Before you book tickets to the same old, familiar resort, consider these up-and-coming travel destinations. Easier access, more stable political climates, better infrastructure, and sometimes the sheer sparkle of new hotels and restaurants are throwing these destinations in the spotlight. Here are six emerging hot spots that experts predict will boom in the coming years. Get there soon before word gets out.
The recent announcement of resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba have US travelers clamoring to visit this largely forbidden island. Interest had already been growing: In 2014, a US Tour Operators Association study of member tour operators listed Cuba as the number-two top emerging travel destination, the first time the country made the list.
The country remains relatively untrammeled, stalled-in-the-’50s territory, known for beautiful beaches, big cigars, classic cars, and rum-drinking revelry. Most visitors start in the slightly crumbling Havana, where you can drink, dine, and sleep where Hemingway did while working on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Other island highlights include the Peninsula de Hicacos’s sparkling strip of beaches; the eerie Zapata swamp, a UNESCO biosphere reserve; the 19th-century sugar town of Trinidad, and the beautiful, lush Yumuri Valley.
At the moment, no one is sure how or when the current travel restrictions to Cuba will change, which require that visitors (without family ties to Cuba) travel for professional, religious, or educational purposes. Major tour operators, such as Grand Circle, Globus, Tauck, and Abercrombie and Kent, offer highly-structured people-to-people tours, under special licenses.
“Cuba is an amazing destination, with wonderful people, a rich culture, and a burgeoning art scene,” says Harriet Lewis, chairwoman of Grand Circle Foundation, which has been offering small-group tours to the country since November 2011. “If and when restrictions are reduced, we believe that Cuba will see a significant influx of travelers. We hope that an increase in travel will benefit the Cuban people who are proud of their country and so welcoming of travelers.”
Get there now before the floodgates open.
After decades of oppression under a military junta and international isolation, this beautiful country is opening up to tourists. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Myanmar (formerly Burma) tops the list of the fastest-growing international tourist markets in the world. An estimated 3 million tourists visited in 2014, a 50 percent jump, according to the government’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. With the launch of Myanmar’s new e-visa system, travel to the country is now easier, too. With the new system, travelers from 41 countries, including the United States, have access to 28-day visas for a fee of $50 and a short, five-day wait time.
The Southeast Asian nation, stretching from the islands of the Andaman Sea in the south to the Eastern Himalayan mountain range, is mysterious and exotic, rich in culture and traditions. The varied landscape includes pristine beaches, snow-capped mountains, and rural countryside, dotted with sacred temples and shrines, and ancient cities. Visitors can explore the colorful city of Yangon, with lively markets and sacred Buddhist sites, and the ancient Burmese capital of Bagan, home to some 3,000 pagodas, temples and Buddha sculptures, including the world’s largest reclining Buddha. Cruises on the Ayeyarwady River , through gorges and along jungle-y riverbanks, with views of ruined temples and rural villages, are popular and often include visits to Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon, and Inle Lake.
Forget Costa Rica — old news. Industry experts are calling Nicaragua the hottest destination in Central America, and one of its best bargains. The WTTC is predicting an 8.8 percent growth in international tourist spending over the next decade, making it one of the world’s top 10 emerging destinations. The political climate has long settled down and the country is throwing out the welcome mat to foreign visitors, investing in infrastructure and facilities.
It’s a land of rich biodiversity, with volcanic peaks, rain forests, beaches, and nature reserves. In fact, the country boasts nearly 5 million acres of protected parks and preserves, filled with wildlife, including exotic birds, howler monkeys, turtles, and giant iguanas. Start with a visit to the Spanish colonial town of Granada, with its grand cathedrals and well-preserved historical buildings. Hiking in lush rain forest jungles and smoldering volcanic mountains is nearby. It’s also the jumping off spot for visits to Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater lake, and Ometepe Island, a UNESCO biosphere preserve. The university town of Leon is known for its cafes, shops, and eclectic museums. Surfers and sun lovers will want to check out San Juan del Sur, a funky beach town and fishing village along the Pacific Coast.
Eastern Europe is having its moment in the spotlight, and Budapest, the jewel of the region, is leading the pack. This gorgeous Hungarian capital, set on the banks of the Danube River, made TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Travelers’ Choice list for the first time in 2014, as young entrepreneurs — chefs, artists, designers, and musicians — add new vitality and energy to the long-repressed city. Budapest, finally emerging from years behind the Iron Curtain and the more recent recession, is now buzzing, with edgy ruin pubs (pop-up watering holes located in yet-to-be-renovated buildings), hip wine bars, up-and-coming designer boutiques and a trending culinary scene, from classic cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Thankfully, some things remain the same. Hilly Buda on one side of the Danube, is home to the royal Buda Castle, and a labyrinth of crooked streets lined with medieval homes, historic monuments, leafy parks, and picturesque squares. Stand at the top of Gellert Hill and you’ll have one of the finest city views in Europe. Across the river is flat Pest, with its broad boulevards and ornate, 19th-century buildings. Visit the thermal baths, take in a concert at Saint Stephen’s Basilica or a performance at the beautiful Opera House, shop the historic Great Market Hall, or simply stroll the streets soaking in the city’s Old World-meets-New World buzz.
Yep, these days the Bayou City is cropping up more and more on travelers’ “let’s check it out” list. In 2014, for the first time ever, Houston ranked among the top five places in the United States on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of America’s Favorite Cities. The city also grabbed the number 12 spot in TripAdvisor’s Top Travelers’ Choice Awards in 2014, jumping 13 places in one year.
What’s the draw? Shopping, arts, entertainment, and food. The fourth-largest city in the nation is the South’s most stylish destination, with glitzy mega malls, premium outlet centers, and hundreds of up-to-the-moment fashion boutiques. The Downtown Theater District spans some 17 blocks, and the city boasts resident companies in ballet, opera, symphony and theater. The Museum District has 19 institutions within a 1.5-mile radius, including the renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (with a proposed new wing in the works), the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Houston Zoo, which will open the $29 million Gorillas of the African Forest exhibit in spring 2015. The $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment, in anticipation of hosting Super Bowl 2017, has already brought in a slew of new restaurants and bars. The influx adds to an already dynamic, nationally recognized culinary scene showcasing the city’s rich, cultural diversity. And, the ongoing renovation and extension of rail lines is making it a lot easier to get around the fast-growing, sprawling metropolis. Then, there are the festivals, rodeos, and BBQ cook-offs. This energetic, cash-infused city knows how to spend money and throw a party.
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
“Cartagena is booming,” says Jack S. Ezon, award-winning travel agent and member of Travel + Leisure’s Travel Advisory Board. “There are great new hotels and a host of trendy shops and restaurants. It’s an amazing, fun destination right now.”
The sunny, sultry South American city, set on the shores of the Caribbean, continues to attract savvy international visitors, making it a hotter-than-ever tourist destination. The popularity is due in part to the country’s more stable political situation; slowly, Colombia as a whole is shedding its crude reputation for drug violence and street gangs. Access has improved with more flights and a growing number of cruise ship itineraries that include stops in the vibrant seaport city. Walk the cobblestone streets of the walled, colonial historic district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; enjoy arepas from street vendors and fruit from the colorful palenqueras, and dine in world-class restaurants. You may not think of Cartagena as a sophisticated food town, but young, talented chefs, with access to exotic ingredients and fresh seafood are quickly changing its culinary landscape. End your evenings dancing the salsa with party-loving locals in late-night bars and outdoor plazas. No worries: The next morning, you’ll be flip-flop steps away from a hammock on the beach.