Rome is among the top destinations for 2015. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Concerns for safety are boosting North America’s popularity. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Each year has them. They’re the international calamities that tip traveler preferences from one destination to another. This year, they include turmoil in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. But there’s no doubt that the Ebola virus has caused the most damage, infecting far more than just West Africa in terms of public perception.
But a virus has a harder time spreading in a healthy body, and luckily, the desire among U.S. consumers to travel internationally is perhaps the strongest it has been in years. According to the “U.S. Consumer Travel Report Sixth Edition” by PhoCusWright, in 2014 roughly three in 10 travelers planned to take longer vacations, spend more and travel farther following 2013 — a year when nearly all travel metrics improved.
“2014 for most tour operators was a record year,” said Jeremy Palmer, vice president of land products for Tauck. “That trend was continuing across the board as of early summer. A few things have changed the trends: Ebola fear and media coverage; instability in the Middle East; and the stock market volatility. While 2015 looks to be great, this instability has impacted destinations. It’s a slightly more nervous world prism.”
So what destinations are the projected winners of 2015?
“North America is outperforming the most at the moment,” said Palmer. “There’s a flight to safety as people want to stay home. Anything with mountains, greenery and snow is doing very well.”
Farther abroad, Tauck’s products to Italy, England and France are “on fire,” which also happen to be Virtuoso’s top three destinations of 2014. Four out of five of Priceline’s top five most-booked cities for 2015 are in Europe. These include Rome, Barcelona, London and Paris — the latter two are also among the most booked by American Express Travel. Echoing the above, Italy, France, Spain and the U.K. are among Signature’s top five most-booked destinations for 2015.
Among Virtuoso’s hottest destinations for 2015 by year-over-year growth are Austria (360 percent), Germany (324 percent) and Switzerland (90 percent). Though Russia is having a tough year due to instability with Ukraine, there’s no doubt that Europe is a perennial favorite, and discovering new countries in Europe, like exploring more of North America, may be a great alternative for consumers wary of Africa or the Middle East.
“Africa has slowed down, and this is industry-wide and directly related to Ebola,” said Palmer. “No matter how much you want to come at it from a rational angle, it’s a primal fear of diseases. Areas such as Kenya are seeing a dramatic slowdown in business. We’re not seeing cancellations, but a lot of people are saying, ‘Is this the year I want to go?’”
According to Andrew Thomson, general manager of Laucala Island Resort in Fiji, those tackling big-ticket bucket list items are choosing other destinations in place of African safaris this year.
Indeed, Virtuoso’s New Zealand bookings are leading year-over-year growth at 400 percent, following a huge 2014 with 196 percent year-over-year growth. Sydney is also among the most booked for Priceline and American Express Travel.
For the deal-savvy, Travelzoo named Brazil the No. 1 destination for next year, noting that 2015 follows the FIFA World Cup and precedes the 2016 Summer Olympics. Latin America is generally trending well for 2015: Mexico is the third most booked destination by Signature agents, while Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, are among American Express Travel’s most-booked destinations. While Eastern Africa has taken an undeserved hit, Tauck’s bookings in South Africa haven’t been affected.
“Our travelers tend to be hearty — they know [the turmoil is] isolated,” said Palmer.
Oman, Dubai and Israel show solid bookings for Tauck, and Virtuoso bookings for the United Arab Emirates are up by 336 percent.
The idea that Ebola can cause major tourism sites to shut down may be what is causing slow bookings for East Africa, and the concern that one’s experience will be tainted is what is causing a decline for Egypt, too, said Palmer.
“We don’t feel like the experience is where it needs to be,” said Palmer. “But we are considering [promoting Egypt] for 2016.”