience set amid lush mangroves, expansive lagoons and emerald forests.
How to reach Solomon Islands: Flights operate from Australia, Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Domestic flights are also available via Solomon Airlines. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices.
Annual visitors: 35k
The Federated States of Micronesia comprise four states spread across the Western Pacific Ocean, which together include approximately 607 islands. They lie northeast of New Guinea, south of Guam, west of Nauru and the Marshall Islands, and east of Palau and the Philippines.
In 1986, Micronesia signed a “Compact of Free Association” with the US, under which it granted the western superpower exclusive rights to establish and maintain military bases in Micronesia. In return, the country received $100m in financial aid per year as well as the right for resident to live and work in the US.
A renewed 20-year agreement, worth $3.5 billion, was signed by George W Bush in 2003.
How to reach Micronesia: Air Marshall Islands runs flights from Fiji, Hawaii, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Continental Micronesia flies from Hawaii, Japan and The Philippines, and runs a number of domestic flights. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices.
8. Sierra Leone
Annual visitors: 44k
Sierra Leone has had its fair share of tribulations, from poverty and corruption to war and disease, most recently the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Despite its myriad problems, the country has experienced substantial economic growth in recent years. Its government has cracked down on diamond trafficking and is making a strong effort to attract foreign investors.
What’s more, Sierra Leone is in the safer half of the world’s countries, ranking higher than tourist favourites like Mexico, India, Thailand and Cambodia!
How to reach Sierra Leone: International flights operate from London, Paris and Brussels. Continental flights operate from a number of countries including Kenya, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia among others. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices. It’s also wise to check local travel advice for updates on the Ebola outbreak.
Annual visitors: 51k
Tonga comprises more than 170 islands spread over the South Pacific. It is the last Polynesian monarchy and a deeply conservative Christian country. For example, residents cannot be topless in public, nor can they work on Sundays.
During our visit in 2014, our dive operators explained that if they plan a Sunday family outing on their boat, they have to call the police beforehand and inform them that it is a leisure outing lest the local residents report them for working!
Despite the strict conservatism, Tongans are deeply friendly which, combined with secluded beaches, cobalt waters and stunning diving, makes Tonga one of the most alluring least visited countries in the world.
How to reach Tonga: Air New Zealand flies to Tonga from Auckland and Samoa. Pacific Blue flies from Sydney and Auckland, and Fiji Airways flies from Fiji. A number of domestic flights are operated by REALtonga including what is probably the best flight the world.
Annual visitors: 56k
The West African country of Guinea is mineral rich and potentially one of Africa’s richest countries – but its people are among the poorest.
Junta rule and experiments with socialism have resulted in instability while hundreds of thousands of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone have strained the country’s economy.
What’s more, the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014 originated in Guinea, all but demolishing the country’s tourism industry. Guinea was declared Ebola transmission free on 29th December 2015, but will no doubt continue to be one of the least visited countries in the world for the near future.
How to reach Guinea: International flights operate from Paris and Brussels. Continental flights operate from Côte d’Ivoire. Check skyscanner.net for details and prices. It’s also wise to check local travel advice for updates on the Ebola outbreak.
Note: The ranking above does not include a number of countries as the UNWTO has no associated empirical data. As these could very well be less visited than those above, we list them here for reference: Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, North Korea, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.
(Additional photography: Dreamstime)