Travel will certainly look a little different in 2021. But as the world begins to recover, people everywhere are dreaming about revisiting their favorite places and discovering new ones. Naturally, some of the trends we’ve identified for the year ahead are driven by the effects of the pandemic—a desire for privacy, trips that immerse travelers in one location instead of many, and of course the pent-up demand that is already spurring future bookings. Others reflect a new consciousness, such as a reckoning with history and efforts to be more honest about it. And of course, there are culinary innovations—fascinating regional cuisines rising to the fore, a return to elevated comfort food—and exciting destinations, from Mexico to the Caribbean to Japan. Wherever you go this year, we hope these 21 ideas for 2021 will fuel your wanderlust and reignite your love of travel.
Road trips start with a plane ticket
The year ahead promises increased traffic to places like Portugal, Iceland and California, but instead of visitors checking into hotels and joining tour groups, they’ll be grabbing the keys to roadworthy camper vans and forging their own paths. “With camper vans, people are able to fully immerse themselves in a destination while being more self-sufficient,” says Chris Burkard, an award-winning expedition photographer and seasoned road warrior. “It also allows for a more intimate experience.” The number of van rental companies has grown exponentially, while their offerings have become sleeker and more sophisticated. Don’t expect Clark Griswold’s station wagon with a cowboy tent and hot plate in the trunk. Companies like Vintage Surfari Wagons, based in Costa Mesa, California, carry an eye-popping, meticulously restored fleet of Volkswagen conversion vans available for daily or weekly rentals, making it easier than ever to fly in, pick up and hit the open road.
Comfort food gets dolled up
“We’re seeing a return to comfort... In a moment like this, minimalism is definitely noted.”
—Talia Baiocchi, editor-in-chief of Punch
From efficiency to takeout appeal, the response of restaurants and bars to the pandemic will drive some appetizing trends this year. “What I’m seeing is sandwiches,” says Kevin Alexander, author of Burn the Ice. “It’s a return of high-end casual food, like we saw in ’08—delicious Italian subs with all the stuff. Even if you are a fancy restaurant, you are going to make room for that angle.” The cocktail world will veer in the same direction. “We’re seeing a return to comfort,” says Punch spirits magazine editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi, “partially because bars can’t be making elaborate cocktails to go.” She predicts a surge in classic drinks—margaritas, negronis, old-fashioneds. “In a moment like this, minimalism is definitely noted.” Alexander concurs: “There will be much more efficiency—still delicious, but more akin to Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, where it’s like, ‘We’re going to make you six cocktails with four ingredients. They’re going to be great, but screw your 14 ingredients.’”
A luxury wave sweeps Mexico
A coast-to-coast wave of luxury hotels is rising in Mexico in 2021, from the sands of Baja California to the jungles of the Yucatán. Auberge Resorts is even launching two: the Auberge Etéreo on the Mayan Riviera and the Auberge Susurros del Corazón at Punta de Mita. Etéreo takes its design cues from the local culture, featuring coral buildings with Mayan details, while Susurros del Corazón offers a beach vibe. In the artist village of Todos Santos, Paradero is launching a boutique property that immerses guests in the surrounding desert. And two brands are opening in Mexico City: the modernist Mondrian Polanco and the 58-story Ritz-Carlton overlooking Chapultepec Park.
Major new museums change the cultural landscape
As illustrious museums and cultural institutions around the world return to full schedules, they will have some greatly anticipated new company. On April 30, the Academy Museum—operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—will finally launch in Los Angeles. The new campus will feature two theaters, as well as educational programs and a collection encompassing everything from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cape to Judy Garland’s ruby slippers. Meanwhile, art collector Maja Hoffmann is opening the Luma Arles cultural center in France, showcasing new work at the Parc des Ateliers, a former industrial site featuring a futuristic tower created by Frank Gehry. In Hong Kong, the long awaited M+ museum will open in the West Kowloon Cultural District, offering a survey of modern and contemporary work from a Hong Kong perspective, a vision former executive director Lars Nittve hopes will rival that of New York’s MoMA.
Iceland is cool again
“There is so much to see and do. Iceland is a tremendous, energized place.”
—Ian Schrager, entrepreneur and hotelier
Iceland experienced an eruption of tourism over the last decade, peaking in 2018, when the small Nordic country welcomed 2.3 million visitors, more than six times the national population. And as the world recovers, Iceland—with its raw, otherworldly beauty and remote expanses—is anticipating a tourism surge, with government-funded projects like new walkways and viewing platforms at Bolafjall Mountain and Stuðlagil Canyon, in addition to smaller, more specialized guided tours, and swish new resorts such as Ian Schrager’s Edition hotel in Reykjavik. “There is so much to see and do,” says Schrager. “Iceland is a tremendous, energized place.”
