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Top Trending Destinations of 2015

September 8, 2015 By: David Moseder, Joe Pike, Natalie Maneval, Mary Winston Nicklin Travel Agent

Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is known for its buzzing nightlife.
Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is known for its buzzing nightlife.

Our team of globetrotting editors and correspondents have identified a number of destinations that have been drawing new or renewed interest from savvy travelers. Most of the names are quite familiar, while a few may have you consulting your World Atlas or Google — but all, we believe, should be lighting up your radar. Here, beginning in Europe and circling the world until we reach the Caribbean, are a dozen of our top trending destinations.

Red Hot Iceland: Beyond the Blue Lagoon

The cat’s out of the bag about Iceland, which has become the destination du jour for Americans. Since 2008’s economic crash, Iceland has turned tourism into an engine for growth with savvy marketing campaigns promoting the small country as a sublime stop-over destination on the way to the European continent. These efforts have paid off, as Iceland witnessed a 27 percent increase in American travelers in 2014 and though the 2015 numbers aren’t official yet, the tourism spike looks dramatic for this year (an estimated 75 percent more Americans).

Icelandair’s competitive airfares, expanded flight routes (including service to Anchorage, Edmonton, Minneapolis, and Orlando), and affordable accommodations packages make for a tempting jaunt to the Nordic nation. And Delta and Iceland-based low-cost carrier WOW air — which has made waves with its $99 fares — added almost 70 flights from the U.S. to Iceland for the summer season. Increasingly, Americans aren’t just stopping over; they’re taking time to explore the remote corners of the island, immersing themselves in the striking landscapes and authentic culture. Iceland doesn’t just appeal to thrill-seeking adventurers. From Reykjavik’s buzzing nightlife to Northern Lights-viewing to design hotels such as Ion Luxury Adventure, Iceland attracts a diverse crowd.

As Travel Agent found on a recent stopover (during the white nights of July), Iceland has also become a popular destination for multigenerational travel, with many American families taking advantage of travel deals to experience the country’s otherworldly natural phenomena: volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls.

As a result of high demand, popular hotels such as the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina have embarked on expansion projects to add more guest rooms. Marriott plans to open its first Iceland in 2018: The Reykjavik Edition, on the harbor waterfront. The Icelandair Hotels portfolio now comprises nine properties, including the Luxury Lighthouse Stay, the newest addition, which will be exclusively available until November 1, 2015.

The postcard-perfect port of La Rochelle.
The postcard-perfect port of La Rochelle. // Photo: Région Poitou-Charentes / F. Roch

Poitou-Charentes: Coast, Culture and Cognac

For years, Provence and Paris have stolen the spotlight for francophiles traveling to the Hexagon. But in recent years, the Poitou-Charentes region is gaining in popularity amongst American travelers. There are beautiful sandy beaches, historic cities like the postcard-perfect port of La Rochelle, and islands like the Ile de Ré — a chic destination often equated to the Hamptons. Not to mention Cognac country, as Poitou-Charentes is the birthplace of the storied spirit, with some 80,000 hectares of grape vines — second only to Bordeaux in vineyard surface area. Access to the region’s capital of Poitiers is just one hour and 40 minutes by high-speed train from Paris, and low-cost carriers (such as EasyJet) fly to La Rochelle.

Thanks largely to a tall ship named Hermione, this Atlantic region is having a moment. This year witnessed the historic voyage of the Hermione, a replica of the wood frigate that was sailed by the Marquis de Lafayette to help the American revolutionaries secure their independence. Over a 17-year period, the ship was constructed in Rochefort using the same 18th-century building techniques. This summer, the Hermione embarked on a transatlantic voyage to celebrate Franco-American friendship. As she sailed the East Coast of America, festive events in each port (including a July 4th celebration in New York) called attention to the ship’s birthplace in the Poitou-Charentes region, with many visitors eager to make the trip. It’s too early to see the official tourism impact, but insiders tell us that room nights booked by American visitors doubled in the first three months of the year.

