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Six years after the bloody end of its long-running civil war, Sri Lanka is widely tipped for a tourism surge in 2016. Seven members of our expert panel have companies that operate in Asia and every one of them selected Sri Lanka among their predictions for countries likely to experience significant growth. A key factor is the growing level of investment in hotels, with numerous new properties due to launch in the coming year.
“Political stability has finally taken hold and the portfolio of character-driven boutique hotels has hit a tipping point of geographic coverage and stylistic diversity,” says Norman Howe, chief executive of Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson. “Add to that the fact that it’s like taking all of the crazy diversity of India and shrinking it to a navigable and digestible size.”
Among the new crop of hotels is Tri Lanka, a “sustainable design hotel” that opened in December overlooking Koggala Lake on the south coast. Created by a British photographer and Shanghai-based architect, its 11 modern suites are covered in foliage and scattered across a forested hillside. Other openings include conversions of colonial planters’ bungalows on the highland tea estates, as well as Chena Huts, which launched this weekend. Its 14 wooden cabins, beside Yala National Park, offer guests the chance to spot leopards and elephants.
Also fuelling tourism is Cinnamon Air, which launched in 2013 and now provides a network of reliable domestic flights using amphibious and conventional eight-passenger Cessnas. “The average speed when driving is about 20mph, so it has dramatically cut travel times,” says James Jayasundera, founder of Ampersand Travel.
The big news among British tour operators is the launch, on May 4, of the first nonstop flight to link London and Lima. The British Airways service takes 12 hours 35 minutes, a significant improvement on the current options requiring connections in Europe or the US.
“Peru has always offered some of the best ‘soft adventure’ in the world but not changing flights makes all the difference, especially when you think about the ordeal of a transit in Miami,” says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell of Cazenove+Loyd.
KE Adventure already reports a 51 per cent increase in forward bookings compared to this point last year, and also that travellers are increasingly widening their horizons beyond Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. Similarly, Marc Eschauzier, managing director of Miraviva Travel, says trekkers are moving beyond the Inca Trail to less well-trodden alternatives, including the walk to Kuelap, a ruined city in northern Peru, and hikes in the Cordillera Blanca, an area of high Andes long popular with climbers but now more accessible thanks to a growing network of lodges.
Also likely to drive interest is the opening of Explora Valle Sagrado, a sister property to Explora Patagonia, the hotel that opened in 1993 and did much to popularise the Torres del Paine national park.
Due to launch in the second half of 2016, the 50-bedroom hacienda-style hotel will offer a range of hikes, horse and bike rides through the “sacred valley”, north of Cusco.
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 devastated the travel industry across Africa, even in countries thousands of miles from the nearest case. “It cut our bookings in half — it was worse than the Gulf war, 9/11, anything we’ve had in the last 20 years,” says Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa, a specialist that arranges holidays across the continent. 2015 saw only modest recovery, with few operators on the ground investing in new camps or hotels, but the signs for the coming year are far more encouraging. Expert Africa reports a 45 per cent increase in forward bookings compared with this point last year, driven in part by pent-up demand from people who cancelled trips in the second half of 2014 and 2015. Bookings for South Africa and Namibia are also being encouraged by the devaluation in the rand (to which the Namibian dollar is pegged): at the start of 2015 one pound sterling bought 17.5 rand; it now buys about 22.5 rand. “We did some calculations and found that, not including flights, costs on the ground are now the same as they were 10 years ago,” says McIntyre. The current England cricket tour could help inspire further interest, as will the publication by Pan MacMillan of the next part of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography (scheduled for 2016, though a date has yet to be announced).
One of the countries tipped in last year’s equivalent of this article was Iceland, which went on to enjoy a 30 per cent rise in overseas visitors for the first 11 months of 2015 (compared with the same period in 2014). The total for 2015 will exceed 1.2m, up from 374,000 10 years previously, and while that growth shows no sign of abating, it is creating a sizeable group of travellers with a newfound taste for the rugged north who are wondering where to go for their next adventure. The answer could be Greenland — bigger, wilder and more remote. Discover the World reports a doubling in Greenland bookings since 2014, driven by active travellers who come to hike and sea kayak, or to join cruises to see the ice cap up close and visit remote Inuit communities. Accommodation options have traditionally been limited, but there are now a handful of more stylish places to stay, including the expanded Glacier Lodge Eqi, which overlooks a glacier calving into Disko Bay in west Greenland, and Base Camp Greenland, a collection of safari-style tents that opened in 2015 in a remote wilderness setting in Sermilik fjord, east Greenland. Thrillseekers can now book a ski holiday to Greenland via Elemental Adventure, a specialist operator which arranges trips between April and June. Helicopters are used instead of ski lifts, and many of the runs end on the beach.
