Just as I was starting to write this article that has allowed me to take baby steps back over the course of 2013 and rekindled my memories of exploring ruined castles in Scotland, small cities in Germany and sitting high atop the city of Vienna while riding the city’s famous Ferris wheel, I received a press release from Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com) stating that “Italy remains number one in Insight Vacations’ top 10 countries for 2013.” No coincidence, then, that in this year’s Recommend Readers’ Choice Awards, you, our readers, selected Italy as the Best Selling Destination as well as the Sexiest Romance/Honeymoon Destination in Europe. And really, what’s not to love about Italy? According to Adamarie King, owner of Connoisseur’s Travel, who will be visiting Italy a couple of times in 2014, Umbria, where she has a home, “offers endless delights and discoveries with each visit. Puglia is another quasi-hidden gem, not yet on the radar screen of most travelers. The same of course applies to the island of Sicily, full of wonderful surprises and an easy destination to explore at a relatively reasonable cost.”
That brings us to traditional European destinations that continued to be as popular as ever in 2013—France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy. Germany (germany.travel), for example, had an increase of 1.1 percent in American visits to the country in the first seven months of 2013; over in Great Britain (visitbritain.com), it was a 14 percent increase for visitation from North America when comparing August 2013 to August 2012 (making it the best August since 2009), and Portugal (visitportugal.com), a destination we deemed hot for 2013 back in the November 2012 issue, also had a bumper year, with a 20 percent increase as of press time, in overnight stays by American hotel guests, “making the U.S. the fifth largest inbound tourist market to the country,” says Jayme H. Simoes, communications consultant for Turismo de Portugal (turismodeportugal.pt/english) in New York.
Part of the appeal for North Americans had to have been the new openings of museums and attractions—say the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp and ABBA The Museum in Stockholm—and the discovery of new vacation opportunities throughout Europe. In Recommend’s January 2013 issue, we focused on events throughout the region in the Festive Europe piece and included Marseille, which was celebrated in 2013 as the “European Capital of the World.” In fact, 2013 was a banner year for this French city with a slew of cultural-focused openings, including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations that opened in June, and the Regards de Provence Museum that opened in March, as well as Marseille’s first five-star hotel, the InterContinental Marseille (ihg.com). But growth went beyond Marseille in France, with the high-end Grand Hotel du Palais Royal (grandhoteldupalaisroyal.com) opening near the Louvre in Paris, and the trendy, but inexpensive Mama Shelter (mamashelter.com) opening in Lyon in March, not to mention the Mama Shelter Bordeaux summer 2013 opening as well as the Buddha Bar Hotel (buddhabarhotelparis.com) opening in Paris this past June. Skiers, too, had a new place to call home while snow riding—Eleven Experience’s Chalet Pelerin. Back in Recommend’s July 2013 issue, ski editor Richard Schermer wrote about this property, noting that it’s definitely for “the adventure seeker who has deep pockets. The well-heeled traveler will find that the value for cost is delivered and the experiences offered far surpass the touristy scene and vibe that often plagues destination resorts around the world.”
And recommending spots beyond the traditional tourist destinations, such as London, was something that Sandie Dawe, chief executive of VisitBritain (visitbritain.com), noted travel agents should be doing when her and I chatted during the Destination Britain North America (DBNA) conference that took place this past September. When I sat down with her during that event, she said that “for the U.S. market, 67 percent are not going beyond London. Although Americans do go disproportionately to Scotland, interestingly enough—U.S. visitation there is 13 percent. It’s those bits in the middle that Americans are missing out on.”
Come next year, though, many Americans may in fact head to Liverpool in droves since the city will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Of course, while in London one of the newest attractions to recommend to clients is The View from the Shard, the observation deck of the tallest building in Western Europe; also newly opened is the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard (the-shard.com/shangri-la). Other new hotels that sprouted up this year in this dynamic capital were The London EDITION (edition-hotels.marriott.com/london), Rosewood London (rosewoodhotels.com/en/london), and Hotel Xenia (hotelxenia.co.uk).
The United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, might also be a big draw for Americans due to its golf legacy. As Carla Hunt noted in the May 2013 issue, in the UK & Ireland feature that focused on golf, this is where it all began, and as Dawe noted during the DBNA conference, “if you like the Highlands and Scotland, then you are probably going to like Wales,” which—golf aficionados, listen up—offers 141,597 yards of links stretching across 870 miles of rugged coastline. And in Spain, too, golfers can tee off—as I learned while attending Seatrade this past year—along the Costa Brava, with 10 different and unique golf courses.
But back to Scotland for a minute, which will be celebrating the Year of Homecoming Scotland in 2014, and which Marc Kazlauskas, Insight Vacations’ president, says is “absolutely on fire.” I visited the country for the first time this past April, and I fell in love immediately, as I wrote in the September 2013 ontour review, Adventures by Disney’s Scotland: A Brave Adventure. “This journey with the most gracious of hosts had us wandering through ruined castles on the edge of the sea, listening to chilling tales of the Loch Ness monster…trying out some weaving…horseback riding in the Highland wilds.” As Bruce Austin, regional manager, trip operations, Adventures by Disney (ABD), mentioned in that same onsite, “A lot of families come [to Scotland] because they are exploring their ancestry,” which might explain that high percentage rate VisitBritain’s Dawe mentions. Next stop for Adventures by Disney? Norway, where it’ll debut an 8-day itinerary next year. “Our Adventures by Disney guided family trip includes both vibrant cities like Bergen and Oslo, as well as dramatic land and seascapes,” says Heather Killingbeck, director, trip development for ABD.
