Having a fine time: glad you're not here: Flying from Gatwick on a package holiday could damage your reputation as a serious traveller. Frank Barrett tells you where to go

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The Independent Online
AT AN independent-travellers' exhibition in Bristol this month, a man in Timberland boots was standing at the Lonely Planet guidebook stand, listening to someone recount details of a recent trip to Central America.

'Oh, Nicaragua,' said Timberland boots after the tale ended, 'I went there three years ago.'

'And where are you going this year?' his deflated companion inquired. 'Bhutan,' was the reply. Game, set and match to Mr Timberland.

For the Snob Holidaymaker, Bhutan is this year's destination. Celebs just back from this remote Himalayan kingdom include Mick Jagger, John Cleese, Koo Stark and 'style guru' Robert Elms. Bernardo Bertolucci is there at the moment shooting his new film, The Little Buddha.

Bhutan's status derives from the fact that it has been extremely hard to visit. Tourists have been admitted only since the Sixties, and numbers have been limited by royal decree. The country's airline until recently had only one plane and tourist accommodation is practically non-existent.

But it takes more than a hard-to-get visa to earn Snob status and attract the Nineties equivalent of the jetset. Sara Bampfylde, whose company, Steppes East of Cirencester, took Mick Jagger, explained: 'There have been lots of articles in newspapers and magazines - and it has been on TV. There is also an awareness that you need to see Bhutan now before it changes.'

The changes are already happening. The country's tourism board has just been privatised, the number of permitted tourists increased from 2,500 to 4,000 a year, the state airline has doubled its fleet with the acquisition of a second aircraft, and work has begun on building hotels. Can a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut be far behind?

The serious Snob Traveller was sunning himself on the Greek islands in the Sixties, tucking into doner kebabs on the Lycian shores of Turkey in the Seventies, and going native in Bali in the Eighties. These days, however, he has a harder job in staying one step ahead of the Diet Coke vendors and the 'been there, done that' hordes in their tour buses.

The problem is that exotic, hard-to-enter destinations can quickly find their way into the mass-market package-holiday brochures. For example, in this year's programme of three million holidays, Thomson features former Snob places such as Cuba, China, Prague and even the Arctic Circle. Spots such as Siberia have become a happy hunting ground for anoraked train-spotters on Trans-Siberian Express tours.

Destinations can lose their allure for simple reasons of fashion. When 'world music' was all the rage a few years ago, West Africa was thick with people beating a path in the wake of Andy Kershaw to countries such as Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Political changes dealt a mortal blow to Nicaragua's appeal. Similarly, the fall of the Iron Curtain robbed most East European countries of the thrill of holidaying among the secret police and other trappings of totalitarianism. But political troubles can add to a country's attraction. Siberia may be anorak territory; in other parts of the former Soviet Union, flak-jackets are more in order.

Holidays in Tajikistan, for example, with its bitter civil war, make as much sense as flaunting a Rolex in the South Bronx. But in travel, as in other pleasures, forbidden fruits make the most attractive prizes. Who will be able to top your war stories of braving the troubles in Peru, Afghanistan or Cambodia?

Also in fashion with the Snob Traveller this year are Namibia (South Africa without the fascists); the few Caribbean islands not yet served by Airtours charter flights from Manchester such as Anguilla, Mustique, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis; Outer Mongolia; Tibet (where you can stay at the only Holiday Inn with street cred); and New Mexico (travel in the footsteps of D H Lawrence and John Birt). The skilled Snob Holidaymaker giving Bhutan a miss will almost certainly be heading for Vietnam: you've seen the films, now visit the country.

However, this year's biggest Snob trip will be taken by the 20 people enjoying Himalayan Kingdom's packaged tour to the summit of Everest. To join it, all you need is a certificate proving you have experience on mountains up to 7,000m - and pounds 22,000 to spare. 'We already have 10 people signed up,' says Himalayan Kingdom's Steve Berry.

Any Snob Holidaymaker worth his salt is already mulling over next year's smart destination. Is it time for an English-seaside revival? What about a week in the genteel Suffolk resort of Southwold ('You forget how marvellous an old-fashioned English seaside holiday can be . . .').

There are some European possibilities. Albania is virgin territory ('Just like Greece 30 years ago,' say the cognoscenti). Slovenia and Macedonia, two untroubled states of the former Yugoslavia, will attract collectors of unlikely destinations. And the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain are developing a following among the chattering classes: 'It's the real Spain.'

Those keen on something more exotic might think about the Yemen on the Gulf of Aden; let your neighbours find that in their Collin's School Atlas if they can. But the real banker for 1994 is Madagascar, off the east coast of southern Africa. It is the world's fourth largest island, and probably the last place in the Indian Ocean not to have a Club Med.

Book now, buy those Ray-Bans and be ready to rub shoulders with Mick and Koo.

(Photographs, graphic and map omitted)