The Next Big Thing: Up & Coming Destinations February 12, 2003 Share 1 -- An ancient South American capital, a once-sleepy town in the U.S. South, a Middle Eastern city where camels race, a land that was previously known only for civil strife.If these don't sound like up-and-coming travel destinations, guess again. They're a part of "The Next Big Thing," a selection of 10 destinations (plus one in waiting) chosen by Travel Weekly's editors as places on the rise.Each of the places profiled is gaining ground among U.S. visitors and has the potential to become even more prominent among the roster of destinations that travel agencies will be selling in the future.Krakow, PolandBy Kenneth Kiesnoskioland's perfectly preserved, medieval second city -- once home to Copernicus, the Renaissance man who "stopped the sun and moved the earth" -- is now stopping more and more U.S. travelers to central Europe in their tracks.Once-overlooked Krakow -- the only major Polish town undamaged in World War II -- has all the ingredients to become a hot property with tourists: an ever-growing hotel and restaurant plant; scores of museums and historic structures; and attractions ranging from the 600-year-old Wieliczka salt mine to Europe's largest medieval market square and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and museum.While the city, along with many others in the region, received its fair share of attention after the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain, it never truly became a tourism flavor of the month like Prague, Budapest or even tiny Tallinn, Estonia, latest darling of Baltic cruisers. This year, Polish tourism officials have made pitching Krakow to U.S. travelers a priority.That task may prove easier now that Western operators are adding Krakow to their lineups. Where once the only way to book the town was through the state-owned Orbis company or Polish-American ethnic agencies, of late mainstream U.S. operators -- such as Uniworld and Intrav, Exeter International and Travcoa, and Globus & Cosmos, Collette Vacations and Nordique Tours -- are taken with its fairytale allure.Unlike the more business-oriented and modern Polish capital of Warsaw, Krakow tempts with castles and churches, cobblestones and cafes -- without the big crowds of Prague and Budapest.The city has always been big with U.S. heritage travelers of Polish descent, both Christian and Jewish. Now, with Poland's growing reputation as one of America's most steadfast Continental allies, and its admission to the European Union on target for next year, Krakow's pitch as a friendly, safe and affordable destination may finally be taken seriously by a wider U.S. audience.Queenstown, New Zealand By Nadine Godwinounded in the 1860s as a goldmining camp, Queenstown hugs the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by the southern Alps on New Zealand's South Island.Although a dot on the map, the resort town is well situated in a country where the language is English, people are friendly, visitors feel safe, the dollar goes a long way and the natural setting for every attraction ranges from simply pretty to drop-dead gorgeous.Because much of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" was filmed in and around the town, Queenstown is the starting point for the lion's share of traveling within New Zealand relating to the locales of the film.During North America's summer, the town plays host to skiers. At other seasons, it's a popular spot for adventure travel, nature-oriented tourism and visits to the area's vineyards.The adventures include bungee jumping (the world's first commercially available bungee site is close by) as well as somewhat less scary jet-boating trips in the mountain canyons, and placid steamship journeys across the Wakatipu.Queenstown also is the gateway to the scenic Fiordland National Park, whose top attraction is Milford Sound, the mother of all New Zealand fiords. Visitors to the park typically take a two-day motorcoach trip, with an overnight on a small ship in the sound.Clients can expect to see pencil-thin waterfalls taller than the Eiffel Tower and dramatic, brooding clouds over Mitre Peak at the heart of the sound.Visitors can fly to the area of the park, but fog and rain are a big part of the weather pattern here, which ensures that flights are frequently canceled.Like the rest of the country, the region encompassing Queenstown is attracting growing numbers of Americans. Arrivals from the U.S. increased 25% in the year ending June 30, 2000, and inched up another 3% by mid-2001.After a decline following the attacks of 9/11, business has picked up and arrivals in the 12 months ending last Nov. 30 set a record at more than 200,000. And that was before the second installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy hit the big screen.Belfast, Northern IrelandBy Kenneth Kiesnoskilster, we hardly knew ye . . . and how could we? For years, Americans heard little out of the British province and what they did hear was uniformly off-putting. Religious strife, discrimination, bombings, high unemployment and military occupation -- hardly the stuff of dream vacations. But