Off-Limits Destinations That Could Reopen to Tourists (and Some That Already Have)

Komodo Island


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Komodo Island

Sorry for the Inconvenience

You just can't see it all. However curious and completist we all sometimes get as tourists, there are certain places that are forbidden, if not plain impossible, to visit, whether because they're too dangerous for humans to tread or because too many have already tread there before. Thankfully, not all of these restrictions are set in stone — as some of these off-limits destinations may soon be open to the public — and in some cases, they already are. For the flip side to this story, check out Once Popular Tourist Hotspots That Are Now Totally Abandoned.

Riverside Hospital
Riverside Hospital by reivax (CC BY-SA)

North Brother Island | New York

North Brother Island (NBI) is a 20-acre outpost in New York City's East River that few had interest in visiting before it was abandoned. It plays host to many an eerie urban legend thanks to its real-life history as a teen drug rehab center, quarantine area, and stomping grounds of Typhoid Mary. Though off-limits to all but the most intrepid urban explorers since 1963, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has granted occasional permission to journalists and researchers, while city council members started considering accommodating more regular visitors in 2014. Though interest remains, this restoration has struggled to get any further off the ground thanks to the costs involved in building a serviceable dock and safe pathways for tourists through NBI's dilapidated sites.

The Vatican Secret Archives (2015).
The Vatican Secret Archives (2015). by Video of Vatican Television Center (CC BY)

Vatican Secret Archives | Vatican City

The Catholic Church's forbidden library has provided fodder for conspiracy theories and fictional mysteries, like Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," for centuries, but it's only recently that officials have started thawing some restrictions to the Vatican Secret Archives' 53 miles of shelving in Rome. Most are still only accessible to vetted scholars, and only after they reach 75 years of age, but the Vatican started to show more openness in 2010, when it allowed journalists to tour the archives for the first time. Earlier this year, Pope Francis also declared documents from one of the most controversial and contested eras of church history, relating to the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, would be open to scholars in 2020. One can only hope these are baby steps toward a day when you'll be able to book a tour of the legendary library, which, incidentally, was renamed the Vatican Apostolic Archive earlier this fall.

Ni'ihau Island
Ni'ihau Island by Polihale (CC BY-SA)

Ni'ihau Island | Hawaii

Ni'ihau is the Hawaiian island you'll probably never visit. It's been restricted, if not entirely cut off from the rest of the world for more than 150 years, since the owning Sinclair Family purchased it from King Kamehameha V with a pledge to help native Hawaiians. They've enforced a "no visitors" policy even for Ni'ihauan residents' friends and relatives since at least the 1930s, preserving a pre-industrialized culture free of roads, cars, indoor plumbing, and conventional shops. Unfortunately, the Sinclair Ranch's closure in 1999 led to more natives leaving the island or working for its new major employer, the U.S. military. Economic woes and increased pressure from the Hawaiian state have prompted the island's current managers to open and increase visitation opportunities since 1987, though these are restricted to snorkeling and safari tours with no interaction with the human inhabitants. Hopefully these eroding restrictions won't also mean the erosion of Ni'ihau's meticulously preserved culture.

Maya Bay

Maya Bay | Thailand

Inspired by the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle "The Beach," up to 5,000 people were visiting the Thai island of Phi Phi Leh's Maya Bay, which served as the film's location, every day by 2017. All this foot traffic killed most of the area's coral and marine life, prompting Thai authorities to deny access in March 2018. That temporary restriction recently was extended another two years to 2021, at which point daily visitors will be capped at 2,000, and boats will have to dock outside the bay.


Poveglia | Venice, Italy

Another hotspot for creepy history and local superstitions, Poveglia, or "Plague Island," is a Venetian fortification that first served as a plague quarantine station for more than 160,000 patients from 1793 until 1814, then later as a weapons stockpile and battle site for the French Emperor Napoleon, and finally as a reportedly torturous mental hospital until 1968. While still strictly restricting visitors to the supposedly haunted island, the Italian government, in response to rapid economic declines, placed the island up for auction in 2014, suggesting Poveglia could reopen under new ownership if the price was right. Though there have been no reported takers just yet, at least one public tour operator now offers three-hour Venetian boat tours to Plague Island and its surrounding waters.

Koh Tachai

Koh Tachai | Thailand

This area of the Similan Islands National Park in Thailand's Andaman Sea was shut off to both domestic and foreign tourists in 2016, in the interest of maintaining its beauty and restoring its degraded natural resources. There's no definite time frame for when it will reopen, but the once-crowded beaches will remain closed for at least the upcoming tourist high season, which stretches into March 2020. Thankfully, tour operators can still ferry visitors over to experience the island's main attraction — snorkeling amidst vibrant marine life — even if they can't dock onshore.

Komodo Island

Komodo Island | Indonesia

The main attraction to Komodo Island is its Komodo dragon population, but some bad actors have spoiled privileges for everyone by smuggling more than 40 of the large reptiles off the island and selling them on the black market. This crisis prompted the Indonesian government to close the island to its roughly 10,000 monthly visitors, though the ban was lifted in October 2019. Still, future tourism to Komodo and its surrounding islands might not be cheap — Indonesian officials are reportedly considering a plan to charge a $1,000 fee for access.