Destinations examine their difficult histories
“Destinations that have shied away from their cultural heritage are now having these conversations and finally telling these stories—and they’re fascinating.”
—Ursula Petula Barzey, Caribbean travel consultant
Tours of historic homes in the South have often focused on antique silver and elaborate portraits. But as the U.S. reckons with its racial history, these centuries-old properties, from the Owens-Thomas House in Savannah to Boone Hall near Charleston, are rewriting their narratives to offer a truer glimpse of what life was like not just for the white families but also the Black enslaved ones. New York Times travel reporter Tariro Mzezewa says, “Instead of focusing on the way the white families moved through these spaces, they’re showing the humanity and pain of the Black people who were enslaved there.” After 20 years of planning and fundraising, the International African American Museum will open on the site of Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf, where 40 percent of all enslaved people disembarked in the country. “People are realizing that there is an interest in the experiences of Black people throughout history,” Mzezewa says. “For so long the travel industry didn’t consider these stories valuable.” The Caribbean, too, which has long touted its white-sand beaches and tropical cocktails, is acknowledging the history of slavery and colonialism. And travel consultant Ursula Petula Barzey points to a Bermuda tour by Titan Express dedicated to abolitionist Mary Prince and her contribution to Bermuda’s emancipation. The first enslaved Black woman to publish an autobiography, Prince produced work that was significant in dismantling slavery in not just Bermuda but also the British Empire. “When people think of Bermuda they think of sailing and the water,” Barzey says. “Destinations that have shied away from their cultural heritage are now having these conversations and finally telling these stories—and they’re fascinating.”
The bucket list kicks the bucket
In the coming year, the overwhelming demand of a bucket list is being traded for a more composed, thoughtful approach to travel, which means a lighter footprint and less stress. Instead of having a half day to rush through Michelangelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s dome and da Vinci’s Annunciation, travelers will opt for weeks, or even an entire month, in Florence before setting off for Rome. “People are booking fewer but longer trips,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel. “It’s more of an immersive approach, quality over quantity.” Maureen O’Hare, a senior travel producer for CNN, says more properties will offer deals on extended stays: “In addition to having more time to get to know a place, it will also be a more sustainable way of traveling.”
Travelers put their money where their values are
“People now understand that no matter where you travel, it’s someone else’s local.”
—Samantha Brown, host of Places to Love
Traveling isn’t just about you—it’s also about your impact. Though green travel has been a consideration for years, people will pay closer attention to how they spend their dollars. “We’re seeing travelers recognize how important their purchasing power is,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel. “They’re traveling closer to home to develop a deeper understanding of where they live. This gets businesses back on their feet.” Samantha Brown, host of PBS’ Places to Love series, says the travel industry is largely comprised of small establishments: “People now understand that no matter where you travel, it’s someone else’s local.” OutThere magazine editor-in-chief Uwern Jong adds that “LGBTQ patrons will follow brands that have demonstrated their support for the community and are inclusive in their outreach.” Destinations and properties that have effective preparations for health, weather or political contingencies also have an edge with travelers, notes Miller: “The leaders will be those who can shift toward the quadruple bottom line of people, planet, profit and purpose.”
Tampa: Come for the football, stay for the culture
As the host city for Super Bowl LV, the Tampa Bay area can expect an uptick in attention. Although there’s no shortage of culinary and cultural attractions within Tampa proper—such as the bustling Riverwalk and the Cuban eateries of Ybor City—the town’s proximity to other notable places strengthens its appeal. A short trip across the bay will lead you to the powdery sand of Clearwater Beach, consistently ranked among the top beaches in America. In addition to world-class museums like The Dalí and the Chihuly Collection, the neighboring city of St. Petersburg recently opened its St. Pete Pier, which features a collection of waterfront restaurants, bars and multiuse venues. Slightly farther south, across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the coastal city of Sarasota offers aesthetes a glimpse of groundbreaking mid-century modern architecture, as well as cultural institutions like the historic Asolo Repertory Theatre (the largest of its kind in the Southeast) and the newly minted Sarasota Art Museum, dedicated to contemporary art.