that's all changing, as Northern Ireland achieves peace and prosperity and finally begins to catch up to the rest of the Emerald Isle in popularity with U.S. vacationers.In the past, there were real tourism hurdles, such as a dearth of hotel rooms, little air service and few organized tour products on offer.But with rising overseas arrivals, accelerating tour operator interest and recent investment in infrastructure, the province is one of travel's up-and-comers if ever there was one.The numbers reflect the upward trend: 112,000 Americans visited Northern Ireland in 2000, up from 32,000 in 1993. The number of hotel rooms in the capital city of Belfast has doubled since 1997 to 1,821, bringing Northern Ireland's total up to 5,661. And in one giant step forward, a joint marketing body, Tourism Ireland, was launched in the U.S. last year to promote Northern Ireland and the Republic as a single destination.Tourism Ireland is committed to helping Northern Ireland realize its potential in attracting U.S. visitors. Moreover, several tour operators have expanded their Northern Ireland programs, which should result in an increased number of visitors enjoying its tourism product.Dubai, United Arab EmiratesBy Rebecca Tobinhis city on the Persian Gulf may be the only one among our selection of up-and-coming destinations where guests can go scuba diving and then attend a sunset picnic in the desert, complete with billowing tents and belly dancing.Then there are the camel races. During the winter months, tourists, residents and camel-racing aficionados flock weekly to the racetrack-turned-street fair.As the camels run the lengthy track, trainers speed alongside in four-wheelers, shouting encouragement.Dubai residents once made the bulk of their money in oil. Now, they also make it in tourism, mostly from Europeans, who come to soak up the sun and shop in the souks (and in ultra-luxury, duty-free stores).U.S. tourism has been on the rise for some time, although conflict in the Gulf region has reduced U.S. visits to Dubai substantially. But the United Arab Emirates is something akin to the Switzerland of the Middle East: It is relatively unaffected by regional turbulence.And while it keeps its Arab culture, it is open to the more relaxed aspects of Western culture. Alcohol is OK, veils for women are optional.Dubai has one of the highest per capita income levels in the world and attracts its fair share of well-heeled jet-setters.During the annual shopping festival in February, rates at the windsail-shaped Burj Al Arab -- Dubai's most distinctive hotel -- start at around $666.Festival shoppers are entered into a daily raffle, the prize a kilo of gold.Rooms can be had at the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah for around $180, which leaves visitors with extra spending cash for "wadi bashing" -- four-wheeling in dry riverbeds -- or a dinner cruise on the Dubai Creek, which cuts through the heart of the city.Salvador da Bahia, BrazilBy Jorge Sidronmerican tourists are taking a leap of faith and visiting the state of Bahia, located north of Rio de Janeiro on Brazil's east coast. Bahia is a land of Carnival and of the Candomble religion, a fusion of African beliefs and Catholicism.Bahia's capital, Salvador, is the oldest city in Brazil; and it's the oldest section of the city, the Pelourinho district, that attracts legions of tourists each year.Pelourinho boasts the Lacerda Elevator, which transports residents and visitors between the industrial "lower city" along the bay and the commercial and residential "upper city" on the hill.Anyone visiting Salvador will want to spend some time exploring the Pelourinho's colonial-era buildings and cobblestone streets.Here you'll find a baina do acaraje, one of the women who still practice the Candomble religion and are respected for their ability to cast and break spells.Distinguishable by their traditional white dresses with belled skirts and colorful head scarves, the bainas also sell native foods like acaraje, a kind of fried bean pie.One of the best times to visit Bahia is during Carnival, which officially begins on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.Carnival in Bahia is different from its famed Rio counterpart in that parades wind their way through the streets from one end of the city to the city center.But the annual Carnival isn't the only party in town. Tuesday nights throughout the year are Pelourinho's party nights.The parties are called bencao, or blessing, and have their origins in the Church of Santo Antonio's custom of giving away bread to the poor on Tuesday evenings.Apart from its intriguing culture, Salvador also is about the sun.Visitors can take a ferry into the Bay of All Saints and explore the miles of sandy shore on Itaparica Island, where Club Med has a village.Fifty miles north of Salvador is the relatively new resort destination of Costa do Sauipe, a 500-acre complex with five hotels and a replica of a colonial city with shops, restaurants and less formal pousadas, or small inns.Molokai, HawaiiBy Katherine Nicholsolokai has long been considered the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands, with