The top 10 reasons to travel in 2013
1. The thrill of the new
There's nothing like a route launch to justify a trip. One of the most exciting announcements for the new year is that flydubai (www.flydubai.com) will begin flights to the Maldives on January 19. With round-trip prices on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) often topping Dh2,500, it's welcome news that the budget airline will offer return flights from Dh1,730, including taxes.
Often only connected with air travel because of the Warsaw Convention, Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) underlines a trend for expansion into eastern Europe by opening a route to Poland's capital earlier this month. Emirates will follow suit on February 6, making Warsaw as accessible from the UAE as any city in Europe.
On February 20, Qatar will become the first Middle East carrier to fly direct to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Often overlooked by tourists visiting Angkor via Bangkok, this will open more of the country - including the Mekong River and the capital's fascinating history - to Gulf travellers.
With all of north Africa - from Egypt to Morocco as well as Libya - already well served by UAE airlines, it was about time that the huge but little-mentioned country of Algeria came on to the map. Emirates will start a route to the capital, Algiers, on March 1.
Brazil, now an economic powerhouse as well as a tantalising travel destination, is also becoming more accessible. With Emirates already flying direct to both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, on June 1 Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) will also add a route to the country's biggest city - making the long trek west easier and faster. And where better to recover from the trip than at a new, five-star retreat? Only a two-hour drive from São Paulo amid rolling hills and forests, the entrepreneurs David Cole (AOL) and Gordon Roddick (The Body Shop) have opened The Botanique, which they co-own with the Brazilian Ricardo Semler. The property has six suites and 11 private villas (www.botanique.com.br).
2. Widen your horizons
Sometimes a political shift is needed to validate one's latent desire to go to a place, perhaps nowhere more so than Myanmar, which has seen significant reform in the past year and a recent visit from the US president Barack Obama. Tour operators from all over the world, including Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) and Explore Worldwide (www.exploreworldwide.com), have greatly increased their range of trips to cater to rising demand, so get in now with a small group tour and explore the country before it changes.
Wild Frontiers has also been operating trips to Srinagar, Kashmir, since 2005 and welcomed the recent news that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, an influential source of travel advice, has lifted its advisory against travel to the area. The warning came after the kidnapping of five backpackers in 1995; a decade later, militant groups announced that they wouldn't target tourists and since then tourism has been steadily increasing. "Kashmir: Garden of the Moghul Kings", an 11-day, land-only tour with Wild Frontiers, costs from £1,850 (Dh10,900) per person; the first departure is on April 25.
3. The safe bet
As war and sporadic violence continue to affect traditional holiday destinations in the Middle East region such as Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt, tourism to Muslim countries that are perceived to be "safe" should continue to rise.
According to official figures, Turkey has seen visitor numbers from the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and, in particular, Qatar, increase by up to 95 per cent in the past two years. Many will find a surfeit of attractions in Istanbul, one of the world's great cities, but those who care to venture up along the Black Sea coast or south and west towards its Mediterranean shoreline will not be disappointed.
Low-cost airlines are making the short hop from Istanbul or Ankara to Bodrum, Dalaman and Trabzon cheaper and more accessible. Among the highlights: follow in the footsteps of the prophet Ibrahim and visit archaeological sights on "Abraham's Path" (www.abrahamspathturkey.org) that stretches 170km from Sanliurfa to Antakya, keeping a watchful eye on skirmishes on the nearby border with Syria. Guided walks cost from €45 (Dh216) per person, per night, in homestay accommodation.
4. Culture in spades
Every year brings a host of unique events that give sport, culture or history enthusiasts a reason to pack their bags. The year 2013 brings the bicentenary of the births of two great but very different classical composers: Richard Wagner and Guiseppi Verdi. The talents of the Italian romantic composer were first recognised at La Scala (www.teatroallascala.org), Milan's opera house, and the new season brings works by a national icon and his German counterpart to its famous stage.
The decision to open with Wagner's Lohengrin has already caused much controversy but the Italian's works dominate with the opportunity to hear La Traviata next December. Fans of Wagner's dramatic style should make a beeline for Leipzig, his birthplace, and Bayreuth, where the Oberfrankenhalle has been redesigned for a birthday concert on May 22. Visit www.wagnerjahr2013.de for more information about the musical celebrations.
5. For spendthrifts
New York, London, Milan, Paris... The list of destinations where shopping ranks alongside cultural attractions or as a break from the beach is growing.
Tired of walking the malls and street markets of Bangkok? Try searching out local fashion designers in Ho Chi Minh City, snapping up classic designer homeware in Stockholm, trawling antique shops in Colombo, eyeing electrical goods in Seoul or admiring luxury brands in Tokyo.
If time is short, it's worth signing up for a specialist tour designed to satiate even the most ravenous consumer. You can book the "Antiques and Boutiques" (www.antiquesandboutiques.com) guide to Barcelona's stores, a tour run by two local fashion designers and tailor-made to your shopping list, be it jewellery, bridalwear, vintage clothing or furniture.
