New Zealanders have always loved a good "find yourself" destination.

We're a friendly bunch. We love countries who embrace our openness to meeting new people, have a great time exploring off-the-beaten track destinations and at some point in time, question the meaning of life and head off overseas in search of spiritual or emotional enlightenment.

Not too long ago, we had a love affair with backpacking through Southeast Asia, ditching our worldly belongings to take the road less travelled, stacking our arms with colourful friendship bracelets, donning boho pants and reinventing ourselves as yoga teachers.

Full of mystery, adventure, cheap eats and inspiration for the next travel tattoo, destinations like Thailand and Vietnam have soared in popularity.

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But now, backpacking through Thailand no longer draws the same inspired 'Wow you're brave!' reaction as it once did and becoming a digital nomad in Chiang Mai is about as commonplace as taking a gondola in Venice.

Travel to Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan has entered a new phase of growth. Photo / Polina Raevskaya, Unsplash
Travel to Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan has entered a new phase of growth. Photo / Polina Raevskaya, Unsplash

It's no wonder Kiwis are now looking at alternative destinations, to get the same adventurous backpacker kick, but without the crowds and cliches.

Meet the Stans


Enter The Stans - for example Kazakhstan, that up until Borat came on to the scene, was rarely a country brought up by New Zealanders in casual conversation.

Now, in 2020, Central Asia's having its big moment.

According to travel insurance company World Nomads, there's a tourism boom taking place to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The company says there was a 100% growth in travel to Kyrgyzstan by New Zealanders last year.

Worldwide, trips to Uzbekistan are up 117% year-on-year, Kyrgyzstan up 55% and Kazakhstan up 10%.

World Nomads travel expert, Phil Sylvester, puts the growth in interest to Central Asia down to the pioneering spirit that opened Southeast Asia to travel.

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"The backpackers and trailblazers went first seeking an inexpensive adventure unlike anything they'd experienced before. But now Thailand is not so cheap and too full of tourists."

Eugh. Nothing worse than touring to a country only to find it's full of tourists.

"In Central Asia there are cultures most of us have only seen on TV," explains Sylvester. "The locals are still surprised to see travellers and welcome them with open arms."

Sylvester says one traveller told him it would take him all morning to walk a couple of hundred metres. "He would walk 25 metres be greeted and invited inside "for tea" - which includes snacks and vodka. An hour later he'd make it another 25 metres before he received another insistent invitation for tea."

"There's something utterly romantic about The Silk Road and Central Asia."

Whether Central Asia will become the next backdrop for a future Eat Pray Love storyline remains to be seen - but for now, New Zealanders appear to have discovered a new place to go find themselves.