From history buffs to water sports enthusiasts to families with kids in tow, there’s something for everyone in Poitou-Charentes. We recommend selling this region to seasoned Europe-loving travelers who are looking for other French destinations to discover.

Mozambique, Africa: The Next Maldives

Tourism is in its infancy in the beach-fringed tropical paradise of Mozambique. Here you’ll find sugary sand beaches, forests teeming with exotic birds and wildlife, turquoise waters, and some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling on the planet. In recent years, a handful of new luxury hotels are drawing attention to the country’s pearl-like islands in the Indian Ocean. Anantara has opened two private island resorts: Bazaruto Island and Medjumbe Island in the pristine Quirimbas Archipelago off the country’s northern coast.

In June 2015, andBeyond debuted Benguerra Island (in the Bazaruto Archipelago) which is accessed via helicopter from Vilanculos on the mainland. And with its proximity to Tanzania, Mozambique makes for a perfect pre- or post-safari jaunt for adventure-minded travelers in need of some beachtime R&R and cultural immersion.

Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has customized trips to Mozambique for well-traveled, well-to-do clients who want to experience authentic, off-the-beaten-path destinations. Starla Estrada, GeoEx’s managing director, Africa, Turkey & the Middle East, traveled to Mozambique in May. “It is a phenomenal destination, as either a post-safari trip or a stand-alone trip. In addition to its world-class beaches, it offers a great variety of activity and exploration. The culture is colorful; the people are friendly and engaging. The level of accommodation and service is very high. The cuisine [seafood, of course] is fresh and well-prepared. There is something special about Mozambique — it has its own sense of place, its own rhythm,” Estrada says.

AnantaraBazaruto Island Resort in Mozambique
AnantaraBazaruto Island Resort in Mozambique.

Cambodia Prepares For Luxury Travelers

Cambodia has blossomed in recent years as a river cruise destination, usually in tandem with Vietnam. Now it is poised to make inroads as a land-only luxury destination. On July 12, Cambodia and Thailand signed their “Two Kingdoms, One Destination” tourism agreement, designed to integrate the two tourism markets and making it easier for visitors to obtain travelers’ visas. High-end luxury resorts from around the world have already pounced at this newly transformed market.

Among the new hotels that travelers should expect to see in Cambodia within the next five years is the Rosewood Phnom Penh, a 175-room/suite/residence property opening in 2016 within the Vattanac Capital Tower, within walking distance of the city’s Central Business District and tourist sites along the Mekong. The Japanese chain Hotel Okura has recently agreed to manage the new Okura Prestige Phnom Penh. Expected to open in 2019, this 45-story hotel will afford convenient sightseeing along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Also slated for a 2019 debut is the Shangri-La Hotel in Phnom Penh, a first for that brand.

If your clients are champing at the bit to visit Cambodia ASAP, the likes of InterContinental Phnom Penh and Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh provide creature comforts as well as the reassurance of a familiar brand name.

Cambodia’s most iconic attraction is the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century, including the famous Temple of Angkor Wat. Other highlights include the Killing Fields of ChoeungEk and the TuolSleng Museum, once an infamous prison used by the Khmer Rouge; the Russian Market, a lively outdoor bazaar; and the stone carvings of the Stung Kbal Spean River.

Mexico City: A ‘Maximum’ Metropolis

Mexico City has been the “it” destination for Latin American travelers for years, and it is only recently that Americans are catching on. It is one of the biggest metropolises in the world, but your clients need only focus the historical center, which houses the must-sees. This means first-timers to the city won’t get overwhelmed traveling around the whole city, and stopover visitors can see a lot in a short time. The primary attractions that keep visitors coming — and coming back — include Palace of Fine Arts, Alameda Park, the National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral.

While visiting the capital, foodies will want to make (advanced) reservations at Pujol, one of the top restaurants in Mexico. This fine eatery serves dishes rooted in the Mexican culture with local ingredients. As for places to stay, The St. Regis Mexico City is offering a package, “48 hours in Mexico City,” through December 15. It includes two museum entrance tickets to one of the following museums: PapaloteMuseo del Niño, MuseoInteractivo de Economía, Museo de Antropología, Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo Tamayo, Museo de Arte Popular, Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia and Universum. The deal also comes with other experiences such as biking tours and gastronomic affairs.

