From hotels to cruising, adventure travel to destinations, USA TODAY asks travel industry insiders to predict the hottest trends for the new year. Here's what in the air — and on land and sea — for intrepid travelers.
•Walking the eco-talk. "Probably the No. 1 trend is the greening of the hotel industry," American Hotel & Lodging Association president Joe McInerney says. But there's confusion over what green means, and which lodgings are truly eco-friendly. "Every hotel company has an environmental specialist, and we're working with them to develop a certification program in the next 90 days," he says. It will involve "an inspection, not just trusting" self-reported eco-programs. Inspection results may be tied to AAA ratings, he says.
•Viva Las Vegas! Vegas hotels are on a roll, with 2007 occupancy above 90%, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says. More luxury Strip joints are on the way — The Palazzo, sister hotel to The Venetian, opens next week. Donald Trump is moving in with a condo hotel due later this year. Vegas "has a wonderful market in the USA and China, and they're raising the level of amenities," says Dick Johnson, editor of the Hotel-Online.com newsletter.
• No break on rates. The average rate at U.S. hotels broke the $100 barrier for the first time in 2007, Smith Travel Research says. Rates are projected to rise 5% this year, says Smith's Jan Freitag. Despite recession fears, "I don't think you're going to see much discounting," McInerney says. Hoteliers did that after 9/11, and it took years for rates to creep back. Hotels magazine editor in chief Jeff Weinstein thinks business "will be flat," and if rooms go begging, expect discounting.
• "Lifestyle" lodgings. A wave of affordable, design-centric, tech-friendly hotels with lobbies as social hubs will wash over the landscape. Hyatt Place, Aloft, NYLO and other chains will expand or arrive. Appealing to multi-tasking Gen-X and Y guests, "they're the new generation of W hotels, more for the mass market," McInerney says.
• Gizmos and gadgets. "Completely wired rooms" (plug laptops or music players into TVs and speakers, for instance) and free WiFi will proliferate, Weinstein says. A sub trend: "Technology gone wrong," Johnson says. He is seeing 32- and 42-inch digital flat-screen TVs with bad reception, because "the cable system is charging too much" for high-definition TV or hotel service is not available. "Sometimes the picture is worse than if you had the old analog TV."
— Kitty Bean Yancey
• The ship within a ship. Until recently, "it really was just Cunard that promoted a class system," but the concept is spreading, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruisecritic.com. On Norwegian's newest vessels, including the month-old Norwegian Gem, "people who buy courtyard villa cabins are in a sense residing in a boutique hotel (separate from the rest of the ship) with an edgier ambience, more pampered services, and dedicated pool and sundeck areas." Costa, Celebrity and Carnival, meanwhile, are rolling out premium "spa cabins," where cruisers dine in an exclusive spa restaurant away from others.
•More ships in Europe. "It's huge and just getting more popular," says Spencer Brown, noting that lines will send a record number of vessels there to meet demand. "It means lots more choice for travelers — not just in ship styles but also in seasons." The downside? "The ports will be more congested, and the quality of the onshore experience could well be compromised."
• Fewer ships in the Caribbean. In part due to the rush to Europe, "for the first time since the advent of modern-day cruising, capacity is down year-over-year in the Caribbean," says Mike Driscoll, editor of industry newsletter Cruise Week. "It's one reason why prices are up slightly for Caribbean sailings in 2008 vs. 2007."
•More extra charges. Cruisers are paying extra for more and more things, and the trend will continue in 2008 as lines add more à la carte options such as alternative restaurants, says Spencer Brown. "All of these special additions have to get paid for somehow," she notes. "It's important for travelers to look at the cruise fare as the base price — and budget for the extras."
•People are booking earlier — and later. It's a conundrum, says Driscoll, but "agents report that clients are booking both closer to sailing and earlier than ever. Strangely, the continuing decline is people booking two to five months prior to departure."
— Gene Sloan
• Gastro-tourism. "Increasingly, (travelers) are seeking out places where they can learn about food and participate in food culture," says Michael Whiteman, restaurant consultant with Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. "They're building their vacations around it. Smart hotels are putting together culinary packages."
•Korean cuisine. "I have a sense it's the next breakout ethnic cuisine," Whiteman says. "The heat, the garlic, the kimchee, the participatory nature of the cuisine with its small-plate garniture — all are appealing."
