Summer vacations might be behind us, but that doesn't mean travel talk is over until the new year. While everyone else is busy prepping for Thanksgiving and the holidays, travel experts use this time to plan their vacations for 2018, foresight that allows them to score the best hotel and flight deals before peak season.
While Iceland and Cuba garnered attention (and crowds) in 2017, travel insiders have their sights set on a new lineup of destinations. We tapped tour operators, tourism boards, and Lonely Planet editors to find out which hot spots are on the rise and where they'll jet off to next year. Start planning: These are the destinations everyone will be talking about in 2018, say travel pros.
New Zealand keeps popping up on travel trend lists for good reason: The island nation's diverse landscape means that it caters to almost every type of traveler. Lonely Planet editors have dubbed it one of the top 10 countries to visit in 2018, thanks to a new trail that's under construction. "The Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track, which commemorates the 29 miners killed in 2010, will form a magnificent multiday trail through the South Island's wild and wonderful West Coast," they point out.
Bjoern Spreitzer, Tourism New Zealand's general manager of the Americas and Europe, says that's just the start. "Thanks to New Zealand's geography and numerous microclimates, the range of activities on offer are just about limitless," he tells MyDomaine. For those seeking adventure, he says scuba diving in Northland at Poor Knights Islands should top the list. "Often cited as the best sub-tropical diving in the world, it is a complete marine reserve. The beauty of the area is breathtaking, and the diving is exceptional."
Prefer a slower-paced vacation? "Waiheke Island, Marlborough, and Hawke's Bay are the most well-known and popular wine regions to visit," he says. "We encourage visitors to also explore the cellar doors of Central Otago, Wairarapa, and Nelson if they want to taste wines where the landscapes are as diverse as the grapes growing."
For those who are traveling on a budget or want to avoid the crowds, Spreitzer recommends the shoulder season—October, November, March, and April. "There are often fewer tourists, which provides the ability to connect more fully with nature, and there are usually some great deals during this time."
There's no mistaking it: Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations to watch. "We've seen a 70% increase in North American travel to Sri Lanka," says Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel's regional director for North America. Often referred to as the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean," he says it's a melting pot of Arabian, Indian, and European influences. "One minute you're climbing a 1500-year-old Kashyapa temple, and the next you're checking out a colonial church in Colombo, chatting with Tamil fisherman, or sipping a Ceylon brew in the misty highlands of Kandy."
Ashlea Halpern, Airbnbmag contributor and founder of Cartogramme, recently visited Sri Lanka and says that after a tumultuous history, it's making its way back onto bucket lists. "This year, nearly 130% more Airbnb guests have trekked to Sri Lanka than last, indicating an extraordinary jump in bookings," she explains in the magazine's Fall/Winter issue. Want to follow suit? She recommends wild elephant spotting at Minneriya National Park, hiking from the ancient Dambatenne tea factory to Lipton's Seat, and surfing at Arugam Bay.
While tensions in North Korea dominate news headlines, travelers have turned their attention to the South. Intrepid launched its first tour to the Asian nation last year, and Barnes says it'll be a buzzy hot spot, thanks to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
So what kind of trip can you expect in South Korea? Apparently, it's a mecca for foodies. "Long overshadowed by the gastronomy of its regional neighbors, Korean cuisine is on the rise, highly acclaimed for its table-side BBQ, silky tofu, glass noodle salads, and kimchi, along with a smorgasbord of sauces and pickled sides accompanying every meal," says Barnes. Beyond Seol, he recommends visiting Sunchang Gochujang, a village famous for red chili paste, and a trip to Oriental Medicine Market, a Busan craft brewery.
Ask any travel insider what the greatest industry concern is, and they'll cite "over-tourism," a global issue that sees popular destinations overwhelmed by visitors. With talks of tourist caps, cities like Amsterdam and Dubrovnik have started their own efforts to limit visitors, which will see lesser-known European hot spots rise up. "We've seen a 50% increase in North American bookings to Europe this year," says Barnes, though he notes that travelers are looking for "authentic experiences in lesser-known destinations."
One such alternative to popular Cinque Terre or Santorini is Malta. Lonely Planet says, "Malta is experiencing a moment," since Valletta was announced European Capital of Culture for 2018. "Expect baroque, pop, and international film festivals, plus a contemporary art biennial. Not to mention a laid-back lifestyle born out of proximity to warm sea, beaches, and more than 300 annual days of sunshine." That sounds good to us.
Already explored Mexico City, Tulum, and Cabo? Add Guanajuato to the list. One of the top 10 cities to see in 2018, Lonely Planet described it as a "visually stunning cityscape of ornate churches, pretty squares, and colorful houses, spread out over [a] verdant valley."
The Intrepid team spotted this travel trend in June, and Barnes says it's like "walking back in time. Contrasted with colorful cubic houses perched on Guanajuato's rolling hills, the historic heart of the city is known to be idyllic with sidewalk cafes, museums, theaters, markets, and monuments lining the streets," he says.
Topping his must-see list is Callejón del Beso. "Don't miss a stroll through Callejón del Beso, which translates to 'Alley of the Kiss,'" says Barnes. "Local legend says the picturesque alley is so narrow that lovers could kiss from their respective balconies." Other highlights to add to your itinerary include Museo Casa Diego Rivera, Diego Rivera's former home, and Museo de las Momias, a collection of over 100 mummies found in the ravines around Guanajuato.
Never heard of Bonaire? That's part of its appeal, says Kieran Donahue, vice president of brand, marketing and digital for The Americas at Marriott International. "This lesser-known Caribbean island is located about 86 miles from Aruba [and is] known as the fishing capital of the Caribbean." Donahue points out that more than 20% of the island's land area is protected, making it a haven for unique wildlife and a mecca for divers. "There are more than 470 fish species and 100 dive sites such as Bonaire National Marine Park and Washington Slagbaai National Park," she says.
Another lesser-known European destination travel experts have their eyes on is Moldova, a small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Barnes predicts it will be seen as an alternative to Croatia, which has been in the travel spotlight for years, thanks to its historic towns and glistening coastline.
"Perfect for avoiding crowds, the country was recently named one of the least visited in the world, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization's latest World Tourism Barometer. However, when we launched our first tour in Moldova last year, the departure sold out immediately, leading us to double our itineraries for 2018," he says.
Daunted at the thought of going off the tourist trail? Don't miss these highlights: "Visit the Mileștii Mici winery, which has the world's largest wine cellar … [and see] Orheiul Vechi, a 14th-century cave monastery and World Heritage Site inside a cliff," says Barnes.