Mexico City is also trending with LGBT travelers. Its commitment to that community goes beyond flying a rainbow flag in this or that place; it is reflected in progressive actions designed to enhance equality, most notably exemplified by the capital’s landmark 2010 legalization of same-sex marriage — a first for any Latin American jurisdiction. The government has even published an official “LGBT Guide” to “Mexico’s Maximum City.”

Travelers won’t need to stress out about getting to Mexico City, as more flight options are being added every year. Recently, Aeromexico began flying nonstop flights between Mexico City and Sacramento and Ontario, CA.

The St. Regis Mexico City is currently offering a package, “48 hours in Mexico City.”
The St. Regis Mexico City is currently offering a package, “48 hours in Mexico City.”

San Miguel de Allende: Authentic Mexican Culture

Travelers looking for charm, not sand, will be thrilled to know that San Miguel de Allende is gaining in popularity. This centrally located colonial town, about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City, is perfect for travelers looking for authentic Mexican culture with a mix of safe nightlife. How to see the most: San Miguel is ideal to see on foot, as there isn’t a single traffic light in the town. Guests will have the opportunity to visit several beautiful churches and should check out San Miguel de Allende Historical Museum, which was the first museum restructured as part of the Independence of Mexico Bicentennial celebrations.

This destination fits well with a larger Mexican journey and is closely located to other colonial towns like Guanajuato, Mineral de Pozos and Dolores Hidalgo. Experienced travelers will like staying in this region, with the option to stay at A-list properties like Belmond Casa De Sierra Nevada and Rosewood San Miguel De Allende.

Also, in the area are top-notch vineyards like Dos Buhos vineyard, which has 10 different grape varieties and offers tastings and courses. Another vineyard option is Cuna de Tierra, which was designed by architects Ignacio UrquizaQuinzañosSeoane and Bernardo Oria. The design incorporates steel and wood and includes a private tasting room.

Getting to San Miguel is simple from both Del Bajio and Queretaro international airports. It is also about a three-hour drive from Mexico City.

Tulum Is a Natural For Seasoned Clients

This beachside town in Riviera Maya is still off the beaten path for most first-time travelers to Mexico, which may be one reason it continues to be a growing hot spot with seasoned travelers. Here, visitors won’t find the traditional rows of large resorts like in other parts on the Riviera Maya, as the area has development restrictions to maintain its natural beauty.

Tulum is truly an adventurer’s paradise, as it is located next to the Sian Ka’an biosphere and a land reserve for the local indigenous population. Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has tropical forests, mangroves and a variety of wildlife. For those who want to experience the biosphere, it is possible to drive down a bumpy road to the fishing town of Punta Allen, located about 30 miles inside the sphere. Another must-see in the Tulum area is the ruin of Coba.

Unlike other Mexican ruins, Coba is set in the jungle, and tourists can still climb the main pyramid, NohochMul. For those who want to see more than just Coba, Journey Mexico offers an itinerary that also includes visits to nearby cenotes — underground sink holes that are perfect for swimming.

There are several accommodations options in Tulum to fit each traveler’s lifestyle, including Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa. This family-friendly resort is located on 44 acres of gardens and beach. For the traveler that wants to roam under the radar there are several, small boutique hotels to choose from like the recently opened Mi Amor, part of the Colibri Hotel Collection. Travelers headed to Tulum should fly into Cancun and rent a car or opt for a ground transfer (the drive takes about two hours).

The nine-room Casa Palopo is a modern villa resort on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
The nine-room Casa Palopo is a modern villa resort on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

Guayaquil, Ecuador, Poised for Increase in Leisure Travelers

Guayaquil, officially Santiago de Guayaquil, is the largest and the most populated city in Ecuador, as well as the nation’s main port. It has primarily been a business destination, but is becoming more attractive among leisure clients due to its increasing luxury hotel product and close proximity to both Quito and the Galapagos Islands. It also offers art galleries, artisan markets and the ParqueHistorico, a zoological area that also has a recreated 19th-century Ecuadoran town.

