Hot spots 2006


Visitors walk by the sea at sunset in the coastal town of Sibenik, Croatia.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 9:54 p.m.

Facts

If you go

AAA TRAVEL: Go to www.aaa.com and click on "travel" or contact your local AAA office.
AMERICAN EXPRESS VACATIONS: www.americanexpress.comv(vacations) or (800) 297-8747.
GUIDEBOOKS: Lonely Planet, www.lonelyplanet.com; Frommer's, www.frommers.com; Rick Steves, www.ricksteves.com. All widely available in bookstores and online. A new line of guidebooks by Pauline Frommer will be published beginning in 2006, with the first three editions on Hawaii, New York City and Italy.
NEW ORLEANS: Mardi Gras, Feb. 18-28; www.neworleansonline.com or (504) 524-4784.
U.S. TOUR OPERATORS ASSOCIATION: www.ustoa.com/ or (212) 599-6599.
WELL TRAVELED TOURS: www.welltraveledtours.com/ or (888) 935-5255.

While travel to perennial favorites like Los Angeles, Orlando, New York and Las Vegas is always strong, some unexpected destinations - from Colorado and Arizona to Croatia and China - are showing up as hot spots for travel as the 2006 season begins.
COLORADO: Colorado was tied with California and Alaska as top domestic destinations among tour companies surveyed by the U.S. Tour Operators Association, whose members send 11 million Americans on leisure tours around the world each year.
"Because of the year-round opportunities there for leisure, Colorado is very popular," said Bob Whitley, president of USTOA.
While Colorado is best-known for winter sports, some ski resorts are now open year-round for other types of recreation like mountain biking, according to John Metzger, spokesman for the Colorado Office of Economic Development. The state also offers hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking and plenty of mountain-climbing. "We even have a wine country now - yet another summer attraction," Metzger said.
ARIZONA: American Express Vacations reports that bookings to Hawaii are up substantially, but one of the biggest surprises domestically is a demand for spa and golf vacations in Arizona, according to Francesca Bonavita, the company's vice president of product and global brand development. "As a result, we've added this U.S. destination in our portfolio for 2006," Bonavita says.
WELLNESS TRAVEL: The appeal of spa, golf and other types of R&R ties into another travel trend - the rise of "wellness" vacations that combine fitness, yoga, massage, healthy menus and the like. "Wellness centers" are opening in places ranging from the Aerie Resort on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, to the Cambridge Beaches cottage colony in Bermuda. And tour companies are offering specialty trips, like a "Healing Vacation" in Hawaii from Well Traveled Tours, a new Boca Raton-based company whose trips combine sightseeing, spa visits, and health-and-fitness programs.
Justin McNaull, spokesman for AAA, says the term "wellness vacation" might be more appealing to some consumers than a spa vacation, which "might seem a little self-indulgent. The health and wellness side seems a little less decadent. You're investing in yourself as opposed to pampering yourself. It's self-improvement."
EUROPE: Travel to Europe has grown steadily in the last few years and is expected to continue upward in 2006, Bonavita said, adding that the July bombings in London had little impact on American Express bookings there. However, projections from Britain's Office for National Statistics estimate that U.S. visitors to England were down 4 percent in 2005 between January and October compared to 2004.
Even with the small decrease, however, the United Kingdom will undoubtedly remain one of the most popular European destinations for Americans. In 2004, more Americans visited the U.K. than any other destination in Europe, followed by France and Italy, according to the U.S. State Department's list for outbound travel in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
But perhaps because Americans traveling to England and France make their own arrangements but need a little advice when heading to Italy, Italy placed first on the USTOA survey for the third year in a row. Rick Steves says it is the most popular destination among the buyers of his guidebooks; and it is also No. 1 among European destinations offered by American Express Vacations, which has expanded its 2006 offerings for the country to include packages in the Lakes Region, Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria.
"It's the food, the people, the culture - everything," said Whitley.
Americans vacationing in Europe now will also feel less of a pinch than in the past because the dollar has gained some strength against the euro, which is down from its 2003 high of more than $1.35 to around $1.18.
Interest among American travelers in Central and Eastern European destinations like Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Budapest also continues to grow.
"Eastern Europe has been really trendy," said Steves. "Prague is the best-preserved city in the region ... and the best beer in Europe lands on your table there for 50 cents."
The Dalmation Coast beaches of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea are also getting their share of buzz. "It's the cheap alternative to the Italian Riviera," said Steves.
Montenegro, also on the Adriatic, tops the list of Travel + Leisure's up-and-coming destinations for 2006. The magazine recommends the small country for its "untouched white sands and time-capsule medieval villages."
Croatia was the No. 1 destination for 2005 on an annual poll taken by the Lonely Planet guidebook company of its U.S.-based staffers. It's on the Lonely Planet list for 2006 as well, though down at No. 4.
But Lonely Planet's new publications sometimes herald travel trends as well; the company put out its first guide to Croatia in 2005. It's now offering its first guide to St. Petersburg, which may be a bellwether of increased travel there.
"Try standing on the Troitsky Bridge looking downriver to the Winter Palace without your jaw dropping," the book advises. Other must-sees include the Hermitage Museum and ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre.
CHINA: China is No. 6 on the State Department's list of top international destinations for travel by U.S. residents, with 1.8 million Americans visiting China in 2004. Those numbers include visits both to mainland China and Hong Kong, and represent a 72 percent increase over 2003, when travel to the region was dampened by fear of SARS.
Pauline Frommer, of the Frommer guidebooks, said that the message boards at Frommers.com have 10 times more postings from China than any other Asian country. "You hear more and more about people going to China and not just to Beijing, but also to Shanghai," Frommer said. "It's a place Americans should see. They're shaping up to be our big competitors."
"Americans want to see it before it gets to be the dominating Westernized country," Whitley added. "You look at Shanghai - they want it to be like Paris. There's so much being said about the Chinese culture, and the influence it's going to have on the world. It's very much of interest to Americans."
In addition to Shanghai, Whitley says tourists are visiting historic sites like the Great Wall, the famed terra cotta warriors near Xian and the historic Silk Road route.
Whitley added that concerns about avian flu have not yet dampened interest in the region. "It's too unknown," he said of the disease, citing the lack of official travel warnings from the World Health Organization and other agencies.
MEXICO AND THE CARIBBEAN: Closer to home, because of the impact of Hurricane Wilma on the Mexican coast, "many of the Cancun reservations are shifting to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic as well as to Jamaica," said Bonavita of American Express Vacations. She said demand is also high for other Mexican destinations like Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Zihuatanejo.
NEW ORLEANS: Finally, New Orleans hopes to make a comeback. The Mardi Gras tradition there celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2006, and the city has scheduled a 10-day party - slightly smaller than the two-week event of past years - from Feb. 18-28. Laura Claverie, editor of New Orleans Online, a tourism Web site, says 20,000 hotel rooms are expected to be available by then, and about half of the flights into the city will have resumed to pre-Katrina levels. The festivities will include participation by 31 of the 34 parade organizations that existed before the storm, and more than 700 restaurants are expected to be open.
"It's not just a great tradition and a great social event," Claverie said. "It's also a $1 billion industry. So coming to Mardi Gras is also a way for people to endorse our economic development."

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