The Olympics, the centennial of the Titanic sinking, new rules on travel to Cuba, a once-a-decade horticultural festival in the Netherlands and increased reliance on technology and customization will all help shape travel in 2012.
Here are some details on these and other destinations and trends.
EVENTS: The Summer Olympic Games take place in London, July 27-Aug. 12. For those without tickets, Hyde Park and other places will host live broadcasts of the games on giant outdoor screens. A three-month arts festival beginning June 21 will add a cultural component, from Shakespeare to music to street performers. Great Britain will also celebrate Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee June 2-5. She is only the second British monarch after Queen Victoria to mark 60 years on the throne.
The Netherlands is planning Floriade, a horticultural expo that takes place once a decade. A 160-acre park with five different floral and nature themes opens April 5-Oct. 7, in Venlo, about 85 miles or two hours by train from Amsterdam; http://www.floriade.com.
The European Capitals of Culture for 2012 are Maribor, Slovenia, known for wines, a historic town center and nearby forests, waterfalls and moors; and Guimaraes, Portugal, known for crafts like goldsmithing, pottery and embroidery, and for its roots as the birthplace of Portugal's first king, who established the country's independence from Spain. Arabella Bowen, executive director of editorial and content strategy at the travel guidebook publisher Fodor's, says both destinations are great values for food and hotels, with interesting attractions away from the crowds.
In Yeosu, a city on South Korea's southern coast, about 100 countries and 8 million visitors are expected to take part in Expo 2012, May 12-Aug. 12. Yeosu, population 300,000, is known for marine national parks, islands and beaches. Expo themes are the ocean, coast, and sustainable resources. Exhibits will include a large aquarium displaying rare species.
In the U.S., the bicentennial of the War of 1812 will be marked with tall ships, educational events and fireworks in several destinations, including June 6-12 in Norfolk, Va., and June 13-19 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.
TITANIC 100TH: The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage from England to New York. A variety of events in 2012 — including some cruises — will mark 100 years since the tragedy in which more than 1,500 died. Halifax, Nova Scotia's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic offers an extensive permanent Titanic exhibit but will also be hosting special exhibits and events for the April anniversary and into the summer. Visitors can also tour Halifax's Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where 121 Titanic victims are buried.
The Titanic was built in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and an enormous waterfront development called Titanic Quarter is taking shape on the site of the former shipyard, with hotels, eateries, parks, theaters and galleries. Titanic Belfast, an ultra-modern building whose shape and silvery color evokes ship hulls on the water, is set to open in April with Titanic-themed galleries and interactive exhibits. Southampton, England, which lost 549 locals when the ship went down, mostly crewmembers, is also opening a new interactive museum, Sea City, focusing on various aspects of the Titanic story.
Far from those ports, the Titanic Pigeon Forge attraction in Tennessee is a half-scale, three-deck reproduction of the ship. A centennial tribute "Night to Remember" is planned for April 14.
DESTINATIONS: Croatia, Vietnam and Panama were named as "up and coming" destinations in an annual survey of 640 travel agents and owners from Travel Leaders. For top 10 international destinations based on 2012 booking data, the Travel Leaders survey listed Caribbean cruises; Cancun, Mexico; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Mediterranean cruises; Rome; London; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Paris; Montego Bay and Negril, Jamaica.
Fodor's Bowen put Cuba on her list of top destinations for 2012. U.S. citizens can now travel to Cuba legally even if they don't have relatives there under new U.S. State Department regulations permitting certain types of trips. "Everyone wants to get in to see the country before everything changes," said Bowen. But it hasn't been easy for tour companies to meet State Department standards, which require itineraries to have a religious, humanitarian or educational purpose. Some Cuba trips — including Abercrombie & Kent's — have been canceled or postponed.
"It's a challenge," said Terry Dale, head of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. "It's not uncommon for our members to have to apply several times" for approval when proposing Cuba trips.
Interest in Myanmar is also increasing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited, and an organization founded by activist Aung San Suu Kyi said it welcomes responsible tourism. Abercrombie & Kent has filled several tours and just added another departure for fall 2012.
Meanwhile, British tour operator Thomas Cook is closing 200 stores after tourism to Tunisia and Egypt dried up following protests related to the Arab Spring.
NORTHERN LIGHTS: The aurora borealis or northern lights, those mysterious curtains of color seen in Northern Hemisphere skies, are caused by a cycle of magnetic activity on the sun. The cycle lasts about 11 years, and experts say a period of low activity is ending.
Some folks are predicting this will be a banner year for northern lights. The University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, which publishes auroral forecasts at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast, doesn't necessarily foresee peak viewing in 2012, but agrees that we are entering a period of "increasing solar activity" with "more active, colorful aurora during the normal viewing season," late August to late April (when there's less daylight than summer).
Other places with northern lights tourism include Iceland and Scandinavia.
DRAGON TATTOO: Sweden may get a boost from the Hollywood movie of the blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," predicts Fodor's Bowen. The Stockholm City Museum sponsors year-round walking tours of sites associated with the Stieg Larsson crime trilogy as well as maps for self-guided tours; http://bit.ly/rLtTf2. Museum spokeswoman Cecilia Tornqvist says the English-language version of the walking tour draws people from around the world, with "quite a lot of Americans lately."
TECHNOLOGY: The smartphone has become the must-have tool for travel, offering GPS navigation, online bookings, scannable check-ins, and QR codes and locators with information geared to wherever you are.
Ad agency JWT's travel trend list for 2012 mentions apps like Uber, a cab-dispatching service; Postagram, which turns snapshots into postcards; and Vocre, an app that translates spoken words into other languages.
But never mind crowd-sourcing from websites where phony reviews and picky consumers make it hard to figure out the real deal. Instead, travelers are friend-sourcing, with sites like Trippy.com showing recommendations from your social networks. Another new app, Wenzani, takes content from guidebook publishers Lonely Planet, Frommer's and DK and integrates it with advice from your friends and social networks.
Frommer's has just introduced customized printed travel guides called Frommer's Remix that integrate personal itineraries and preferences with advice from Frommer's experts. You can design and order a Remix for $20 ($10 through Dec. 31), for more than 30 destinations, http://www.frommersremix.com. Remix also comes with coupons geared to your itinerary.
Other predictions from JWT: "Peer to peer" experiences will grow, with local independent guides offering unique niche tours through websites like Vayable, SideTour and Shiroube. And the trend of renting private residences from sites like AirBnb will get a new twist from Campinmygarden.com, where people rent their backyards out as inexpensive campsites.
ELECTION AND ECONOMY: Do presidential elections affect travel? A recent survey found 75 percent of U.S. Tour Operators Association members believe travel decreases in election years. Respondents said uncertainty and negative rhetoric keeps people home.
Still, 75 percent of USTOA members anticipate a growth in sales in 2012 as the economy improves. Eighty percent of agents and owners at Travel Leaders also said bookings for 2012 are so far equal to or higher than 2011.
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