• Speed. "The growth in text-messaging already is a very big thing with pizza chains," Whiteman says. "An increasing number of people are ordering food from their cars, either to pick it up on the way home or to have it ready to eat at the restaurant when they arrive."
•Tequila. "When the dollar is very weak and the euro very strong, it affects how much wine costs," says Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting at JWT ad agency. "Tequila, served not as a shooter with salt and lemon but as a sipping drink, is becoming a more popular alternative. We see ones flavored with herbs, honey and coffee … and restaurants and bars are concocting their own mixes to use with tequila."
•Dining dollars dominate. In 2008, "restaurant sales are forecast to reach a record $558 billion," says Hudson Riehle of the National Restaurant Association. "The reason is that consumers are allocating a greater portion of their food dollar to restaurants. Now, almost half of food dollars are spent in restaurants, double the portion from 50 years ago."
•Handcrafted beer. "I think it will have the same importance as wine," says Andrew Freeman, restaurant consultant with Andrew Freeman & Co. "We're seeing house-made drafts, custom glassware, beer flights and beer-food pairings. It goes back to the idea of local food products. Customers want to know where their beer is coming from."
— Jerry Shriver
•"See it before it's gone" trips. "I'm hearing more people say, 'I want to climb (Tanzania's) Kilimanjaro now, while it still has glaciers,' " says Marian Marbury of the women-only tour outfit Adventures in Good Company. "There's a sense that many places and wildlife we've taken for granted are disappearing, and the changes are happening now, within our lifetimes."
• High-value, low-volume destinations. In the face of growing demand, more countries with fragile and limited resources are deciding that "the best way to preserve what they have is to charge high admission prices," says John Rasmus, editor of National Geographic Adventure. "In Botswana, you get to see African wildlife in its most protected, pristine state, but it helps to be a Google billionaire to afford it. In Bhutan, perhaps the most unspoiled, beautiful mountain country on Earth, you pay what amounts to a daily admission fee of about $200 per person. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because otherwise these places would certainly be trampled in a few years. But it's not very idealistic or democratic sounding, either."
•Do-good travel. "Voluntourism" that combines adventure trips with short-term, on-the-ground philanthropy is growing worldwide, says Leslie Weeden, travel director of Outside magazine. But adventure travel is also "at the nexus of environmental and cultural sustainability," with more companies launching "leave no trace" policies and using local tour operators that give back to their communities, says Adventures in Good Company's Marbury.
• Luxury treks. "Trekking without a sleeping bag or a tent but spending nights in comfortable first-class lodges is the latest rage, from Nepal to Peru to Zambia and Argentina," says consultant Leo Le Bon, co-founder of Mountain Travel-Sobek. Opened last year, Le Bon's client Mountain Lodges of Peru lets hikers trek the ancient Salcantay Route to Machu Picchu and recuperate with down bedding, hot tubs and a wine list.
— Laura Bly
• Hot destinations. The high cost of gas will spark more visits to state and national parks near large urban populations, says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer guidebook series and travel expert at MSN.com. Argentina's popularity will continue to rise because "it's incredibly sophisticated and affordable," says Todd Sotkiewicz, president of Lonely Planet guidebook's U.S. office. And Carlson Wagonlit Travel's annual forecast of hot spots once again ranks perennial domestic front-runner Las Vegas No. 1 in early bookings for 2008. "It's the city that just keeps reinventing itself," says agency spokesman Steve Loucks. "Every time you turn around, there's a new hot casino or resort."
• Value destinations. With the Olympic Games looming, China is an obvious draw, and thanks to a favorable currency exchange, it's also a bargain. All-inclusive deals start in the $1,000 range, Frommer says. Sotkiewicz likes Vietnam's affordability, particularly at southern beach resorts. Mexico remains a solid choice for closer-to-home seaside deals. Loucks notes that Mediterranean cruises are more popular because travelers can pay one price in U.S. dollars.
• Emerging destinations. Carlson Wagonlit's Eastern European bookings are heating up, and Croatia, in particular, is "on fire," says Loucks, thanks in part to the relative strength of the dollar in European countries that don't use the euro. Similarly, lesser-known Latin American destinations such as Nicaragua, where the dollar still has some clout, are drawing more interest among Americans, some of whom are looking for retirement homes, Frommer says.
— Jayne Clark