Ready to ramp up your bucket list? Consider an off-the-beaten-path elephant safari, a mountain-teetering Buddhist kingdom, or an underrated Midwestern hub. These little-visited nations and cities are on their way to becoming household names for travelers. Here are the up-and-coming destinations that are about to take the world by storm, and why they should be on your radar.
Best Up-and-Coming Destinations 2018: The Methodology
We analyzed a variety of travel trends to compile a shortlist of up-and-coming destinations. We then cross-referenced our selections against Google Trends history for flight searches, hotel searches, and overall search history for each destination over the past five years.
Our shortlist was further valued by monitoring new hotel openings and new flight routes for 2018, as well as noteworthy events, infrastructure developments, and forthcoming construction and development plans. Thanks to our sister sites TripAdvisor and Airfarewatchdog for year-over-year search data.
From this list, 10 were selected and ranked based on their values across these categories to emerge as finalists in our Editors’ Choice category for Best up-and-Coming Destination in 2018. Here are the winners and finalists.
Editors’ Choice Winner: Botswana
An African safari might be the pinnacle travel adventure, and Botswana is making waves for its increasing number of luxe safari camps that sustainably coexist with one of the most biodiverse habitats on the continent: The Okavango Delta.
Known for its immense elephant population, Botswana offers traditional mokoro canoe safaris that can put you next to bathing elephant calves, not to mention hippos, buffalo, crocodiles, and rare birds. Stay in an all-inclusive eco-lodge like the handful available in the heart of the Delta on Chief’s Island, to spot lions, leopards, antelope, and zebra from your villa. Accommodations across the country, like the new Lodge at Feline Fields, give proceeds to reserve efforts so you can feel good about visiting.
Not looking to splurge on a safari? Stopping in the capital of Gaborone yields a game reserve, plus hiking viewpoints like Kgale Hill. Flights via London and Johannesburg are the most popular way to access Botswana right now, but the rumored privatization of Air Botswana could mean new flights to Gaborone are on the horizon. Airfarewatchdog data shows an 18 percent rise in Botswana airfare searches since last year—but thanks to Botswana’s dedication to low-impact tourism and new efforts to keep track of visitors, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see tourist crowds on the Okavango Delta.
Editors’ Choice Finalist: Argentina
With 152 new Norwegian Air flight routes to and from Argentina rolling out this year and wine regions drawing tourism beyond Buenos Aires, you’re sure to hear more about Argentine travel options. Airfarewatchdog data shows interest in Argentina travel is up 39 percent since last year, and the rise in flight availability is sure to bolster the nation’s popularity.
If empanadas and wine in Cafayate and Mendoza aren’t enough to convince you, Buenos Aires is also fielding its fair share of international events this year, including Art Basel in September and the Summer Youth Olympic Games in October. Hotels are following suit, with a Ker San Telmo and MGallery by Sofitel both set to open soon. Argentina recently nixed its hefty VAT (value added tax) on hotels for international visitors to encourage tourism, and it seems to be working.
Editors’ Choice Finalist: Palestinian Territories
Middle East travel is back in a big way, and it’s no longer just trendy Tel Aviv attracting visitors. The Palestinian Territories shocked the U.N. recently when the World Tourism Barometer recognized it as the fastest-growing tourist destination in the world, with 400,000 international tourist arrivals in 2017 marking a whopping 57 percent tourism increase. Hip new lodging at the West Bank wall—street artist Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel—is drawing Instagrammers. Meanwhile, UNESCO and religious sites in Hebron and beyond will always attract crowds.
Israel travel has no doubt been rising, with Airfarewatchdog reporting a 27 percent rise in interest for Tel Aviv (also the closest airport to the Palestinian Territories) since last year. The region’s newfound tourism surge is also supported by a 57 percent spike in Airfarewatchdog searches to Jordan, through which many West Bank travelers also arrive. Local-led group tours including the Palestinian Territories have also vastly expanded over the past year, offering travelers a structured way to explore this conflicted destination.
Japan may not evoke mental images of skiing, snow sculptures, and beer, but one fast-growing destination in northern Japan is proving it should. TripAdvisor monthly search trends recently showed that Japan is still at the top of travelers’ to-do list, and the mountainous city of Sapporo is a new standout.
Japan took the top overall spot for growth: TripAdvisor users showed 87 percent more interest in Japan than they did last year, and Sapporo saw the largest nation-wide growth with 143 percent more interest.
Why? The capital of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is home to a snow festival famous for its larger-than-life ice sculptures, ski slopes that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, and of course, its namesake Sapporo beer—which boasts its own museum. In summer, Akan Mushu National Park’s lush volcanic peaks are perfect for exploring on foot, and greater-Hokkaido to-dos like botanical gardens and museums are a good idea year-round.
St. Louis, Missouri
An American hub on the rise, Saint Louis is set to take off as a travel destination on the strength of its tantalizing barbecue, craft beer, and a new and improved symbol of the city: The Gateway Arch Park reopens this summer after a $380 million, five-year renovation project. The revitalization project includes the debut of over five miles of new pathways for biking and running, plus a new amphitheater for outdoor events and family fun.
Google Trends indicates that Saint Louis flight searches have nearly doubled in the past year, and Airfarewatchdog data shows a solid 10 percent increase that’s signaling a new influx of travelers.
Looking for volcanoes and beaches in an affordable Central American spot? Skip crowded Costa Rica and head for Nicaragua before everyone else gets there. Nicaragua saw a 50 percent rise in airfare searches since last year, Airfarewatchdog data shows, and the country is seeing a steady rise of overall visitors each year for live lava flows, sleepy beach towns, and surf-worthy waves.
After a steep surge in Nepal travel last year, Himalayan hikers are discovering a less-traveled option nearby and striving to get on the exclusive list of visitors. Dubbed the happiest country in Asia, tiny Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom that limits visitors by imposing daily tariffs of about $200 per day and requiring tourists use a local tour operator.
That’s not stopping people from visiting, however: Bhutan says it saw 209,570 visitors in 2016—a 35 percent increase from the previous year.
The African islands of the Seychelles were largely unknown thanks to their remote location in the vast Indian Ocean—until last year when the archipelago north of Madagascar outpaced tourism estimates and saw a record-breaking 350,000 visitors. That’s a 15 percent increase over the previous year, and a number that indicates big changes for the small islands as more beach hotels pop up to meet demand for an idyllic beach getaway.
The 2018 Winter Olympics put Pyeongchang, South Korea, on the world stage, and the whole country is likely to reap the benefits in tourism numbers beyond the Winter Games. Visitor numbers were down last year amid preparation for the Games and a political dispute with China—but there was a strong turnout for the Olympics and relations with China are improving thanks to its role in talks with North Korea. It’s a safe bet that more visitors to South Korea are likely to follow for culinary specialties like kimchi and Korean barbecue, and for trends like K-pop music and Korean beauty spas, all of which are showing worldwide appeal.
Eastern Europe’s Balkans are perfect for an undiscovered beach getaway. The World Economic Forum’s travel and tourism competitiveness report named Albania as one of the world’s fastest improving tourism markets for world travelers, upping it by eight places since last year, to rank 98th in the world. The appeal? Overall safety and sandy Albanian beaches on the coast of the Ionian and Adriatic seas, which separate Italy and Greece.
— Original research and reporting by Shannon McMahon