Fodor's Bowen put Cuba on her list of top destinations for 2012. U.S. citizens can now travel to Cuba legally even if they don't have relatives there under new U.S. State Department regulations permitting certain types of trips. "Everyone wants to get in to see the country before everything changes," said Bowen.
But it hasn't been easy for tour companies to meet State Department standards, which require itineraries to have a religious, humanitarian or educational purpose. Some Cuba trips — including Abercrombie & Kent's — have been canceled or postponed.
"It's a challenge," said Terry Dale, head of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. "It's not uncommon for our members to have to apply several times" for approval when proposing Cuba trips.
Interest in Myanmar is also increasing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited, and an organization founded by activist Aung San Suu Kyi said it welcomes responsible tourism. Abercrombie & Kent has filled several tours and just added another departure for fall 2012.
Meanwhile, British tour operator Thomas Cook is closing 200 stores after tourism to Tunisia and Egypt dried up following protests related to the Arab Spring.
NORTHERN LIGHTS: The aurora borealis or northern lights, those mysterious curtains of color seen in Northern Hemisphere skies, are caused by a cycle of magnetic activity on the sun. The cycle lasts about 11 years, and experts say a period of low activity is ending.
Some folks are predicting this will be a banner year for northern lights. The University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, which publishes auroral forecasts at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast, doesn't necessarily foresee peak viewing in 2012, but agrees that we are entering a period of "increasing solar activity" with "more active, colorful aurora during the normal viewing season," late August to late April (when there's less daylight than during summer).
Other places with northern lights tourism include Iceland and Scandinavia.
DRAGON TATTOO: Sweden may get a boost from the Hollywood movie of the blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," predicts Fodor's Bowen. The Stockholm City Museum sponsors year-round walking tours of sites associated with the Stieg Larsson crime trilogy as well as maps for self-guided tours; http://bit.ly/rLtTf2. Museum spokeswoman Cecilia Tornqvist says the English-language version of the walking tour draws people from around the world, with "quite a lot of Americans lately."
TECHNOLOGY: The smartphone has become the must-have tool for travel, offering GPS navigation, online bookings, scannable check-ins, and QR codes and locators with information geared to wherever you are.
Ad agency JWT's travel trend list for 2012 mentions apps like Uber, a cab-dispatching service; Postagram, which turns snapshots into postcards; and Vocre, an app that translates spoken words into other languages.
But never mind crowd-sourcing from websites where phony reviews and picky consumers make it hard to figure out the real deal. Instead, travelers are friend-sourcing, with sites like Trippy.com showing recommendations from your social networks. Another new app, Wenzani, takes content from guidebook publishers Lonely Planet, Frommer's and DK and integrates it with advice from your friends and social networks.
Frommer's has just introduced customized printed travel guides called Frommer's Remix that integrate personal itineraries and preferences with advice from Frommer's experts. You can design and order a Remix for $20 ($10 through Dec. 31), for more than 30 destinations, http://www.frommersremix.com. Remix also comes with coupons geared to your itinerary.
Other predictions from JWT: "Peer to peer" experiences will grow, with local independent guides offering unique niche tours through websites like Vayable, SideTour and Shiroube. And the trend of renting private residences from sites like AirBnb will get a new twist from Campinmygarden.com, where people rent their backyards out as inexpensive campsites.
ELECTION AND ECONOMY: Do presidential elections affect travel? A recent survey found 75 percent of U.S. Tour Operators Association members believe travel decreases in election years. Respondents said uncertainty and negative rhetoric keeps people home.
Still, 75 percent of USTOA members anticipate a growth in sales in 2012 as the economy improves. Eighty percent of agents and owners at Travel Leaders also said bookings for 2012 are so far equal to or higher than 2011.
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