(CNN) — When the British Backpacker Society released its list of 20 adventure travel destinations for 2018, the top spot was taken by a somewhat surprising entry: Pakistan.
Citing “mountain scenery that is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination” and the friendliness of the locals, the society says the South Asian country will change “every preconception that you ever held about this area of the world.”
So is Pakistan ready to step up?
Though the country was a tourism hotspot in the 1970s, recent decades have spawned plenty of fears about Pakistan travel, owing to political instability and terrorist attacks.
But though threats remain and there are indeed places travelers should avoid — the US State Department still advises its citizens to reconsider traveling there entirely — improved security backed by a government-led push to promote tourism means visitor numbers are on the rise.
In 2017, an estimated 1.7 million foreigners visited Pakistan, 200,000 more than the previous year.
In January 2018, it was announced that the country would be offering a multiple-entry 30-day visa on arrival to tourists from 24 countries including the US and UK.
Bookings are up 100% this year for Wild Frontiers, a tour operator based in the UK and US that have been running trips to Pakistan for 20 years.
For founder Jonny Bealby, it’s not difficult to see why the country is appealing to travelers once again.
‘Epic accessible landscapes’
“I call it adventure travel’s best-kept secret,” he says.
“For the adventurous traveler it offers so much. More epic accessible landscapes than you will find anywhere else, meaning landscapes you drive to rather than trek for days to.
“In Hunza [a mountainous valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region] for example, you can sit on the rooftop at your hotel having breakfast and you’ve got seven 7,000-meter peaks all around you, which is pretty incredible.”
Bealby also points to the country’s interesting cultural allures — both in terms of architecture and people.
“The cuisine is of course great and the hotel accommodation is actually a lot better than most people think,” he adds.
“Tie all those things together and you’ve got the perfect adventure travel destination.”
According to Bealby, tourism in the north of the country has not yet been restored to Pakistan’s heyday during the early to mid-nineties when hotels would need to be booked at least a year in advance, yet he has certainly noticed a change in attitudes in recent years.
“I would say that the security situation in Pakistan has improved radically in the last three years and it is now becoming a real possibility for people that previously might have been too wary of going to a place which they felt was unsafe.”
‘People were utterly delighted to see a foreigner’
For US-born travel blogger Alex Reynolds of lostwithpurpose.com, who has visited the country twice, the things she read were not enough to put her off.
“From poisoning to kidnapping to bombing, everything I found online warned me that I would surely die a horrible death if I traveled to Pakistan. But coming from the United States, I’m used to dramatic, fear-inducing travel warnings,” she says.
“I figured no country is 100% evil, and I might as well go and see how dangerous — or safe — it was for myself.”
Traveling with a friend, she spent two six-week stints in 2016 and 2017 traveling across the country and despite her friends’ and families’ concerns — “For the entirety of my time in Pakistan, my parents messaged me in a panic, begging me to leave the country as soon as possible” — Reynolds was taken aback by the generosity of Pakistani people.
“My notions of hospitality were completely redefined by what I experienced in Pakistan,” she says.
“People invited me to stay in their homes and slept on the floor so I could sleep in their bed. Hosts arranged everything from day trips to rides from city to city, and took days off work to show me around.
“Passersby on the street would invite me to tea or a meal without a moment’s hesitation. I’d never seen anything like it, and still haven’t experienced hospitality on that level anywhere else in the world.”
Reynolds adds that locals were delighted to see a foreigner — especially an American — take the time to travel through their country.
“They constantly went out of their way to make me feel as comfortable, safe and welcome as possible,” she says.
One of her favorite memories took place during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.
Standing on a train platform in the middle of summer, Reynolds was thirsty and starving. A local boy helped her get a train ticket and then promptly disappeared. A couple of hours later, he reappeared clutching a bag with containers of food and bottles of water.
“He figured we were hungry and thirsty since it was Ramadan, and went home and had his mother prepare something just for us. And with that, he handed the bag to us, said goodbye, and walked away. We devoured the food behind a curtain on the train, and oh, was it delicious.”
From the culture and infectious energy of the cities to its breathtaking mountains and valleys, Pakistan is the perfect destination for anyone looking to venture off the beaten track, she says. In fact, she’s hoping to return for another trip soon.
“Bring an adventurous spirit and an open mind, and you won’t have to find your way off the beaten track in Pakistan. The way will find you.”
This feature was published on CNN