Forecasts for 2010 predict that more people will be traveling, but the numbers still are well below what they were before the recession. Still, if you can afford to get away, interesting events will draw visitors to destinations around the world, from Shanghai to South Africa to Orlando.
And here's a surprise: Mexico is turning up on some top 10 lists for 2010, despite the swine flu epidemic and worries over drug violence.
Several destinations will be in the tourism spotlight in 2010 thanks to headline-grabbing events, including the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Feb. 12-28; the FIFA World Cup soccer games in South Africa, for a month beginning June 11; and the Shanghai World Expo, May 1-Oct. 31, a 21st century world's fair that organizers hope will attract as many as 70 million visitors.
Another destination that will get attention in 2010 is Oberammergau, Germany, where the oldest continually acted Passion play in Europe has been performed by the locals roughly every 10 years since the 1600s. The show will be staged May through October, and is typically seen by a half-million people.
Spain expects more pilgrims traveling the Camino de Santiago, an ancient route to Galicia, where the cathedral is said to house the remains of St. James the Apostle. Typically, the route draws more visitors when the saint's Feast Day, July 25, falls on a Sunday, as it will in 2010.
Closer to home, Universal Orlando opens the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure this spring. For theme park fans keeping an eye on new attractions for 2010, "the Harry Potter project at Universal is in a category of its own in terms of scope," said David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. The marquee attraction will be a high-tech ride called "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" that will take guests through scenes and rooms from the blockbuster Potter movies.
Universal Hollywood also has news for 2010. Its King Kong attraction, which burned down in 2008, is swinging back onto the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot tram tour next summer. The new 3-D attraction, King King 360, will transport visitors to Skull Island where they will witness "the eighth wonder of the world" tussling with dinosaurs and other critters.
Disneyland's California Adventure Park also is debuting a big new attraction in 2010 called World of Color. This unique nighttime water show uses a kaleidoscope of color, powerful fountains and audio and visual effects to take viewers on a journey through animated Disney classics like "The Lion King," "Toy Story" and many others.
Disney also will be offering a free day's admission to parks on both coasts to 1 million guests who complete a day of volunteer work in the new year. The "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" program will provide certified volunteers with a one-day ticket to any park at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., or Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. Disney is partnering with HandsOn Network, a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities, to connect people with projects and to certify that the work was done.
And finally, nevermind that worries about swine flu and drug violence led to a 12.5 percent decline in air travel to Mexico by U.S. citizens for the first nine months of 2009 compared to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, says if flying to Mexico is too expensive, just drive to a port and take a "crazy cheap" cruise to Cancun. "Get the vaccine and don't tangle with any drug lords," he added.
Domestic leisure travel is expected to increase 2 percent in 2010, with an increase in leisure travel spending of nearly 5 percent, according to the U.S. Travel Association. IBISWorld, an industry research firm, forecasts an increase in tourism revenues for 2010 of just 1.2 percent.
But even with this small recovery, numbers for 2010 will be lower than they were in 2008. The USTA said travel expenditures in the U.S. are expected to total $712 billion in 2009, then rise to $745.2 billion in 2010 — still lower than the $772.9 billion in expenditures in 2008.
The World Travel & Tourism Council predicted that the industry worldwide would show a 5.5 percent decline for 2009 over 2008 once all the data is counted. For 2010, the organization's president, Jean-Claude Baumgarten, said travel and tourism activity "is likely to be flat at best."
The lodging forecast for 2010 from PricewaterhouseCoopers shows a small increase in the number of average daily rooms sold, up 2.5 percent to 2.68 million rooms in 2010, compared to 2.61 million in 2009. But that's the lowest number since 2003.
"The industry is not rebounding," said Scott Berman, hospitality and leisure leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The good news for consumers is that PricewaterhouseCoopers is also forecasting lower average daily rates ($95.79 in 2010 compared to $97.51 in 2009), due partly to increased competition from a larger supply of hotel rooms — 4.78 million rooms available in 2010 compared to 4.74 million in 2009.
Berman also said he thinks business travel has "hit the bottom" and that corporate group bookings are "picking up across the board, including in luxury properties."
On airfares, Hobica, of AirfareWatchdog.com, says that if the economy picks up, "my guess is we're going to see a lot of firming up of airfares," especially since many airlines have cut capacity. "We are not going to see the desperate fare sales as much as in the past," he added.
If you are hoping to snag an airfare deal, though, Hobica says it's crucial that you sign up for frequent flyer programs, e-mail alerts and Twitter feeds.