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If 2015 was the year of normalizing the idea of American travel to Cuba, then 2016 might belong to Iran.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in Iran for the past two years,” said Kevin Callaghan, president and CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS). “Going forward, the very subtle thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran resulting from the nuclear accord has had — and will have — a big impact.”
The country hosted 5 million tourists in 2014 and hopes to increase that number to 20 million tourists per year by 2025. Masoud Soltanifar, vice president of Iran, says that the private sector is investing in more than 1,000 projects, including hotels and tourism-related facilities.
“In the post-sanctions era, tourism is an industry that will get a boost more than any other sector,” Soltanifar told the Associated Press.
In fact, MTS’ Treasures of Persia itinerary is one of its top performers, along with itineraries to Japan, Spain, the Alps, Peru, Botswana and Cuba.
Cuba was named the No. 2 top emerging destination to gain popularity in 2015 in a January survey from U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), following Myanmar. Both predictions were on the money, and interest in Cuba is still strong. Due to rising demand, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) has added a Cuba and South America by Private Jet trip, and Vacations By Rail recently announced a rail/cruise people-to-people cultural exchange program in the country.
On the other hand, the renewed strength of the Middle East — particularly Egypt — has led Avalon Waterways to bring back Egypt cruising itineraries.
The political climate in the region impacted Intrepid Travel’s departures to Tunisia, but the brand is seeing success in the region with Israel. The company has introduced a new Discover Israel & the Palestinian Territories trip, as well as a Dubai Discovery trip.
What about another trouble spot from last year: Africa, the unfair victim of Ebola hysteria?
“We are anticipating a rebound year in 2016,” said Leigh Barnes, vice president of North America for Intrepid Travel. “Over the past three months, bookings to Africa are up 4 percent compared to last year. One of the main regions impacted was East Africa, where we are very excited to report that bookings are up 29 percent over the past month.”
A&K is also seeing a rise in Africa bookings for 2016. The operator is even launching two new private travel destinations in Africa: Signature Zimbabwe and Signature Rwanda. Intrepid is betting on Ethiopia, due to its combination of great cuisine, trekking in the Simien Mountains and well-preserved culture, and MTS counts Botswana as one of its best-sellers.
USTOA participants noted that natural disasters are a huge threat to visitor numbers, something that Nepal operators know too well. Nonetheless, rebound efforts in Nepal have been swift, with most tour operators continuing to travel to the country.
In terms of top 10 destinations for travelers in 2015, USTOA predicted that Italy would be No. 1, followed by the U.K. Italy was the No. 1 destination for Avanti Destinations and Globus Family of Brands, and Globus is predicting even more demand for 2016.
“Not just because it’s Italy, but because it’s also a papal ‘Year of Mercy,’” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Globus. “With the pope’s recent visit, we’re seeing even more interest to an already hot destination.”
Expectations for Europe in 2016 are high due to the dollar’s strength against the euro. Travel Leaders is already seeing solid, double-digit growth in sales to Europe for next year, and A&K just added an itinerary in Spain and Portugal, a region that is up more than 30 percent for Globus. Avanti brought back Croatia due to a surge in demand, and the tour operator was also wowed by huge growth in its Iceland product.
South America is on its fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth for Globus, and several tour operators, including Monograms and Intrepid Travel, are launching Colombia trips.
“Patagonia and the Galapagos did really well for us in 2015, and we’re seeing that growth continue into 2016 — very positive news in South America,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti.
Two of Intrepid’s five most popular destinations are in South America (Peru and Ecuador), in addition to Vietnam, Morocco and India, which has benefited from its newly-launched Tourist Visa on Arrival.