miles of open space, no stop lights and a population of less than 7,000. But the rural destination has become increasingly popular -- especially with eco-travelers -- since Starwood took over the Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village last year, enhancing the island's marketing reach while maintaining its rural charm.The former Molokai Ranch now offers a small lodge for people who want amenities (like a phone and a ceiling over the shower) the luxury beach tentalows, or tent cabins, don't provide. More travelers than ever are seeking the kind of soft adventure Molokai provides. Visitor arrivals to the island in 2002 jumped 35% over 2001. Most originated from San Diego (up 86.9% over 2001), Dallas-Fort Worth (up 64.8%) and Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County ( up 63.4%).In addition, travelers are requesting an authentic Hawaiian experience, such as provided by Father Damien Tours in Kalaupapa. After descending a narrow trail down 1,700-foot cliffs on foot or by mule, guests can learn about the historic Hansen's Disease (leprosy) settlement. Because some patients with leprosy still live there, all visitors -- hikers included -- must register with Damien Tours and be accompanied.The island is filled with history, culture and natural beauty. Inquisitive people who visit Heiau, or Hawaiian temples, or the Kamakou Preserve, a lush 2,774-acre rainforest sanctuary filled with indigenous plants and native birds, will leave with new knowledge of Hawaii.Tunica, MississippiBy David Cogswelln 1992, Tunica was sleeping peacefully 30 miles down the Mississippi River south of Memphis. It had one 20-room hotel, and the few regular visitors were bird-hunters following the annual migrations.Then the casinos came. In 1993, gaming generated a modest $22 million, but the word had begun to spread that this once-unknown spot was a Southern place to be.By the end of 2001, there were 19 hotels with over 5,000 rooms and 12 million visitors were pumping more than a billion dollars in annual gaming revenue into Tunica County.The rapid rise of Tunica continues. Initiatives are underway to transform Tunica into a destination whose appeal will reach beyond gaming.A $4 million expansion of the Arena & Exposition Center was completed in December, and a $38 million expansion of the airport will enable it to handle commercial jets by 2005.And now, nongaming attractions are in development for this year. There already are two golf courses, and a third will be completed by the end of 2003.Construction also will be completed this year on a $22 million RiverPark on 140 acres of forest land with horse and hiking trails. It will have a dock that will accommodate landings by the Delta Queen and other Mississippi River cruisers.The town will also have its own 400-passenger paddle-wheel boat called the Tunica Queen.The former one-hotel town is well on its way to becoming one of the nation's premier destinations.Luang Prabang, LaosBy Arnie Weissmannhey emerge from the fog at dawn, blurs of saffron and burgundy that take shape as young men walking slowly in procession. They shuffle by, column upon column, these Buddhist monks, their eyes forward but keenly aware of the town's population gathering along the curb. As the monks pass, each opens the lid of a basket on his hip so spectators can donate scoops of rice.Another day in Luang Prabang has begun.If unspoiled Eastern culture is your thing, Luang Prabang, Laos, is your place. The dozen or so ancient temples and monasteries in this former royal capital were built in a picture-book setting along the hilly banks of the Mekong River.As the early-morning procession confirms, this Unesco World Heritage Site is not merely a town of unusual architecture and beauty (it also features a royal palace and French colonial homes), but is an unspoiled, vibrant religious center.Since the opening of a modern airport in the mid-90s, direct flights from Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos, have made once-remote Luang Prabang more accessible, and the town has caught the attention of the early adopters among the world's travelers.The first to visit tended to be at the economic extremes -- luxury clients flown in by Abercrombie & Kent and budget travelers rounded up by the Adventure Center (a Far & Wide brand).The mid-to-upscale Pacific Bestours (another Far & Wide company) also has added Luang Prabang to itineraries, and the recent addition of more upscale accommodations is certain to attract the attention of others.Travelers who liked Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and northern Thailand are good candidates for Luang Prabang, where they'll find the architecture, scenery and culture different enough from those other destinations to be satisfied.They'll find attractions and experiences that are rare, if not unique, in southeast Asia: the morning walk of the monks; a cave filled with literally thousands of statues of Buddha (it's accessible only by taking a boat along the Mekong); and the gathering to watch the sun set over the river from a temple atop Mount Phusi, a hill in the center of town.Botswana, AfricaBy