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Twenty years ago, backpackers on the South American overland trail would fly between Ecuador and Venezuela — leapfrogging Colombia on account of its fearsome reputation. Today, it is Venezuela that travellers are avoiding, while Colombia sees rising visitor numbers, new hotels and a rapidly expanding range of organised tours.
“The guerrillas are largely behaving, quality accommodation is on the rise and flight capacity into Colombia has increased significantly,” says Norman Howe of Butterfield & Robinson, one of four members of the panel who rated Colombia in their top three destinations for 2015 (for details of the panel members, see below).
Justin Wateridge, at Steppes Travel, points to last summer’s launch of Avianca’s direct flights from London to Bogotá and new hotels, including the Orchids in Bogotá’s colonial La Candelaria district and Hacienda Bambusa, a boutique hotel circled by coffee plantations, which reopened last month.
Meanwhile, Wild Frontiers, the London and Philadelphia-based adventure travel firm, reports advance bookings to Colombia for the coming year are about double those of 12 months ago.
When choosing where to go, tourists are often influenced by films, music and fashions in their home countries as much as anything happening in a potential destination itself, so operators are forecasting a bumper year for India. March brings the release of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film sequel set in Rajasthan, starring Richard Gere, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It will be followed in the autumn by a new Disney version of The Jungle Book starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, while London’s Victoria and Albert Museum hosts an “India Season”, with exhibitions of textiles, jewellery and 19th-century photography.
Possibly most influential of all will be Indian Summers, a 10-part TV drama set in 1930s India, to be screened on Channel 4 in the UK and PBS in the US; the Hollywood Reporter has already referred to it as “a sort of Indian Empire Downton Abbey”. “When The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel hit the screens in 2011 we saw a big rise in bookings, particularly to Rajasthan,” says Jonny Bealby, of Wild Frontiers. “We expect the release of the sequel in March to have a similar effect, perhaps even more so with the American market.” Those inspired to visit India will have many new hotels to choose from, including the Penthouse, billed as Kolkata’s first boutique hotel; Raas Kangra in the Himalayan foothills; and the much-anticipated Rajmahal Palace in Jaipur, a bold renovation of a royal palace that has hosted dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth and Jackie Kennedy.
Once popular mainly for hedonistic long weekends focused on Reykjavik’s hip bars, Iceland is increasingly drawing visitors with its natural attractions. Chief among them for 2015 is the ongoing volcanic eruption at Holuhraun, where lava has been spewing from a fissure more than a kilometre long since last summer. It has not disrupted aviation in the same way as previous eruptions (so has not received as much international attention) but it now ranks as the country’s biggest lava flow since 1784 and experts expect it to continue for several more months. Tourists can visit the site by helicopter, as Jay-Z and Beyoncé are reported to have done when they visited Iceland last month to celebrate the rapper’s 45th birthday.
Another tourism driver for 2015, according to Georgina Hancock of Discover the World, will be the opening in May of the Ice Cave, a network of tunnels and chambers excavated from inside the Langjokull ice cap. Visitors will reach the tunnel entrance by crossing the ice cap in converted eight-wheel-drive Nato missile launchers. Meanwhile, the remote Troll Peninsula is emerging as the new frontier for heli-skiing: there are now three operations in an area where five years ago few people had ever skied.
Even before the devastating earthquake of January 2010, cruise companies considered Haiti such a toxic brand that they refused to use its name in their brochures. Instead, they told passengers they would be docking at Hispaniola (the name of the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Today, however, Haiti is becoming a desirable name to drop at dinner parties, an “alternative Caribbean” destination for adventurous travellers. Poverty remains a major problem and the UK Foreign Office advises travellers not to visit certain slum districts of Port-au-Prince, but the Haitian tourist board has worked hard to encourage tour operators (including Exodus, G Adventures and Wild Frontiers) to feature the country, especially for guided group trips. “It has a lot to offer,” says Bealby. “There’s a rich cultural mix of Spanish, French and African influences, colonial cities and stunning landscapes, from lush mountain peaks to beautiful beaches.” Hiking, in particular, could prove a growth area for tourism: Haiti is the most mountainous of all Caribbean countries (its name is a French version of Ayiti, which, in the indigenous Taíno language, means “land of the high mountains”). The highest peak, Pic la Selle, reaches 2,680 metres, while Citadelle Laferrière, a mountaintop fortress, is a Unesco world heritage site.
“This little Balearic isle is no longer just Mallorca’s sleepy sister, thanks to numerous chic hotel openings in the past couple of years,” says Nikki Tinto of i-escape.com. Highlights include Torralbenc, a 25-room hotel surrounded by vineyards and a mile from the beach, and Jardí de Ses Bruixes and Hotel Petit Maó, both of which opened in 2014 in the island’s capital, Mahón. As well as beaches, Menorca is increasingly promoting active tourism. The Camí de Cavalls, an ancient footpath that circumnavigates the island, was restored and reopened three years ago. Originally designed to connect the watchtowers and forts that ring the coast, it also gives access to remote coves and is becoming known as a spring or autumn destination for walkers. “Menorca works either as a destination in its own right or a place to unwind in style after a few days’ revelling in Ibiza,” says Tinto.
Geoffrey Kent of Abercrombie & Kent tips Indonesia, partly because the weakening rupiah has made it cheaper for tourists (at the time of going to press, a pound bought 19,300 rupiah, compared with 15,500 on January 3, 2013). “And it has some of the best spas, not to mention volcanoes, rainforests, beaches and wildlife,” says Kent. Steppes Travel saw a 120 per cent rise in bookings to Indonesia in 2014 and expects growth to continue. “In the past, travellers didn’t stray far from Lombok and Bali but they are now branching out to more remote islands,” says the company’s Justin Wateridge. Some are using the growing network of domestic flights, others are sailing on luxurious small boat charters with companies such as Silolona Sojourns, Tiger Blue and Alexa. “These also open up the full potential of Indonesia’s diving — some of the best in the world.”
Celebrations in March marking the 25th anniversary of Namibia’s independence from South Africa may arouse the interest of travellers but it is the new breed of stylish, luxurious lodges in dramatic wilderness settings that is really driving bookings. Tom Marchant of Black Tomato recommends Hoanib, a camp on the Skeleton Coast that opened in August; it has just eight guest tents and is accessible only by light aircraft. “The fact that Namibia is in the same timezone as much of Europe, and there are direct flights from Frankfurt, means you can take a week off work and experience true wilderness, in great comfort, and come back stimulated but rested,” says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell from Cazenove+Loyd. The other key boost for Namibian tourism in 2015 is less about practicalities. Mad Max: Fury Road, the first new film in the Mad Max series for 30 years, is scheduled for release in May. Starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, it was largely shot not in Australia like the previous films, but in the wide, open spaces of the Namib desert.
Tom Barber is co-founder of Original Travel (originaltravel.co.uk)
Jonny Bealby is founder of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com)
Marc Eschauzier is managing director of Miraviva (miravivatravel.com)
Georgina Hancock is product and marketing director of Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk)
Norman Howe is chief executive of Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com)
Geoffrey Kent is founder of Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com)
Tom Marchant is co-founder of Black Tomato (blacktomato.com)
Nikki Tinto is co-founder of i-escape.com
Justin Wateridge is managing director of Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk)
Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell is co-owner of Cazenove+Loyd (cazloyd.com)
Photographs: Jaisal Singh; Bethany Lafrenier; Getty; Arctic Images; Alamy