Hotel Oro Verde opened the world’s eyes to Guayaquil’s luxury offerings years ago. The hotel is one of the Leading Hotels of the World and continues to draw affluent clients, including some notable celebrities, from around the world. Plus, Travel Agent has been hearing rumblings of other notable luxury hotels opening up there.

From the northeast, Lan Ecuador and American Airlines both offer nonstop flights to Guayaquil while TAME, American and other notable carriers offer connections through Ecuador’s capital of Quito. 

Guayaquil, especially for business travelers, can stand on its own, but for leisure travelers we suggest pairing this with either the magical Galapagos Islands or the capital of Quito, both just short flights to Guayaquil. The perfect trip would be four days to the Galapagos Islands with the two days in Guayaquil to re-acclimate to mainland life.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Pure Relaxation

By no means is Lake Atitlan, the beautiful lakeside region of Guatemala, opening up to the mass market anytime soon, but it has given savvy Latin American travelers an alternative to Guatemala’s most popular tourist spots — Guatemala City and Antigua. Lake Atitlan fully complements both of those cities as clients can take in a fair share of culture by visiting the people, churches and galleries in Guatemala City and Antigua before heading to Lake Atitlan for some pure relaxation.

Travel Agent gives most of the credit for the destination’s emergence to a single, boutique hotel. Ninety miles from Guatemala City, the nine-room Casa Palopo is a gorgeous, modern chic villa resort on the hills surrounding Santa CatarinaPalopo village, on the shores of Lake Atitlan. It overlooks three dormant volcanoes and serves the best rum in the country. Casa Palopo is also the best way to get from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. Casa Palopo isn’t a franchise hotel, but there is also a Casa Palopo, Antigua; clients can rest up here for a night before taking the hotel’s private helicopter to Lake Atitlan.

It takes about 45 minutes to get from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua and about three hours to drive to Lake Atitlan. The better option is staying at Casa Palopo, Antigua for a night, unwinding a bit over some wine and great food and taking a 20-minute helicopter from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan the following morning. In fact, the helicopter rides to and from Lake Atitlan may easily be your clients’ favorite vacation highlights as they offer some incredible aerial views of volcanoes, farms and more.

First-timers to Guatemala should pair Lake Atitlan with a few nights in Guatemala City and Antigua. Seasoned travelers, perhaps couples 45 and older, should soak up Lake Atitlan for as much of their vacation as possible.

The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo.
The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo.

LGBT-Friendly Saba Welcomes Adventurers, Island Hoppers

As the smallest Dutch island in the Caribbean, Saba made big waves back in 2012 when it became the first Caribbean island to approve same-sex marriages. It’s no secret that the LGBT community doesn’t exactly feel welcomed on some islands in the Caribbean, but on Saba and its sister Dutch Caribbean island Curacao, they aren’t merely tolerated, but feel welcomed with open arms. While Curacao is on the fast track to the mainstream tourist market, Saba is still most popular amongst the seasoned Caribbean travelers looking for an island they haven’t been to yet.

With increasing numbers of gay and lesbian tour packages being offered by the island and with American travelers not only accepting the LGBT community, but embracing it, we expect Saba to get on the mainstream map very soon. So, tell clients to go now while it’s still a secret.

Saba is very easy to get to and is located within a cluster of other impressive Dutch islands that make Saba the perfect starting point for an island-hopping tour. Tell clients to fly to St. Maarten and take a short, scenic ferry ride to Saba. Saba can also be reached by air from St. Maarten via a 12-minute flight from Windward Islands Airways.

While an agent’s prime market for Saba is the LGBT community, you can target seasoned Caribbean travelers who would opt for adventure and nature over a casino, a beach and a nightclub. But don’t ignore the newbies, as long as you pair Saba up with a few nights in either neighboring St.Maarten/St. Martin or Anguilla.