Ayers Rock

Ayers Rock/Uluru | Australia

Ayers Rock, or Uluru in the Aboriginal language is among the Australian Outback's most famous and breathtaking sites, but it's not for climbing. So says the board members of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which declared in 2017 that climbing contradicted the 863-meter rock's cultural significance but waited until October of 2019 to ban the practice, giving tourists some time to cross it off their bucket lists. The guiding chains that helped people to the top of the rock were then removed. Despite the climbing ban, tourism in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is still encouraged experiences and includes cultural experiences, hiking tours, and even segway and bicycle tours around Uluru's base.

Mount Everest Base Camp

Mount Everest Base Camp | Nepal/Tibet

Climbing Mount Everest was once a badge of honor for braving the world's most extreme elevations, but now it's become so rote as to create traffic jams and a litter-strewn basecamp. After collecting more than 8.4 metric tons of waste in one year, Chinese officials decided in late 2018 to close their nation's launching point for the climb to tourists, restricting them from going any farther than the Rongbuk Monastery a mile away. On the summit's other side, Nepal has increased fees for foreign visitors and banned novice solo climbers, though it hasn't stopped those with disposable income from helicoptering in to have breakfast above base camp. Mountaineers and researchers are still allowed climbing access in China, along with 300 hikers who pass Nepal's new permitting process. So, for the near future, Everest should only be for the sincerely committed and experienced.

Jiangsu National Security Education Museum
Gu Changwang/Imaginechina

Jiangsu National Security Education Museum | Nanjing, China

The Jiangsu National Security Education Museum opened in Nanjing, China, in 2009 as a center for both young and old to learn about espionage. While Washington D.C.'s Spy Museum feels like a kitschy throwback to the Cold War, China's is decidedly current, showcasing propaganda about threats of foreign surveillance to the ruling Communist party's interests and urging citizens to be vigilant by calling the national report-a-spy hotline. A 2014 facelift of the museum got rid of an earlier warning sign banning entry to all foreigners. A more recent posting about the museum, however, confirmed that Westerners continue to be turned away at the door, while those who appear to be Chinese are generally granted entry without question.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument | Washington, D.C.

One of the U.S. capital's most recognizable landmarks, the Washington Monument closed to the public in August of 2016 due to unreliable elevator controls. Now that the lift system has been upgraded and a permanent security screening building constructed nearby, the National Park Service reopened the tribute to America's first president this September, so visitors can once again enjoy the view from inside rather than just admire it at the end of the National Mall.


Boracay | Philippines

The Philippines' Boracay was considered one of the world's most idyllic islands before tourists started flooding in — more than 2 million of them in 2017, and up to 19,000 at any one time. The 4-square-mile island closed down in April 2018, after a viral video of sewage entering Boracay's ocean waters prompted the nation's president to call it a "cesspool." After a six-month period to repair and restore the native environment, the island's reopening occurred on schedule in October 2018 despite ongoing ecological concerns, complete with a new set of by-laws — including no casinos, no single-use plastics, and no public vomiting — and a strict cap of only 6,000 visitors at a time. The good news, however, is that the Philippines still boasts an additional, comparatively unspoiled 7,640 islands for visitors to choose from.

Varosha, Cyprus

Varosha | Cyprus

This once-bustling tourist town on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been abandoned and decaying since the Turkish invasion in 1974. While still uninhabited and off-limits, the prospect of its reopening came to public attention this August, with the Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister guiding a group of journalists through the ghost town. These plans have already encountered diplomatic opposition, however, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning Turkey that reopening the area would rule out continuing reunification talks for the divided island, which have been on hold for more than two years.

United Nations Buffer Zone, Cyprus

United Nations Buffer Zone | Cyprus

Varosha isn't the only deserted area of Cyprus angling for foreign visitors. Separating the Republic of Cyprus- and Turkish-controlled parts of the island is the demilitarized U.N. Buffer Zone, where farmers from both sides of the divide have recently taken to tending and planting organic vegetables with mutual hopes of inspiring reunification. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Greek Cypriot mayor of the nearby town Deryneia now even brings visitors to the once land mine-strewn buffer zone, where the ease of border crossings and flow of tourists have already come a long way.

Caño Cristales
Jose carlos Zapata flores/istockphoto

Caño Cristales | Colombia

Flowing through an 80-kilometer gorge to vibrant algae-covered stone terraces, Colombia's Caño Cristales, or "River of Five Colors," was closed in late 2018 as a protective measure in case of a prolonged, El Niño-triggered drought. The restriction was lifted in June of 2019, and up to 120 permit-approved tourists can access the area each day, so long as they comply with environmental regulations such as not applying sunscreen or bug repellant before swimming in the natural pools.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
The World Traveller/istockphoto

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon | Iceland

Another short-lived visitor ban was installed and then lifted this year in Iceland, a little populated nation that's nonetheless experienced undue stress at its trendiest destinations. In the case of Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, the steeply scenic area was made famous by a 2015 Justin Bieber music video, then threatened by visitors tramping off the muddy path and over the sensitive vegetation. After access was restricted in February of 2019, repairs during closure were successful, and the area was reopened just months later in early June.

Related: Here's How to Visit Iceland Without Spending a Fortune