As 2018 rolls around, the possibilities for travel are expanding with new flight routes, exciting events and imaginative concepts by tour companies. From a new long-haul budget Scoot flight to Honolulu to fresh forays into once no-go African conflict zones teeming with lava lakes and rare primates, the Singapore traveller has more than enough destinations for a lifetime. What is hot in Asia, what is new in far-flung South America, what is the appeal of deserts – The Sunday Times delves into places far and near for some answers.
While this list aims to inspire ideas for your travels in 2018, as lists go, it can be only a partial one. Other inspiring journeys will surely arise over the year as world politics or personal preferences change, new flight routes are announced or distressed places recover. The ideas here, gathered from travel specialists and travel lovers and fused with my experiences, are a starting point for seven journeys that encompass seven continents.
#1: South Korea
Buoyed by excitement over the Winter Olympics, South Korea is cooler than ever with travellers. The nation is also busily unveiling attractions, from a sky park in Seoul to an integrated resort with K-pop elements on Jeju island. One of the most popular destinations now is Gangneung, the venue for Olympic ice events, including speed skating, from Feb 9 to 25. The coastal city is enjoying a surge of 2,175 per cent in Airbnb bookings for next year, compared with 2017.
This has lifted the city – often portrayed as a summer playground with beautiful beaches and good coffee – to the top of trending destinations worldwide in Airbnb rankings. Gangneung is 60km from its twin Winter Olympics city, mountainous Pyeongchang, often called the Alps of Asia and the venue for ski events. Next year is a generally good time to visit South Korea as the Winter Olympics has prompted the country to upgrade a lot of travel infrastructure. For example, the high-tech Incheon International Airport Terminal 2, which opens officially next month, has roving LG Electronics robots to escort travellers to gates and clean up after them. There are sleep pods and, for the sleepless, gaming zones.
The capital, Seoul, remains as alluring as ever and new developments will further enliven the fashionable and tech-savvy city. There is a new green walkway studded with cafes, bars, stages, libraries and 24,000 plants. Called the Seoullo 7017 sky garden, it is strung along an old elevated highway and has unblocked city views. Old precincts have been revitalised too. The maze-like Ikseon-dong, one of the oldest neighbourhoods, with hidden alleys in the centre of Seoul, is now a hip enclave. Young artists and entrepreneurs have set up cafes, pubs and craft shops in century-old buildings.
Another attractive South Korean destination to visit next year is Jeju, the volcanic island known for its coastal scenery and deep-diving women who forage for sea urchin, abalone and oysters. It is perennially popular with hikers and honeymooners and some 200,000 Singaporeans visit it annually. There is a new reason to fly there in 2018. Jeju Shinhwa World, an integrated resort that has launched in phases since the beginning of the year, is having its grand opening next year. At 2.5 million sq m, it is one of South Korea’s largest integrated resorts. There is a foreigner-only casino, a family theme park, shops, a spa, a convention centre and 2,000 hotel rooms. It is also K-pop-influenced. A cafe contains design ideas from South Korean rapper G-Dragon.
Another popular way to organise a trip to the country is to centre it around health and wellness. The Korea Tourism Organization says it has been looking into wellness tourism since 2016. It groups wellness holidays into four categories: beauty and spa, traditional Korean medicine, nature and forest, and healing and meditation. Twenty-five wellness attractions are highlighted, including a “healing” cypress forest in southerly Jangheung. The area has hiking trails, “salt rooms” (spa treatments where you inhale salty air to brace the respiratory system), and pensions in hanoks, which are traditional Korean houses.
Other Asian Hotspots:
SilkAir, which tends to fly slightly off the beaten path, started a non-stop flight to Hiroshima in October. The city is known for its Peace Memorial Park that stands near Ground Zero, where the atomic bomb struck it during World War II. It is also famous for the “floating” vermilion torii gate, typically found at shrine entrances, on nearby Miyajima island. Also, sup on soul food okonomiyaki, a local pancake filled with vegetables, or cheer along with Japanese baseball fans when their home team, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, plays in the summer.
The country suffered an earthquake in April 2015 and is recovering in stages, with new hotels such as Fairfield by Marriott Kathmandu opening in the capital this year. Bannikin Asia – a new Hong Kong satellite of Toronto-based Bannikin Travel & Tourism, which focuses on adventure travellers – points out that Nepal is seeing a “revival”. Newer and lesser-known treks for the adventurous are becoming popular, such as the hidden valleys of Dolpa in western Nepal. Photography enthusiasts will like the icy, turquoise Phoksundo Lake in the region.