Hotels are increasingly offering shopping packages; one such is the Hudson (www.hudsonhotel.com) in New York that offers accommodation in a standard double room, including a discount at some local retailers, from US$220 (Dh808) per night during sales this month.
6. A bargain hunt
The euro crisis shows no sign of abating and, with it, economic misery for the permanent residents of some of Europe's best-loved travel destinations: Portugal, Spain and Greece. Those booking last-minute and travelling out of season will be well placed to take advantage of any discounts to these three countries in the coming year.
Portugal, which has lost the lion's share of its tourism market to next-door Spain, is good value, thanks to the low cost of living. Emirates commenced daily direct flights to its beautiful and popular capital, Lisbon, from Dh4,220 return in July.
As public unrest and economic uncertainty continue in Greece, lower prices to encourage visitors in the summer months look inevitable; last year prices reportedly fell by up to 60 per cent. Those with more money to spend should head north to interesting Iceland, where the krona has been significantly devalued, boosting tourist numbers. Just make sure you visit before May 1 when a proposed rise in VAT, from seven per cent to 25.5 per cent, may come into force.
7. A five-star staycation
Even the most adventurous will admit that a weekend staycation can recharge the soul while being kinder on the wallet than any journey that involves buying an air ticket. As ever, 2013 will bring a number of new hotel openings in the UAE capital - the best include the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal, Rosewood Abu Dhabi on Al Maryah Island, and the St Regis Abu Dhabi at Nation Towers.
8. Bragging rights
Without being foolhardy in regions deemed "dangerous", the natural explorers among us don't need more than a few basics elements to give them the get-up-and-go. With traditional Middle Eastern destinations such as Lebanon and Syria out of the equation and Egypt, Libya and Yemen still unstable, we have uncovered some unusual alternatives.
Djibouti, a four-hour flight away, is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa (between Eritrea and Somalia, opposite Yemen). Don't let the fact that it's a huge military base in the fight against Al Shabab and piracy put you off: the country is safe and welcoming and has fantastic wild beaches, diving and food. Its small size makes travelling around a breeze. The luxurious Djibouti Palace Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/en/djibouti) has a three-night "Discover Djibouti" package from US$775 (Dh2,845) per person, half board, including all ground transport and sightseeing. Flights with flydubai cost from Dh2,653 return, including taxes.
Want to say you have been to Iraq but balk at the thought of Baghdad or Basra? This year both Etihad Airways and Emirates launched direct flights to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A free, 10-day visa is given to most Western citizens on arrival; travellers of other nationalities can obtain their visas in advance. The city boasts the Middle East's oldest citadel (7,000 years old), new five-star hotels and superb food.
To get the most out of your trip, however, you'll need to hire a professional guide or book an organised trip with a company such as Kurdistan Adventures (www.kurdistan-adventures.com). It has an eight-day, fully escorted "Highlights of Kurdistan" tour of Erbil, Lalish, Duhok, Silav, Amadiya, Koya, Dukan, Suleymaniyah, Ahmad Awa and Halabja from around US$3,000 (Dh11,000) per person, full board, including transport, a guide and entrance fees.
9. New safari destinations
If you're bored of the idea of travelling to traditional, well-worn African safari destinations such as Kenya and Tanzania, why not consider Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Senegal or Mozambique?
Yes, they take longer to get to than Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, but the reward is worth it in terms of a much more relaxed pace, fewer crowds, lower costs and the increasing availability of luxury accommodation.
Emirates flies direct to Dakar in Senegal; Qatar Airways now flies to Maputo, Mozambique (via Johannesburg), and direct to Kigali, Rwanda, and Entebbe, Uganda, from Doha. In south-west Uganda, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (not really impenetrable any more) boasts properties such as the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp (www.sanctuaryretreats.com), which is built on terrain inhabited by half the world's remaining mountain gorillas. But you needn't feel guilty: the income from and the presence of tourists is keeping the land free of poachers.
10. Culinary journeys
Travelling in search of food is perhaps mankind's original purpose. India, China, Malaysia, Italy, Japan and Vietnam are all foodie classics (and well served by air routes from Abu Dhabi and Dubai), though while they do their own cuisine well they don't always excel at others.
Less predictable choices include the United States: while it undeniably has some of the world's worst food, for international variety and quality at the middle and upper levels, it's hard to beat.
Also increasingly on the gourmet radar is South America - Ecuador and Peru in particular. The worldwide craze for ceviche shows no signs of abating and, in Lima, you can go high or low for an original fix: to the celebrated Astrid & Gaston restaurant in Miraflores (www.astridygaston.com), where the dish is prepared with raw sea urchins, clams, squids, mussels and shrimps, or to quiet, informal hole-in-the-wall joints such as Canta Rana in the Barrancano district.
Updated: January 4, 2013 04:00 AM