This year I also visited Budapest, which I am hoping to go back to as soon as possible because I was blown away. The vibrancy, the explosion of life is contagious—an energy that, as Magdolna Fekete, deputy director, head of travel & MICE, Hungary Tourism Board, (gotohungary.com) mentioned to me at this past ASTA tradeshow is evident in Katy Perry’s “Firework” music video (the closing shot is filmed at the city’s Buda Castle). As I wrote in the November 2013 onboard review, Sailing on the Danube With Viking (and a Teenager in Tow), “Budapest is a city whose architecture leaves you breathless and its youthful energy breathes new life into you.” (By the way, I also visited Vienna on that trip—a destination that needs its own article, but if you’re a fan of Sol Melia you’ll be happy to know the city just welcomed the ME Vienna— me-by-melia.com—this past fall.)
In fact, it’s these off-the-Western European-grid destinations that are getting a lot of buzz among North Americans. Kazlauskas says that although Italy is a top seller in Europe, it doesn’t mean it’s the hottest thing, pointing to Eastern Europe as one of the hottest requests from clients. “The hottest thing we are seeing are Eastern Europe and the Dalmatian Coast,” he says. In the March 2013 issue, we explored this region in the Touring Central & Eastern Europe feature. As Simion Alb from the Romanian National Tourist Office noted in that article, “Romania is much better known today in North America than it was 20 years ago, but it still preserves an aura of mystery and uniqueness. It’s authentic.” When speaking about Croatia, Alan Mandic, director of programs for Secret Dalmatia, said in that same article that, “People have been to Italy, France, Spain, Greece…and now are looking for something similar, but different.”
And speaking of something different, Turkey is also being sought out by visitors looking for a unique destination. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey (goturkey.com), “More than 36.7 million tourists visited Turkey in this past year compared to 15.2 million 10 years ago.” Helping accommodate those visitors are new hotels such as the Wyndham Izmir Ozdilek (wyndhamizmir.com) in Izmir and the Radisson Blu Hotel, Istanbul Pera (radissonblu.com/hotel-istanbul-pera).
Visiting all of these destinations is all well and good, but it’s how your clients experience these destinations that really makes all the difference. The buzz phrase all around is “experiential travel” and enjoying a destination like a local. In 2013, it became even more of a mainstay—gone are the days of zipping through a destination just to say you’ve been there. So Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com), as well as a host of other like-minded tour operators, are telling travelers to get on two wheels to truly take in European destinations. According to Kathy Stewart, director of PR for Butterfield & Robinson, “Our biking numbers are definitely up. We continue to see a diversity of client—young and old who want an active and culturally engaging experience. Through our diversity of trips, self-guided, guided, private and bespoke, we can accommodate different types of travelers and their needs.” She adds that, “France and Italy continue to be our top sellers, with France outselling Italy last year for the first time in many years. Spain has also seen an increase in recent years with the addition of two new trips, Rioja and Andalucia. We will be adding to our portfolio in Spain as a result.” In the July 2013 issue, in the Tour Talk column, we quoted Andy Levine, DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co.’s president and founder as saying, “Access to many small galleries, exclusive wineries, and a local family’s dining table are often only possible with a smaller number of guests. This is why a DuVine group never exceeds 14 guests.”
Although of course there’s no denying that in 2013 (and beyond), one of the most popular and most experiential ways to visit Europe is by staying in a villa, as Barbara Le Pome of European Escapes Villa Rentals noted in the October 2013 feature, It Takes a Villa. “Travelers today have a strong desire to fully discover their destinations; to truly experience the destination. The beauty of villa vacations is that travelers enjoy all the comforts of home abroad, while soaking up the rhythm of living like a local, or at least being part of local life.”
And it is here where Italy truly is unmatched. According to that same article, the most sought-after regions for Villas of Distinction are Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast and the Lake Como district. “One of our expanding niches in Italy is hosting villa weddings,” noted Maya Amderelli, product manager for the villa company—take note, destination wedding-savvy travel agents.
Spain, too, has its authentic accommodations, paradores, which are ideal for clients making their way along the country’s many routes. This was a type of tourism that Tourist Office of Spain (spain.info) promoted heavily this year as these routes explore the country’s myriad historical, cultural, natural and gastronomical roots, as well its myriad religious heritage.
As we leave 2013 and head into 2014, new and exciting product is already emerging such as TourCrafters’ (tourcrafters.com) 7-night self-drive tour of Northern Spain that includes accommodations in seven of Spain’s paradores, including a 16th century monastery-hospital, a Gothic-style former convent and a renaissance palace.
“We’ve seen a lot of demand for folks going to Europe,” says Tauck’s (tauck.com) Jeremy Palmer, v.p., general manager, land division & new ventures. “Europe has been very strong over the last 12 to 18 months, both with land and with river boating.” And if Viking Cruises’ Torstein Hagen’s promise of having 100 ships on the water by 2020 and VisitBritain’s goal of having 40 million visitors by the year 2020 do become reality, then 2013 is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of bookings.