The most popular international travel destinations for 2006.

The holidays are over, and spring isn’t quite here yet, making February a terrific time to book that vacation you’ve been dreaming about. Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s 2006 Travel Trends Survey, conducted at year-end 2005, polled almost 400 owners, managers and frontline agents nationwide and asked respondents to forecast the most popular travel spots based on bookings to date for 2006. “Agents book travel for customers up to 11 months in advance,” said Steve Loucks, senior director of public relations for Minneapolis-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, the franchise leisure travel arm of Carlson Cos. Natural disasters had the biggest impact on future travel, but vacationers are still hitting hurricane hot spots such as Mexico and the Caribbean. International travel overall is up, versus three to four years ago, after 9/11.

Percentage of agents surveyed who named this as a top destination for their clients: 76.3
The Caribbean islands, such as St. Maarten (seen at left), the Virgin Islands and Barbados, anxiously await the influx of cruises each week. It’s a big business not just for cruise lines, but also for their destination ports. Cruise Lines International Association forecast that 11.7 million passengers will cruise this year, an increase of 500,000 over last year, with 10.1 million originating in North America. Some 3.6 million passengers traveled on cruises out of the Port of Miami in 2005 — most heading for the Caribbean. “There are more ships floating around the Caribbean than any other place in the world,” said Steve Loucks of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

Percentage: 51.2
The Riviera Maya is a stretch of land along the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, located south of Cancún. Last fall, Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc along the coastline, but spared most of this part of the region. Some luxury hoteliers, such as the Fairmont and the Mandarin Oriental, are taking the plunge and breaking ground this year, despite the annual hurricane concerns. Luxury hotels aside, perhaps one of the most unique aspects of this destination is its easy access to the ancient Mayan ruins. The Mayan ruins at Tulum (seen at left) can be found right on Mexico’s coast. And the national park at Xel-Há boasts some of the best snorkeling around.

This story first appeared in the February 9, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Percentage: 49.3
The timing is just right for a trip to Cancún, before hurricane season approaches once again. Last season, Hurricane Wilma flattened many of the idyllic resorts along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, namely Cancún. Yet for 2006, Carlson’s agents are still seeing plenty of travel to the region. Some resorts in the area, including the Le Meridien Cancún Resort & Spa (seen at left) now are open to the public. And have prices been reduced to bring in the tourists? “Though this destination is still ranked highly, it moves down the list from where it had been last year, largely due to the fact that hotel properties are still closed or are in disrepair,” said Loucks. “However, open resorts are offering discounts to the area, and many people are taking advantage of points near Cancún, such as Isla Mujeres and even Cozumel.”

Percentage: 34.7
Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios — all located on Jamaica’s northern coast — are very popular, according to Loucks. “Resorts in these areas offer all-inclusive vacations,” he said. “Once you’re there, you don’t pay for anything. Water sport activities, entertainment, food — you get it all.” He also pointed out that on Jamaica there are certain places on the island where tourists do not want to go. “No one is immune from danger anywhere, but there’s a real feeling of safety at these resorts,” said Loucks. Montego Bay’s luxurious Half Moon Resort (seen left) offers its guests a private white-sand beach, 51 swimming pools, a championship golf course, and plenty of water sports.

Percentage: 30.6
Averaging more than 300 sunny days a year, with temperatures lingering in the low 80s, it’s a no-brainer that Puerto Vallarta — located on Mexico’s Pacific coast — would be an ideal destination for sun seekers. The Bay of Banderas is home to several resorts, such as La Jolla de Mismaloya, an all-suites, family-friendly spot whose rates run approximately $300 a night for the all-inclusive option. Don’t forget: Even better deals can be had in the summertime. Puerto Vallarta’s clean and friendly atmosphere, combined with an Old-Mexico charm, also offers plenty of diverse shopping opportunities: Mexican silver, pottery and traditional crafts are all in abundance here.

Percentage: 25.6
Rome, Italy’s largest city, is also the country’s most popular destination for tourists. Visitors flock to the Colosseum, Vatican City (home of Pope Benedict XVI) and Trevi Fountain (seen at left). JoAnn Bowman, owner of the Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Baton Rogue, La., said, “Old-World destinations have a romantic quality.” Stay at Boscolo hotels during peak travel seasons spring and fall from $420 to $950 a night. Surprisingly, reasons for traveling to Rome this year have little to do with the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Said Loucks: “In our findings, Rome’s appeal is more the fact that it is a great starting point in itself, accessible to destinations around Italy.”

Percentage: 23.4
The bustling capital of Great Britain makes number seven of top international destinations this year, and the many attractions there leave no question as to why. Top sights include the National Gallery, which houses exquisite works by art masters Botticelli and da Vinci; the London Eye (seen at left), where visitors can view more than 55 famous landmarks in 30 minutes, and the 300-acre Kew Gardens — one of the largest botanical centers in the world. Tourists have a chance to live in luxury that rivals the royal family in Buckingham Palace when they stay at any of London’s five-star hotels, from Claridges to The Savoy, which can cost $1,700 or more a night.

Percentage: 22.6
Punta Cana is said to be the paradise of the Dominican Republic. Luxurious hotels and resorts, along with scenic excursions, contribute to the island’s reputation as being an ideal destination for a little R&R. Tourists can stay at any of the reputable Barcelo Palace, Beach or Caribe resorts, which range from $255 to $345 per room per night. Then there’s the pricy Punta Cana Resort and Club, with three-bedroom villas with a Jacuzzi at $2,400 a night. There’s ample real estate opportunities, including lots, apartments and villas. Oscar de la Renta, Julio Iglesias and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, have made Punta Cana Resort and Club their home.

Percentage: 19
Mexico is the number-one destination country for international travel from the U.S. for 2006, and what better way to see it than on a cruise? See the coast of the Mexican Riviera on the five-star rated Celebrity Cruises, from an inside room at $1,100 to a veranda room at $1,580, during which guests tour San Francisco, Monterey, Catalina Island, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas — all within 10 days. Celebrity’s Mercury ship offers the AquaSpa and Acupuncture at Sea, making travel to Mexico aboard a cruise ship even more luxurious.

Percentage: 16.5
Known as the Marlin Capital of the World for fishing and quickly becoming a number-one destination for golf, there’s plenty to do besides lying on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. Tourists can do both at any of the resorts in Cabo, San José del Cabo and along the beach strip known as the “corridor.” Some of the hottest resorts: the Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf resort, Hotel Finisterra (seen at left), Marquis Los Cabos and the Westin and Fiesta American Grand, where accommodations run from $390 to $550 a night and up.

Source: carlson wagonlit travel associates, a subsidiary of minneapolis-based carlson cos.

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