Arnie Weissmannravelers making the long trip to Botswana's Okavango Delta are rewarded with an arkful of colorful birds and large game. What they won't find are flocks of tourists -- this southern Africa country tightly controls the number of visitors to its parks, and charges premium prices for those who want in.Unlike most rivers, which flow toward the sea, the Okavango fans inland, forming a 4,000-square-mile network of islands, lagoons and waterways until it evaporates into the Kalahari Desert. Visitors glide along narrow, papyrus-lined streams and watch as eagles, herons, storks and egrets soar overhead.In addition to its first-rate birding, the animal-viewing opportunities of the delta are exceptional, especially around the Moremi Wildlife Reserve on its eastern side.The reserve's luxury reed chalets and tented campsites are characterized as being either wet or dry, and it's important to know the difference before booking a client there.Dry camps, even though on the water's edge, offer only land game drives, and guests will likely see lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals, giraffes, elephants and zebras. Wet camps, which are farther into the delta, offer the opportunity to see a rare owl and unique antelope that live only in the heart of the Okavango -- but other game is far less dense. A happy medium may be found at a camp that's listed as being both wet and dry.The only drawback to these camps is that, to get far enough into the delta to see the birds' nesting sites, operators must use motorboats -- far less peaceful than the dugout canoes used in wet camps.Most operators that offer Okavango programs have put together enough structure and comfort to make a first-time visitor to Africa feel at ease, yet are wild enough to get even the most jaded traveler's adrenaline pumping.The price tag ensures that the Okavango Delta is not for everyone, but those who can afford it will not leave disappointed.Belize City, BelizeBy Gay Nagle Myershe size of Massachusetts, Belize is the least-populated Central American country, a melting pot that interweaves Creole and Mestizo cultures with Maya, Mennonite and Garifuna peoples. And business is booming.More than 100 cruise ships deposited 183,000 passengers at the pier in Belize City last year, while close to 200,000 visitors arrived by air. Although tourism numbers stagnated elsewhere, Belize's numbers topped off higher than expected.Air Jamaica and US Airways launched flights from the U.S. last year, while American and Continental upped their existing services from Dallas, Houston and Miami.Belize's natural resources range from top dive sites that dot its Caribbean coastline and its185-mile-long barrier reef to rainforests, jungles, cave systems and Mayan ruins.San Pedro on Ambergris Caye -- the jumping-off point for the country's barrier reef -- is laid-back and low-key. Most of its resorts attract the fly-fishing, snorkeling and diving crowds.One standout is Cayo Espanto, a private island resort that is just a short boat ride from San Pedro, noted for privacy, luxury and daily rates to match. Inland, Belize has cottage resorts and jungle accommodations that range from rustic to elegant for nature-oriented visitors.Turtle Inn, on the coast in Placencia, is owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola, who rebuilt and reopened it in January after Hurricane Iris swept the original resort out to sea in 2001.Coppola's choice of location gave rise to what he christened the Belizean Riviera.Belize is like that -- a destination that surprises its visitors and embraces the cultures and customs of both Central America and the Caribbean.Havana, CubaBy Gay Nagle Myersicture a group of agitated race horses at the starting gate or revved-up race cars at a Nascar event. In place of horses and cars, substitute U.S. investors, tour operators, hotel companies, airlines, travel agents and potential travelers circling Cuba from a legal distance, poised for the moment the 1959 travel embargo is lifted, and you've got the picture.Cuba is a hot tourist spot these days -- more than 1.7 million visitors traveled to Cuba last year, including 200,000 Americans who entered legally, under exceptions to the travel ban, and illegally.The country has more than 40,000 hotel rooms (with 2,000 more planned to open this year), 11 international airports and 16 foreign companies managing hotels.The Cuban company Gaviota recently opened the 940-room, five-star Playa Pesquero Resort, the largest hotel in Cuba, located in the eastern province of Hogluin.Sandals Resorts opened its second Cuba property last fall; SuperClubs will open two resorts in Cuba this year and next to join the four it already operates.In 2002, 60 cruise ships called at Havana and five other Cuban ports; cruise calls are expected to double this year.Cuba has many of the usual tropical charms plus colonial towns and historical areas.Add to that the allure and mystery of a capital city locked in a late-50s freeze frame where '57 Chevys cruise past crumbling architectural gems and vendors sell Che Guevarra T-shirts along the Malecon. All this just 90 miles off the Florida coast.