Santo Domingo Gets Boost From New Highway, Hotels

This quiet, magical town in the Dominican Republic has long been a haven for Caribbean-bound travelers looking for that slice of history, art and culture not exactly found on the beach. But pitching Santo Domingo as a destination that could stand on its own has long been a challenge, since getting to it hasn’t always been easy and also since a day or two here is usually enough before clients crave a stretch of powdery, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters. But since the new four-lane Coral Highway, which connects the famous resorts of the La Romana region to the beaches and resorts in Punta Cana, was inaugurated in 2012, clients can now break up their Dominican holiday with a few days in the capital before hitting up the country’s best beaches.

The highway shortens the trip from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana from four hours to 90 minutes and cuts the drive from La Romana to Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) to nearly 40 minutes.

It wasn’t until August of last year, however, that Santo Domingo got the hotel it needed to stand on its own as a tourist spot, namely the JW Marriott Santo Domingo, the first by that luxury brand in the Caribbean. It is set in the upscale Piantini financial district and occupies a space inside the Blue Mall, which has several fine-dining restaurants and high-end shops, such as Cartier, Carolina Herrera and Louis Vuitton. We hear Hilton’s upscale Curio Collection also has Santo Domingo on its radar as possible destinations for expansion in the Dominican Republic.

For first-timers to the country, recommend two days in Santo Domingo and the remainder of the trip in Punta Cana. For the seasoned Caribbean traveler, suggest the opposite.

Hotel Meliá Peninsula in Varadero, Cuba.
Hotel Meliá Peninsula in Varadero, Cuba.

Cuba Is Ready for Mainstream American Tourism

Cuba has been a tourism giant in the Caribbean for years, catering to mostly Europeans and Canadians, but now is emerging as a leisure destination for Americans as well. Cuba offers the best of the both worlds, the hustle and bustle of Havana, the country’s vibrant capital rich with nightlife and incredible cuisine, and Varadero, a region stocked with some of the most undeveloped beaches in the world. For Latin America specialists, think Ambergris Caye in Belize.

Many agents and operators have seen the writing on the wall and have also been legally selling Cuba already through the People-to-People Initiative, which requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country.

Although there are many loopholes to getting to Cuba legally, general travel there is still technically illegal so getting there will have to be a part of People-to-People packages, which are now being offered from just about every major operator including Insight Cuba, National Geographic Expeditions, Mayflower Tours, Apple Vacations, Journeys International, Abercrombie & Kent and others.

Most People-to-People flights leave out of Miami. However, all the chips are in place for mainstream air travel to Cuba, as JetBlue in July officially became the first major U.S. carrier to fly from New York/JFK to Havana. Cuba Travel Services Inc. is offering the weekly flight. It was also announced in August that American Airlines and Cuba Travel Services plan to operate the first charter flights between Los Angeles and Havana later this year. (The cruise industry is also jumping on the bandwagon. For a look at this aspect of Cuba tourism, stay tuned to

Cuba is trending because, to put it quite simply, people often want “forbidden fruit,” so naturally Americans have been pining to visit Cuba for years. But besides being once off limits, Cuba offers a look at the old Caribbean, including beaches with no high rises and affordable cuisine — and classic U.S. automobiles.

Since experiential tourism isn’t always for the first-time traveler, we suggest pitching People-to-People tours to those who seek culture over a beach or simply to the more seasoned Caribbean client. It may take a year or two for Cuba’s hospitality industry to learn how to accommodate the American tourist. You can send experienced Caribbean travelers to Cuba immediately after it opens, but make sure they have a level of patience in dealing with some inevitable infrastructure and language-barrier obstacles that are sure to arise in the first few years.

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About the Author

David Moseder
David Moseder is the Managing Editor for Travel Agent Magazine.


About the Author

Joe Pike
Joe Pike is Travel Agent's senior editor covering the Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda; Hawaii; Central & South America. Previously, Pike was a newspaper reporter for The Asbury Park...


About the Author

natalie maneval


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Mary Winston Nicklin

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By David Moseder | September 4, 2015
Our team of globetrotting editors and correspondents have identified a number of destinations that have been drawing new or renewed interest from savvy travelers. Here, beginning in Europe and circling the world until we reach the Caribbean, are a dozen of our top trending destinations.