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updated 1/12/2007 7:32:19 PM ET 2007-01-13T00:32:19

After a tumultuous year in travel that brought confusing new airport security rules, airport closings, mergers and talk of more mergers, what's ahead for travelers in 2007? Glad you asked. We're already seeing a number of key trends that are sure to impact travelers in the coming year, including the opening up of many Asian countries, especially China; the flood of financially and physically fit baby boomers into the ranks of the recently retired; changing security requirements, especially for passports; and the continued growth of niche travel.

Asia
Travel to Japan, Hong Kong and India was up 20-40 percent last year, but it's mainland China that will be the story in 2007. Tourism in China has been on the rise for some time, and the trend will only accelerate in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. In a recent industry survey, Beijing tied with Venice on the list of top vacation destinations — a result that would've been unthinkable five years ago. Further, Americans are starting to consider travel to other previously "taboo" destinations such as Vietnam, where the dollar is strong and Americans find they are extremely welcome.

Additionally, the explosion of immigrants from southern and southeastern Asia, including Pakistan, Thailand and particularly India, will cause considerably more back-and-forth travel among immigrant families and groups, and non-immigrant U.S. travelers will be sure to follow as this part of the world warms up to global tourism.

Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar is doing very well in these parts of Asia to boot; open borders, growing tourism infrastructure, increased flight availability, exotic flavor and a strong dollar will make these destinations extremely attractive to seasoned travelers in particular.

Baby boomers
Boomers, many of whom have been working slavishly for a few decades, are starting to take it easy, and to take it easy while traveling. This demographic is unlikely to bail out on working altogether — many will stay active in the labor force well beyond "retirement age" — but even those who keep working will be logging fewer hours and taking longer vacations. While I expect an increase in travel across the board, I see several quadrants of the travel industry benefiting from the slowing down of the massive and market-dominating baby boomer population:

Spas and All-Inclusive Resorts:  Over the past few years, the spa vacation — formerly a bastion of the rich and famous — has found a new audience among boomer travelers no longer willing to rough it on the Lonely Planet circuit. Even chain hotels are adding spa-like amenities, staffing up on masseuses, offering "detoxification wraps" and "aromatic salt glows," whatever they are. Sounds relaxing, in any case, which works out well for boomers who have been at work for 30 years.

Cruises: The cruise industry continues to adapt to accommodate niche markets, and active and inquisitive boomers will be their best customers. Cruising combines several important elements for boomer travel — safety, variety, affordability and a bit of pampering — and will be a consistent winner so long as the cruise lines work hard to keep these folks happy. Caribbean cruises in particular seem likely to remain extremely popular; they're easy to get to, easy to get home from and easy to digest — take a direct flight down, island-hop for a few days, take a direct flight home, and you're back in your own bed.

European cruises should also do well, as boomers who love Europe look for a more comfortable seat with a view than Eurail can provide. One note: a European cruise priced in U.S. dollars is a great way to beat the dramatically reduced purchasing power of the dollar against the euro. You are almost certain to save money when making all your transactions in U.S. dollars; if nothing else, at least you know what you're spending each step of the way.

Niche travel
Despite most appearances, American culture is anything but monolithic, and nowhere is this clearer than in our travel preferences; after all, one man's Six Flags is another's Indian ashram. The travel industry is figuring this out, and has begun to offer a travel package for every perspective.

Green Travel: With 2007 predicted to be the warmest year in history, I see this as the year that green travel becomes less of a trend-watcher's pet and more of a real force. Travelers will be renting hybrid cars, picking eco-friendly destinations and choosing zero-impact packages. At the fringes of the trend, travelers will even be checking up on "green" ratings for their hotels and airlines.

Connoisseur Travel: Connoisseurship has become a new hobby for many Americans; the perfect and most obvious example is the explosion of wine tourism over the past 10 years. Instead of lounging for days in beach chairs, these "connoisseur travelers" would prefer to spend their vacation days trainspotting their chosen enthusiasm, whether it be wine, jewelry, artwork, historical artifacts, antiques, food, language, architecture, you name it. Destinations and tours that fit the bill will continue to grow in popularity.

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Europe Gets "Bigger": The decimation of the dollar against the euro may dampen U.S. travelers' enthusiasm for the old standbys of France, the U.K., Germany, and the like; better choices may be Spain and Portugal, where prices have not quite kept pace with their more northern neighbors. More to the point, however, Eastern Europe should come on strong, as stalwart European travelers will start thinking about visiting Croatia, the Czech Replubic, Poland, Istanbul, even Albania. Hotels and tourist amenities are simply less expensive at many of these locations, and the alluring mix of the old and new that brings many travelers back to Europe time and again is in no short supply.

Niche Services: As airlines bail out on more and more of the services once considered routine, from the elimination of meals to stricter luggage allowances (not to mention more lost bags) and the emergence of "bare fares" that promise you a seat and little more, expect nimble entrepreneurial outfits offering niche services to step into the breach. For example: online check-in is now becoming competitive as travelers wait by their computers for the 24-hour window to open so they can get the best seats and boarding priority. Enter BroadFirst.com and CheckinSooner.com. BoardFirst.com secures an "A" group Southwest boarding pass for you automatically at the 24-hour mark, while CheckinSooner.com is doing the same for several airlines. Similarly, expect a boom in luggage courier services, pet transport and more over the next several months.

Security and passports
Finally, expect security concerns to remain an issue in 2007, and don't miss the impending changes in passport requirements — and we do mean impending, as these kick in on January 23, just two weeks from now.

Security: On security, one hopes the Transportation Security Administration learned something from the "now liquids are banned, now they're not ... or maybe they are, we dunno ..." debacle in 2006, but that doesn't mean that it will all be smooth sailing and sensible policies in 2007. For the latest on what to expect at the airport, check out Know Before You Go: Airport Security Q&A.

Passports: If you don't have a passport, you're going to need one, and you're going to need it soon. Though many travelers once boarded planes and headed to Canada, Mexico, Panama, Bermuda or parts of the Caribbean with only a U.S. driver's license, things have changed; come January 23 of this year, you may be able to fly into those countries without a passport, but you won't get back without one. In just two weeks, you will need a passport to return to the United States by plane, and as early as January 2008 you may need one to get back in by land or sea as well.

If you do not have a valid passport now, I recommend you get one posthaste; these regulations seem so far to have gone unnoticed by the general public, but once folks figure out that they're not getting home from a quick drive to Tijuana or Niagara Falls without a passport, there will be a rush on passport services like we have never seen. Learn more and start your application in our Passport Center.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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