Destinations in Asia and river cruises in Europe are among the hottest new trends in travel as 2007 begins, while changes in passport regulations and a growing awareness of environmental issues may also affect where and how people vacation in the new year.
Is Asia the new Europe?
China was No. 1 on Lonely Planet's annual list of hot destinations for the new year, and China also placed first for the country representing the best value for the dollar in a survey of members of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. The U.S.T.O.A. picked Southeast Asia as the hottest up-and-coming area for packaged travel, with the No. 2 spot going to China, India and Croatia in a three-way tie.
"China and India are off the charts," agreed Sandi Hughes, vice president of AAA Travel, the automobile association's travel services division. She attributed the growth in travel to the region to a combination of business travel spurred by U.S. investment; immigrants and their families traveling back and forth; and pure leisure travel by Americans interested in culture, history and monuments.
The continued weakness of the dollar against the euro and the British pound may also be leading some American travelers "to look for alternate destinations," said Rick Garlick, director of strategic consulting for the Maritz Hospitality Research Group. "Places like Thailand and Singapore have gained a new appeal."
The first nine months of 2006 showed air travel to Asia by U.S. citizens was up 7 percent over the same period in 2005, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, compared to a 4 percent growth in travel to Europe.
The United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany remained among the top 10 overseas destinations for travel by U.S. residents in 2005, which was the most recent full year for which data was available from the Commerce Department. But travel to Japan, No. 7 on the top 10 list for 2005, was up 40 percent from 2004; travel to China, No. 10 on the list, was up 21 percent; travel to No. 12 Hong Kong was up 25 percent, and travel to No. 15 India was up 33 percent.
The new craze in European vacations? River cruising. "You stop in villages, towns and vineyards along the way," said Bob Whitley, head of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. "You have access to inland areas of countries in the Baltics, France and Germany that the big ships can't get to. It's equivalent to an escorted tour without the unpacking." He added that the trend is big among tourists to China as well, with cruises on the Yangtze River.
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A European tour
Hughes, of AAA, added that European river cruises are also more attractive to Americans than they used to be because some trips ban smoking and offer more American cuisine. And a ship with just 90 cabins is far more intimate than one with several thousand passengers, allowing guests to become friends.
Tom Armstrong, spokesman for Tauck World Discovery Tours, said sales for Tauck's 2007 European river cruises are 60 percent higher than where they were last year at this time. Tauck's trip, starting at $7,530 a person, double occupancy, tours the Rhine and the Danube and stops in nine countries.
In the past, U.S. citizens could go to Canada, Mexico or most Caribbean countries and re-enter the U.S. using a driver's license and birth certificate. But beginning Jan. 23, you'll need a passport to re-enter the U.S. by plane. For now, you can still return to the U.S. from those destinations by land or sea without a passport, but eventually — and as early as January 2008 — road-trippers and cruisers will also need passports under the new rules from the Department of Homeland Security.
Only 27 percent of Americans hold passports, and the change in requirements may affect travel patterns. "There will be an increase in travel to places like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands among places in the Caribbean because people who did not get their act together and get their passports, they'll be affected by the new rules," predicted Amy Ziff, editor-in-chief of Travelocity. She said the changes will be most noticeable once people start planning their spring break trips.
The new regulations could be particularly hard on travel to Canada, according to the Maritz Hospitality Research Group, which provided statistics indicating that by the end of 2008, new passport requirements will lead U.S. residents to make 7.7 million fewer visits to Canada.
Save the world
Why not save the world while you're on vacation?
The Travel Industry Association's "Voice of the Traveler" survey from last fall found that 24 percent of travelers are interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation.
"People will pay their own way to travel to a place, then donate their time to anything ranging from rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina, to helping orphans, to teaching English," said Travelocity's Ziff. The American Hiking Society organizes volunteers to fix up national parks, while groups like Global Volunteers and Cross-Cultural Solutions send volunteers to help communities around the world.
And don't forget eco-tourism. Garlick was surprised to find that a third of travelers had heard of environmentally correct vacations when asked about them in a recent Internet-based survey conducted by Maritz Hospitality.
"There's a lot more awareness than I suspected," he said. "Then we asked people who'd heard of them, 'Would you consider taking this type of vacation?' Two out of three said they would consider it."
Some travelers have started offsetting the carbon emissions from their flights or car trips by donating to organizations that preserve forests or support renewable sources of energy like solar power. REI Adventures recently announced that it would purchase renewable energy credits to offset the carbon emissions from all of its 2007 tours.
Other travelers may choose to stay in an eco-lodge where food is locally grown and waste is recycled, or they can patronize ski resorts that have gone "green" by buying electricity from wind farms. The San Francisco Marriott has taken its recycling efforts full circle, serving wine from vintners who use compost made from the hotel's food scraps.
Last fall, the Travel Industry Association's "Voice of the Traveler" survey found that 54 percent of travelers said they were interested in going to a spa or a place where they could relax and rejuvenate, and 28 percent said they were more interested in a spa vacation now than they were five years ago.
While you can find a day spa in just about any mall or hotel, the newest spa trend for 2007, according to Travel + Leisure magazine, is a "longevity retreat" with a focus on medical testing and advice at a destination spa. Among the places offering wellness and health care along with massages and soaks are Canyon Ranch; the California WellBeing Institute; and the Center for Life in Balance at Miraval, in Tucson, Ariz.
Lonely Planet markets its guides to travelers around the world, but its annual list of hotspots for the new year included a somewhat surprising choice of the U.S. as No. 2 (after China in the top spot). The U.S. entry mentions Hawaii, New Orleans, and New York City's Brooklyn, which was singled out for its arts, restaurants and neighborhoods. Next on the Lonely Planet list were Morocco, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Nicaragua, Spain and Greece, followed by Cuba, Mexico and India tying for 10th place. (Tourism travel to Cuba by U.S. residents and citizens is banned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.)
Frommer's, another top travel guidebook publishing company, offered a list of a dozen standout destinations for 2007, beginning with Krakow, Poland, followed by Tokyo; Minneapolis; Panama; Asheville, N.C.; Ethiopia; Portland, Ore.; Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands; Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada; Glen Canyon, Utah; Zurich, Switzerland; and Portland, Maine. (The list including Ethiopia was compiled before an outbreak of fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia.)