The Caribbean goes beach-optional
In years past, the sole reason for a Caribbean getaway was to luxuriate on an empty beach with an ample rum potion in hand. But the nature of Caribbean travel is changing. The region boasts a wide array of activities beyond crystalline waters and quartz sand, including mountain hiking and submarine tours, but also edifying cultural opportunities. On the island of Grenada, for example, the Belmont Estate offers a 17th-century plantation experience, with traditional Grenadian cuisine, locally grown and harvested cocoa and a museum honoring the enslaved people who built it. As New York Times travel reporter Tariro Mzezewa says, “You can still have your cocktail on the beach, but you can also learn something about the history of that place and interact with the people around you.”
Drinks are on a roll
More and more bars and restaurants will be putting drinks on wheels. Talia Baiocchi, editor-in-chief of wine and spirits magazine Punch, saw a high-end cart trend in New York a few years ago, but now there’s a different rationale, based on social distancing. “If you can’t sit at the bar and experience that theater in the way you would before, it would make sense that somebody would want to bring that experience table-side,” she says. A few establishments leading the way are Orfano in Boston and Georgia James in Houston.
Prideful pioneers head to the city
“[LGBTQ people] can really lead the charge when it comes to going back to the city.”
—Uwern Jong, editor-in-chief of OutThere
Though most people are still seeking open spaces, LGBTQ travelers are poised to become pioneers in returning to the world’s great cities. “We thrive in the city as an LGBTQ community, so it’s super important for us to get back there as quickly as possible,” says Uwern Jong, editor-in-chief of the London-based gay experiential travel magazine OutThere. He says 88 percent of his audience has already traveled to smaller destinations such as Venice, Reykjavik and Dubrovnik, with properties like Venice’s Aman and Dubrovnik’s Hotel Bellevue welcoming LGBTQ visitors back. Major cities such as London, New York and Paris will be next, he adds. “We’re said to be opinion leaders, and we can really lead the charge when it comes to going back to the city.”
Cocktails pick up speed
It can be jarring to place a drink order at a cocktail club only to watch the bartender pull a premixed bottle from a refrigerator, pour it over ice and slide it down the bar top. But the batch cocktail trend, where drinks are prepared before patrons arrive, has earned its stripes when it comes to speed, consistency and safety in meting out sophisticated drinks. In the coming year, “We’re going to see more cocktails batched and on tap. There’s a lot of pride in the to-go cocktail industry,” says Kevin Alexander the James Beard Award-winning author of Burn the Ice. Leading the charge are places like Dante in Manhattan, voted best bar in the world in 2019. Their extensive negroni menu comes premade, with drinks available for takeaway. In California, Pioneertown’s Red Dog Saloon has put its spicy margarita and mezcal paloma on tap for an added convenience. As co-owner Mike French says: “It’ll take about three seconds to get a margarita.”
Out with the Victorian, in with the Viking
“We’ll see a turn toward a Nordic look, because people want a clean, basic space.”
—Kevin Alexander, James Beard-winning author of Burn the Ice
After a period of overstuffed fussiness, hotels and restaurants are returning to a more minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired design—and not merely to promote social distancing. “We’ll see a turn toward a Nordic look, because people want a clean, basic space,” says culinary writer Kevin Alexander. “The Edison bulb and reclaimed wood was about old, vintage, but now there will be cool cement and clean lines and whites and grays.” Restaurants will continue to space patrons out through the placement of plants and screens, creating a series of private “rooms.” Outdoor spaces, rooftop bars and alfresco lounges are also in demand, exemplified by California’s new Hotel San Luis Obispo. This pared-down sensibility will even be seen in establishment names, Alexander says: “Previously, the idea was to evoke an 1850s law firm. Now it will be one-word simplicity, right to the point, like the Gaelic or Finnish word for ‘eat.’”
Restaurants zoom in on regional cuisine
“Mexican” is no longer a suitable answer to the question of what’s for dinner. You’ll have to be more specific: Veracruzano, Poblano or Oaxacan? The explosion of Oaxacan haunts in Los Angeles—such as the James Beard Award-winning Guelaguetza, the standard-bearer of mezcal, mole and chili-lime crickets—and spicy Nigerian suya (African shish-kebab) shops across Dallas and New York City demonstrate that among multicultural food destinations there’s a focus on regional culinary traditions. “We’re seeing more regionalization in cuisine,” says culinary writer Kevin Alexander. “People are finally starting to pay attention to the cuisines of Africa, which has been a long time coming.”
