Instead of finding frustration in the travel media's year-end destination trend articles, I've decided to pen my own list of places that will be getting more tourist traffic and more media attention in the next few months, as well as one theme to look out for in 2009. This list reflects my own orientation as a traveler and travel writer, and is accordingly geared toward Europe and the Americas.
1. Cuba. It's almost a cop-out to list Cuba, since everyone's buzzing about the country. It just seems inconceivable that President Obama would veto a bill lifting the ban on travel to Cuba, frankly, but time will tell. Cuba isn't new for Canadians, Latin Americans, and Europeans, of course; however, for the vast majority of Americans—including the well-traveled—it's unknown territory. I think it's safe to suggest that this will change in 2009 and beyond, and that the culture of tourism in Cuba will in turn shift. For those Americans eager to glimpse Cuba before the throngs arrive, this is the time to sneak in via the Cayman Islands, Mexico, or elsewhere.
2. Haiti. Lonely Planet just brought Haiti back into the fold with the publication of a joint DR-Haiti guidebook. Slowly, other guidebook series will be following suit. Everyone who reads newspapers knows that Haiti is very poor and no stranger to violence. The country is also teeming with volunteer travel opportunities, inexpensive beach hotels, and a rich art scene. All of these draws should pull in more tourists. Haiti has a kind of off-the-beaten-path caché that will linger for quite some time.
3. South America. My sister Marisa Robertson-Textor returned from a recent trip to Australia with the report that Antipodeans are headed to South America (and southern Africa) in huge numbers. Where savvy Aussies head today, others will journey tomorrow. Low regional costs will continue to convince Americans to head south this coming year, as well. Buenos Aires is well beyond discovery—the place has been the new Prague for a good half-decade—but vast parts of the continent are well-poised for their moments: the Uruguayan beach towns east of Punta del Este, the Chilean Lake District, northern Peru’s vast surfing beaches, and, of course, Colombia, the massive rediscovery of which has been underway for at least a year.
4. Newfoundland. No longer Canada’s poor far east—in 2009-2010, Newfoundland and Labrador will be a net contributor to Canada’s equalization payment system for the first time ever—the province has all the makings of a place ready to be discovered. It's a physically stunning, rugged, rustic place. And, to defer again to Claire Tansey's fab trend report in January's Canadian House and Home, it's got great restaurants like Portugal Cove's Atlantica Restaurant on hand to lure cuisine-driven tourists in.
5. The United States. The knock-on goodwill effects of Obama's win in November will be felt for quite some time. Lots of people will want to visit the US for the first time or rediscover it, and plenty of Americans living in coastal cities are going to be more interested in exploring the heartland. I can imagine lots of sixteen-page American road trip specials in European travel magazines, and I expect greater tourist traffic to Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, the Midwest, and above all Chicago.
6. Finland. I can't recall a time when the buzz around Finland was stronger. Helsinki's restaurants are getting write-ups right and left. Finnish design and retail are receiving lots of attention as well. At play in Finland's favor is the prevalent sense of a country that knows itself and values its products appropriately. Quite simply, Finland is hot right now.
7. The former Yugoslavia. There's a lot to choose from here, from Slovenia's well-developed tourist circuit to Macedonia's Lake Ohrid. The biggest surprise is that tourists haven't already headed to the region in greater numbers. Croatia's glorious Adriatic coast is old hat to trend watchers at this point. Slovenia will benefit over in the next few years from tourists seeking Alpine magic on a budget. Macedonia will see increased cultural tourism, as will, at long last, Sarajevo. The curious will trickle to Pristina, beach-hunters will continue to check out the Albanian and Montenegrin coasts, and less-trafficked Croatian islands like Mljet will also see more tourists.
8. Damascus. Beit Al Mamlouka is the Syrian capital's first boutique hotel, and it won't be its last. The city will continue to lure greater numbers of tourists, especially in the event of a deal on the Golan Heights. The European travel press has been excited about Syria for a while; Rahul Jacob's Syria piece in the FT weekend before last sums up the country's varied appeals.
9. Northern Cyprus. A settlement appears to be coming, and the north of Cyprus will soon be seeing tourism in far greater numbers. Those after a clandestine vibe and vast stretches of undeveloped beachfront had better visit in a hurry.
And the theme...
Scaled-Back Local Value. The two most significant turns fueling this shift are the financial downturn and environmental concerns. The financial situation will be driving more tourists—including high-end travelers—to simplify their travel plans. Luxury as a principle organizing travel is conceptually exhausted. It's not dead, but it's at least temporarily down for the count. A green-minded interest in eco-friendly travel also continues to surge, prompting travelers to offset their carbon emissions and choose locally-run hotels and other venues over big chain hotels.
Simultaneously, an interest in the local versus homogenization is also emerging in increased sophistication around locally sourced food and tourist objets. The tricky idea of "authenticity" is behind much of this, with the editorial lines of a number of travel magazines explicitly moving toward an embrace of authenticity over luxury.
The travel trend of 2009 will thus be toward scaled-back journeys on more modest budgets, driven by local culture more than by the appeal of the cookie-cutter resort boilerplate. Home exchange, Servas, and couchsurfing will surge. Smaller guesthouses and resorts with a tie to local life will become increasingly favored. Larger chains will regroup with room rate bargains, carbon-neutral operating practices, and pledges to staff their facilities with local workers.
To all my readers: Happy 2009!