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In 1996, People Will Prefer Peaceful Places
January 2, 1996 -- Want to know where to go in 1996? Remember the four travel Ps: People Prefer Peaceful Places.

If surveys and statistics prove anything, it is that travelers are flocking to nations that have settled their disputes. Destinations once dismissed as too dangerous--Northern Ireland, South Africa, almost anywhere in the Middle East--now top many travelers' "must visit" list. And popular places suddenly perceived as dicey destinations--terrorism-troubled Paris, the storm-ravaged Caribbean or crime-ridden Washington, D.C.--have lost their luster.

Here's an in-depth look at where we may be headed this year.

ON THE HOME FRONT
Americans prefer to travel close to home, but the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta will also bring millions of overseas visitors to our shores. Be prepared to share the parks, beaches and even our small towns with travelers from around the world.

The nation's warmest states--Florida, California and Hawaii--continue to top our domestic "wish list." Hawaii will also benefit from substantial new airline service. Hotel bargains may be rare on Maui and Oahu, but great deals should be available on Kauai and the Big Island because resorts there have suffered from declining occupancy.

Travelers planning vacations in Las Vegas will also find bargains. After years of runaway growth, hotels and casinos have learned that Americans don't have an insatiable appetite for gambling. Falling hotel occupancy and reduced gaming revenues will prompt hoteliers to offer aggressive discounts. In fact, America seems to have cooled on gambling everywhere. Grandiose plans to build the nation's largest casino in New Orleans collapsed into bankruptcy last fall.

Speaking of cool, this should be a banner year for Alaska, especially for those cruising the waters of the 49th State. A record number of ships have scheduled Alaskan itineraries and published prices start as low as $999 for a 7-day cruise. Smart buyers and early bookers will pay even less.

AROUND THE AMERICAS
The best bargains in international travel this year also have the benefit of being closest to home. Thanks to foreign-exchange rates that favor U.S. travelers, prices in Mexico and Canada are at record lows.

Almost anything purchased in Canada is available at 30 percent discounts. Even better, airfares to destinations north of the border have declined thanks to a dramatic increase in the number of nonstop flights between the two countries.

Mexico has long been our preferred "foreign" destination--about 16 million of us head south annually--and last year's collapse of the peso has fueled our ardor for the country's pristine beaches, lavish resorts and historical attractions. The lone cloud on the Mexican travel horizon: an outbreak of violent crime against tourists in Mexico City.

Americans are also visiting other Latin destinations in growing numbers. Especially popular: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

THE CARIBBEAN REPORT
Everyone loves the Caribbean and, by summer, most of the islands damaged by last fall's storms should be back in operation. Expect extraordinary off-season discounts as reopened properties woo travelers back from resorts on islands like Jamaica and Aruba, two destinations that suffered no storm damage. Also worth watching: St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas sustained heavy storm damage, but St. Croix was spared and reaped a winter tourism bonanza.

Caribbean cruises will also be exceptionally good values. Too many berths chasing too few travelers all but guarantees that cruise lines will promote a plethora of booking incentives.

EUROPE EAST AND WEST
Britain remains the leading overseas destination for American travelers, but another English-speaking island, Ireland, has captured our hearts. Tourist demand is growing so fast that Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, now flies to Belfast year-round and plans to resume service from Chicago after a 5-year hiatus.

On the continent, Italy is now the star attraction. Travel increased 14 percent in 1994 and another 8 percent in the third quarter of 1995. France, however, is out of favor, and a wave of terrorist bombings in Paris and a series of nationwide strikes hasn't helped. "Italy is our main rival," a French tourism official told the Associated Press. Italy, he conceded, "has a very congenial and young image, and its cuisine, fashion and design has a lot of appeal." Another loser: Switzerland, where the strength of the local currency makes visiting extremely pricy.

Travel costs are also high in Eastern Europe, but Americans are enchanted by countries once hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Travel to the East has more than doubled during the decade, and prices are stabilizing. One tour operator, prosaically named Affordable Poland, is promoting 9-day land packages for as little as $649 a person.

One notable destination in 1996: Copenhagen, this year's cultural capital of Europe. About 70,000 special events are scheduled.

ACROSS THE PACIFIC
The centerpiece of Asian travel this year is likely to be Hong Kong. Next year, the bustling British Crown Colony reverts to China, and what happens then is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, Americans have forgiven--or perhaps forgotten--the social turmoil that roiled China and staunched tourism in the late 1980s. Travel to the mainland has increased by about 12 percent in each of the last five years and 1996 looks to be no different.

In place of Japan, where travel costs are prohibitive, Asian travelers are headed to destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam. Interest in our erstwhile enemy is so high that Singapore Airlines estimates traffic to Vietnam will increase 25 percent annually during the next few years. But the biggest Pacific lures for Americans remain Australia and New Zealand. The language is familiar, the prices remarkably low and the attractions diverse. If only they were closer ....

AFRICA
Africa remains largely uncharted for Americans, and the few known destinations suffer from poor reputations. In Kenya, for instance, the government recently created a Tourism Protection Unit in a desperate attempt to allay travelers' fears about what is euphemistically called "tourist molesting." Only South Africa generates substantial interest from American travelers. In fact, South African tourism is booming, but so is crime. "The biggest threat to tourism...is unquestionably and undoubtedly crime," the chief operational officer of South Africa's leading hotel company recently told Reuters.

MIDDLE EAST
Nowhere is the peaceful-place phenomenon more evident than in the Middle East. After years of fears, Americans are visiting the region in record numbers. And don't assume we've limited our Mideast travels to the popular religious and historic sites in Israel, Egypt and Jordan. This year's featured destination at Travecoa, one of the nation's leading tour companies, is Yemen, a Middle Eastern nation most American travelers probably can't locate on a map.

The unfettered growth of Middle East tourism is an unambiguously positive development for travelers. "It's clear that it isn't merely peace which creates tourism," suggests Uzi Michaeli, Israel's North American commissioner for tourism. "It's tourism which creates peace."

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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