Privacy makes perfect
In 2021, many travelers will seek a measure of privacy on their holidays, hoping to combine luxury with safety. “Forty-three percent of our clients are booking hotels offering seclusion,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the travel advisor Virtuoso. “They have private swimming pools, and even private barbecues where the chefs come to you.” Samantha Brown, host of PBS’ Places to Love, says, “Now, when people travel with each other, it’s more about renting a house or a small hotel, and then doing a group puzzle.” In the Florida Keys, Little Palm Island and its 30 suites are available for a complete takeover, including elaborate meals and water-sports amenities. Another bubble of luxury is found aboard the 62-foot catamaran Luar, which transports up to six guests around the Virgin Islands. “More people are becoming aware of these trips, saying it’s a dream of a lifetime,” says Guillermo Suescum, co-founder of the company that operates the Luar.
Big trips appear on the horizon
“If you want to travel this summer, you’d better book it now because a lot of those places will fill up very quickly. Some people have even started booking 2022 because they figure they can avoid the logjam in ’21. They just want something to look forward to.”
—John Spence, president of the Scott Dunn travel firm
Travel experts agree that after months of being sequestered, people will be eager to get away. According to Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, people are booking major “anchor trips”—long-distance, multiweek journeys to Europe or Asia—for 2021, while taking last-minute holidays closer to home. John Spence, president of the Scott Dunn travel firm, cautions that travelers shouldn’t wait to make their plans: “If you want to travel this summer, you’d better book it now because a lot of those places will fill up very quickly. Some people have even started booking 2022 because they figure they can avoid the logjam in ’21. They just want something to look forward to.”
Japan offers an endless summer
With the Summer Games rescheduled to begin July 23, 2021, Tokyo’s Olympics are guaranteed to be a major draw this year, buffered by health-care apps that will allow visitors to travel with a sense of security. New hotels throughout the city include the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi, the Kimpton Shinjuku and the Tokyo Edition. But after the games, travelers won’t be rushing home just yet. Visitors can venture into rural environs on the island Hokkaido and take advantage of outdoor experiences at Shikisai-no-oka, where the hills are blanketed with a colorful spectrum of blossoms, and Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which contains the volcanic Lake Hangetsu, swimmable in the summer.
A South Pacific fantasy comes to the Caribbean
With thatched roofs and Polynesian vibes, overwater bungalows romanticize distance and getting away from it all. But U.S. travelers don’t need to travel to the South Pacific to experience one. Royalton Antigua Resort & Spa has debuted six bungalows with transparent living-room floors and plunge pools—all hovering a few feet above the shimmering bay. They’re the first ones on the island, and the meticulous construction by the Zyman & Zyman architectural firm integrates tides and sea-level rise to ensure they’re built to last. “The main thing to consider is to make sure these structures can sustain hurricanes,” says Caribbean travel consultant Ursula Petula Barzey. “There will be more high-end luxury places finding interesting ways to bring the water in.”
For hotel waste, less is more
Schoolchildren learn the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. But if Hans Pfister had his way, there would really be just two. “We avoid recycling at all costs,” he says. “We try to focus on reducing and especially refusing.” Pfister isn’t a radical environmentalist: He’s the co-owner of the Cayuga Collection, a cohort of seven luxury sustainable inns and lodges across Central America. Guests might notice the lack of plastic on the grounds (only bamboo straws here!), but behind the scenes, staff implement an ingenious—and mostly invisible—system of locally sourced produce, composting and on-site wastewater irrigation. Whether it’s the Panama lodge Isla Palenque or the Costa Rica resort Lapa Rios, Pfister is constantly implementing new practices to lower each property’s carbon footprint. (For example, condiments are now made on-site to avoid plastic wrapping and glass bottling.) As industry leaders prioritize sustainability and look to Pfister, it’s clear they have a small carbon footprint to fill.
Return of the travel agent
“Spontaneous travel is not as easy as it was. The way to take the stress out of it is to have an expert who can guide you.”
—Maureen O’Hare, senior travel producer at CNN
With the world in flux regarding restrictions, travelers are again relying on professional agents to arrange their trips—and of course deal with any contingencies that may occur. “The travel agent has had a resurrection because of the research you have to do,” says CNN senior travel producer Maureen O’Hare. “Spontaneous travel is not as easy as it was. The way to take the stress out of it is to have an expert who can guide you.” Virtuoso travel network CEO Matthew Upchurch says queries have doubled since June. He likens the role of a travel advisor to that of a wealth manager: “Getting it booked is the easy part. We collaborate with clients on a plan to optimize their most valuable nonrenewable asset—their free leisure time.”