NEW YORK – Anniversaries, events, celebrities and the economy will influence travel in 2011, from the royal wedding in London, to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks in New York.
London is sure to be crowded for the April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. "If Charles and Diana got 600,000 people who came into London for that wedding, I could see a million for this one," said travel expert Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Guides.
New York has also turned up on hot lists for 2011, including the No. 1 city in Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel 2011" guidebook. "For all of New York, 11 September 2011 will be a defining moment," wrote the publisher's U.S. travel editor Robert Reid. A Sept. 11 memorial, with reflecting pools set above the footprints of the World Trade Center, is expected to open in time for the anniversary of the attacks.
The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is also being marked this year. One of the largest commemorations takes place July 21-24 in Manassas, Va., where the war's first major land battle took place. A historical re-enactment there is expected to draw as many as 15,000 participants.
Crowds are also expected to turn out for the opening in Washington D.C. of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall. A 28-foot-tall statue of the slain civil rights leader will be dedicated between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials on Aug. 28, near the spot where he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech 48 years earlier.
Several destinations are hoping that attention from celebrities will bring them more visitors in the new year. Australia spent $4 million to host Oprah Winfrey and 300 of her fans on a weeklong trip down under, but government officials say they got tourism advertising worth many millions more in return.
Alaska is hoping for a similar benefit from the TLC series "Sarah Palin's Alaska" and other cable shows showcasing the 49th state. "They have raised the profile, awareness and ultimately the interest in coming to Alaska," said Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Tourism Industry Association.
Overall, travel in 2010 began to slowly increase from the recessionary downturn of 2009, and many destinations are forecasting continued improvements in visitor numbers and revenues in 2011. Las Vegas was among the hardest hit by the weak economy, but visitation numbers and casino revenues were both up slightly in the last few months.
Vegas was also named the No. 1 domestic destination based on 2011 booking data reported by managers and agents from Travel Leaders, one of the top 10 travel agencies in the U.S. And in March, Vegas will get a shot of publicity among younger travelers when MTVu hosts its annual spring break party there. The hotel pools of Sin City will be a departure from more typical beach spring break destinations like Mexico, which has gotten bad publicity from drug violence, and the Florida Gulf Coast, where tourism tanked last year after the oil spill.
Whether college students will lead the way back to beaches in the Florida Panhandle in the new year remains an open question, but New Orleans is expecting more spring breakers in 2011 because Mardi Gras happens to fall during the second week of March. At the same time, the city is launching a new tourism campaign to attract more visitors ages 18-35, according to Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In 2010, the biggest theme park news was the opening of a Harry Potter attraction at the Universal theme park. This year, theme park fans can look forward to the opening of Legoland Florida at the former Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Fla. At Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., the big news for 2011 will be the debut of a new ride called "The Little Mermaid — Ariel's Undersea Adventure." Though "The Little Mermaid" movie dates to 1989, Disneyland spokeswoman Michele Himmelberg says "she's still one of the most popular princesses." Visitors will ride in a colorful clamshell through special effects designed to make you feel like you're underwater; the octopus villain Ursula will also be featured in the ride.
Other Disney news for 2011 includes the launch of the new Disney Dream cruise ship, which begins sailings Jan. 26. The ship has a water coaster that wraps around the deck, with one loop jutting over the side of the ship above the ocean, and virtual portholes with live video feeds of the sea and sky. CruiseCritic.com editor Carolyn Spencer Brown calls it "the most anticipated new ship" of the year.
The National Park Service is expecting a slight increase in park visitors of nearly 1 percent in 2011. While park visitor numbers were down slightly in 2010 over 2009, some parks had banner years, including Yellowstone, which recorded more than 3.6 million visitors for the year before December was even over, topping the record 3.3 million who visited in 2009.
One of the biggest questions for 2011 is how consumers will view travel to Europe. Protests over the economic crisis there have made headlines, and air travel has been repeatedly disrupted by everything from strikes to Iceland's volcano to ice and snow in the days before Christmas. Air travel by U.S. citizens to Europe was down about 1 percent for the first six months of 2010, according to the latest available statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department.
But Europe's weak economy could result in travel bargains, especially in countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, according to John Clifford of InternationalTravelManagement.com and a San Diego-based travel company called Luxury Travel Consultancy. "I think smart consumers this coming year are going to say, 'Hey, this is a great deal,'" he said.
Back home, however, the improving economy is likely to mean higher prices in hotels. "We believe rates will go up," said Scott Berman, hospitality and leisure leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He said "corporate America is traveling again," and the demand for group travel is picking up too, which means increased demand for hotels and fewer bargains for leisure travelers, especially in cities where tourism has been relatively strong, like New York, Miami and San Francisco. Those vacationing during peak times — like when school is out — will have a harder time finding deals.
"By no means does that mean there isn't an opportunity for deals, but in order to take advantage of that opportunity, you have to be flexible," Berman said.