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Six destinations to keep on your radar for 2006

SmarterTravel

The new year brings with it up-and-coming destinations worth keeping on your travel radar as you begin to plan your vacations for 2006. From destinations in the U.S. to those in Europe and even farther afield, several factors influenced our choices, including cultural events, political changes, increasing popularity, and major rebuilding.

Our picks for the top six destinations to watch for 2006 are Albuquerque, China, Croatia, Thailand, The Netherlands, and Turkey.

Albuquerque

Albuquerque is celebrating its tricentennial on April 23 and will host a series of special events January through October. Each month has a theme, including Theatre Arts Month in March, History and Education Month in April, and Cuisine Specialties and Albuquerque’s Future Path in August.

In addition, the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History is hosting three exhibitions of Spanish art featuring artists that include Dali, Miro, and Picasso. The exhibits run through April 23.

Albuquerque will also host its 34th annual International Balloon Fiesta October 6 through 15, the largest balloon event in the world. This nine-day festival features a 400- to 500-balloon nighttime “Balloon Glow,” “Balloon-Shape Rodeo,” and balloon race.

Albuquerque is always a relatively affordable destination, with most of the major airlines, as well as low-fare carriers Frontier and Southwest, offering service to its airport.

China

China has long been a [%249861 | | popular travel destination %], with more than 30 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Great Wall. In coming years, however, tourism is expected to rapidly increase, with the 2008 Summer Olympics and several other factors.

The Olympics will be held in and around Beijing, and will attract thousands of visitors from all corners of the globe. In addition, business travel to China has been rapidly increasing for several years, with major hotel chains constructing huge new hotels catering to business travelers. As China emerges as an economic powerhouse, tourism is expected to keep up with the pace.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism spending in China will increase about 3.5 times by 2014, from $87 billion to more than $300 billion. And, a New York Times report stated that Internet sites offering bilingual searches will begin to make planning travel inside China less daunting.

Planning a vacation to China can be as easy as planning one to Europe or the Caribbean. U.S.-based package tour providers including Go-today, Gate1Travel, and Pleasant Holidays have begun offering a wide variety of China vacations, giving travelers plenty of package options from which to choose.

Croatia

Croatia is the latest country in Europe with “hidden gem” status. However, according to the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), Croatia began experiencing a boom in tourism in 2005, one that is likely to increase even more over the next few years. This Mediterranean country has plenty of things to offer visitors, from its capital city, Zagreb, to the islands scattered along the Dalmatian Coast, and the old city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At the time of publication, mainstream vacation-package providers had not yet begun offering many Croatia packages. However, booking airfare and accommodations separately allows for greater freedom in traveling the country and selecting hotels. As an added benefit, Croatia is not in the European Union, so prices in the Croatian kuna may not be as expensive the prices listed in euros in other European countries.

Thailand

A little more than a year after the tsunami disaster, Thailand is continuing to encourage visitors to return. Not surprisingly, tourism in 2005 was sluggish, but began increasing toward the end of the year. Tourism in 2006 is expected to compete with pre-tsunami levels by November 2006. Therefore, visiting Thailand before November will give tourists the advantage of fewer crowds and lower prices, particularly at beach resorts.

Thailand is still rebuilding, however, as inhabitants re-create what was destroyed in December 2004. Fewer hotel rooms are available to tourists in some areas, and evidence of the devastation leaves a reminder of the tsunami. One of the most important ways to help Thailand is to visit, helping to pump dollars into its tourist infrastructure so it can successfully rebuild sooner rather than later.

The Netherlands

The year 2006 is being dubbed “Rembrandt 400” in the Netherlands. 2006 marks the anniversary of the Dutch artist’s 400th birthday, and year-long celebrations will take place around the country. The exhibitions are expected to draw about 1.5 million visitors from around the Netherlands and abroad.

Amsterdam is hosting the bulk of the exhibitions, with special shows featuring Rembrandt at the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt House Museum, and others; a Rembrandt musical at the Royal Theatre Carre; and a Rembrandt walking route.

Leiden, Rembrandt’s childhood hometown, is also partaking in the events, with several major exhibitions and another Rembrandt walking route. The Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague is also featuring a Rembrandt exhibit that boasts 10 of the artist’s most famous works.

Several vacation providers are currently offering deals on Amsterdam vacations, including EuropeASAP, Gate1Travel, and Go-today. Gate1Travel is also offering a special Rembrandt 400 package that includes airfare, accommodations, and admission to the Rijksmuseum.

Turkey

As Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union are met with resistance by some Europeans, its leaders are planning to strengthen the country’s image by increasing the promotion of tourism in 2006. Although Turkey is already popular with European visitors (out of the 22 million visitors to Turkey in 2005, 12 million were Europeans), Americans have been slower in their eagerness to visit (more than 334,000 visitors in 2005).

However, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism reports approximately 555,000 Americans are expected to visit the country in 2006, and it’s not hard to imagine the numbers will climb in the years to come.

Turkey’s location gives it a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences making it appealing to tourists. It is home to no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the cavetowns of Cappodocia, and the archeological site of Troy. To meet the increased demand from tourists, a new international airport terminal is being planned, along with 10 new resorts in key tourist areas.

If you decide to visit Turkey, it’s smart to strike while the iron is hot. Because tourism is just now beginning to significantly increase, you’re still likely to find relatively inexpensive in-country rates for accommodations and activities. However, it’s conceivable that Turkey’s relatively undiscovered status will be fleeting, and the country will experience an increase in both tourism and prices.

Although we chose to highlight these six destinations, keep in mind that there are dozens of other destinations worthy of your travel dollars in 2006—look for more destinations coverage on [% 277706 | | SmarterTravel.com %] throughout the year.

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