Also rising up the wish lists of those seeking adventurous alternatives is Kyrgyzstan. “We are seeing a large number of clients wanting to escape the fast pace of modern life and head to wilderness destinations,” says Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers, who reports that bookings to the country are up 30 per cent. “Kyrgyzstan perfectly fits the bill, with its nomadic culture and beautiful scenery of mountains, lakes and forests.” Tourism to the country has benefited from a relaxation in visa rules (since July 2012, citizens of many western countries have not needed a visa) and elections in October 2015 were peaceful and independent, something the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe called “unique in this region”. The coming year sees a range of festivals as well as celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of independence (events will include archery competitions, wrestling and buzkashi — a cross between polo and rugby that uses a dead goat instead of a ball).
The key attraction, though, remains the unspoilt natural landscape: hiking in the Tian Shan mountains, riding over the grass-covered steppes or mountain biking on ancient Silk Road routes, and staying in traditional yurts surrounded by wilderness.
December’s announcement that the US and Cuban governments have agreed to restore regular commercial flights between the countries could turn the current surge in tourist numbers into a deluge. Currently only special charter flights from the US are allowed, which are expensive and more complicated to book, but already finding availability at the best-known hotels in Havana is becoming difficult. The good news is that this pressure of numbers, combined with new investment, is encouraging tourists to explore other parts of the country and set their sights beyond what Jarrod Kyte, product manager at Steppes Travel, calls the “cliché-ridden ‘Cadillac and cigar’ tourism of the past”.
“While Havana fills up and Trinidad follows closely behind, you can still find truly authentic, local experiences in the east,” says Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato. “We are encouraging people to seek out Santiago, the former capital and a melting pot of Spanish, Jamaican and Haitian cultures, set beside the Sierra Maestra mountains.”
Steppes also recommends Santiago, and suggests chartering a yacht to explore the south-east coast and the undeveloped beaches of Playa Maguana and Baracoa. Meanwhile, Kyte points out that the over-demand at hotels is prompting growing numbers of Cubans to open their homes as “casas particulares”. “They offer a genuine homestay experience, giving insight into local life and access to some of the country’s most lively neighbourhoods,” he says.
The 2014 World Cup proved to be a less than ideal time for non-football supporters to visit the country, with the competition spread across a dozen cities and domestic flights and many hotels booked solid. The Olympics, says Marc Eschauzier at Miraviva, should be very different, raising the country’s profile without making travel difficult, apart from in Rio, the host city, during the event in August. Meanwhile the Brazilian real has seen a 30 per cent devaluation over the past two years, minimising the impact of any Olympic price rises.
“Away from Rio, there seems to be a growing focus on the north coast, with highlights including Fortaleza and the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a striking landscape of white sand dunes,” says Eschauzier.
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)
James Jayasundera is the founder of Ampersand Travel (ampersandtravel.com)
Jarrod Kyte is product director of Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk)
Tom Marchant is co-founder of Black Tomato (blacktomato.com)
Fiona Marshall is product team manager at KE Adventure Travel (keadventure.com)
Chris McIntyre is managing director of Expert Africa (expertafrica.com)
Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell is co-owner of Cazenove+Loyd (cazloyd.com)
Trending: nights in nature
Gold taps and a four-poster — who cares? In recent years the traveller seeking dinner party bragging rights has opted for increasingly alternative accommodation, usually not in the hotel itself but somewhere at the end of the garden. Hot on the heels of safari-style bell tents came luxurious reinterpretations of Mongolian yurts, and by last year no self-respecting hotelier could be satisfied without a five-star treehouse or pimped-up shepherd’s hut on their property.
For 2016, the trend is less about cosying up inside fairytale spaces than being exposed to the natural surroundings. Transparent pods, see-through geodesic domes and glass-walled boxes are suddenly popping up at hotels around the world, as the chance to sleep under the stars becomes the latest luxury commodity.
Pure Pods, New Zealand: opening this month in Kaikoura, on the South Island, these pods have glass walls, glass roofs and, yes, glass floors too. On hot days the walls can be slid open, while there’s a biofuel fire for winter.
Finn Lough Forest Domes, Northern Ireland: just launched, these transparent domes are set in 50 acres of woodland near Enniskillen and have en-suite bathrooms, underfloor heating and big oak beds.
Bert’s Box, England: featuring floor to ceiling crittall windows, the first Bert’s Box opens this month at The Pig hotel in the New Forest. More of the eco-friendly, prefabricated boxes are planned for other sites later in the year.
Kelo-Glass Igloos, Finland: launched last month at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland’s far north, the 16 units offer a conventional bed in a cosy log cabin and another inside the attached glass igloo for stargazing.
Photographs: Peter Adams Photography/Alamy; Robert Harding/Alamy; Xinhua/Eyevine