Berlin will be a hot ticket next year, with Scoot starting long-haul budget flights to the German capital in the second half of 2018. The Berlin Wall divided the country during the Cold War until 1989 and its graffiti-covered vestiges are now a symbol of German reunification and the swift fall of communism across Eastern Europe. While history is everywhere in the city, Berlin is also ultra-modern with its party scene, street art and contemporary architecture – notably the freeform gold-hued Berliner Philharmonie concert hall.
With or without special events, this is a city with appeal to millennials and museum-lovers alike, with its techno festivals and 170-plus museums. One event to catch is the much raved-about One Grand Show at the Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre. The Broadway-style production, about a young man’s dreamlike journey through time, is Berlin’s most-booked show. French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier designed more than 500 extravagant costumes for it.
Another German destination to consider is Munich. In March, Lufthansa will start non-stop flights to the city from Singapore, five times a week, on the Airbus A350-900. The metropolis with an intimate small-town feel should appeal to families with teens or smaller children. A good excursion from Munich is Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany at 2,962m. Its hiking trails are within easy reach of Munich Airport – a Lufthansa shuttle or express bus will get visitors there in two hours.
Other Rising European Cities:
Macedonia and Kosovo
Both less-known Balkan states are the next frontier for tourism in that region. The neighbours are both landlocked countries with serene mountain towns and splendid lakes, with Kosovo imbued with special meaning as Europe’s newest country after declaring independence from Serbia in 2008. Qatar Airways, which regularly inaugurates routes to exotic cities, has started flying to Skopje in Macedonia.
Russia will host the 2018 Fifa World Cup, with the games to be played in 11 cities. These include the classic destinations of Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as remote Kazan and Yekaterinburg on the trans-Siberian train route. Qatar Airways, the official airline of Fifa, has various travel packages for the games that include return flights, hotel rooms and match tickets.
#3: Oman And Jordan
With a variety of deserts covering a fifth of the planet, these arid places are an underexplored realm for the rain-drenched Singaporean traveller. From Oman to the United States and even icy Antarctica, there are deserts aplenty that receive less than 25cm of rain a year. These are not all dustbowls, however. Deserts are more varied than many imagine. While they immediately conjure up images of sand dunes, only 10 per cent are actually sandy. Desert terrain may also be mountainous, coastal or glacial.
Deserts also host fantastical plants and wildlife. In Mongolia, I have spied furry jerboas hopping like tiny kangaroos in the Gobi Desert. In Peru recently, I waited for condors to swoop over the windswept Colca Canyon. Luxury travel company Scott Dunn recommends Oman and Jordan in the Middle East, a central location for travellers flying from Asia. More luxury hotels are springing up in both countries. Oman, which the World Economic Forum named the fourth safest country globally this year – outranking Singapore in sixth place – has heritage and natural beauty.
For the desert experience, you could camp in a tent under the stars in the Wahiba Sands desert. Outside of that, you could visit canyons, fjords, villages of Damask rose distillers, Muscat souks or beaches. Now is a good time to visit Salalah in the south of the country. Ms Amy Ropner, a travel consultant from Scott Dunn, advises travellers to go now, before the new airport, which opened in June 2015, gets too busy. Salalah, which was once on the frankincense route, has a palm-fringed coast, waterfalls and preIslamic ruins.
Jordan is yet another exciting choice for 2018. Travel publisher Frommers has highlighted the over-650km Jordan Trail that opened this year and runs the length of the country. The long-distance hiking trail – trekkers can choose portions to walk – includes the Red Sea and the ancient desert city of Petra, a Unesco World Heritage Site of dazzling pink-rock and sandstone ruins. It is worth lingering in Petra, which is still being excavated from the sand. It was the capital of the vanished Nabataean empire between 400BC and AD106 .
Other Desert Spots:
Ayers Rock, Australia
Ayers Rock in the Australian outback can be explored by coach, camel, helicopter and on foot through aboriginal land. The scarlet sandstone monolith in the arid centre of the country is 348m high and is sacred ground for the indigenous people.
Judean and Negev deserts, Israel
The enterprising nation put fancy wineries, emigres, agro-businesses, military zones and a nuclear reactor in the Judean and Negev deserts, bringing life to the land and creating one more fresh frontier for travellers. Among the many desert parks is the Ben-Gurion’s Tomb National Park, with a desert garden on a cliff overlooking the golden Tsin canyon and the final resting place of Israel’s first prime minister (after which the park is named), who spurred the greening of these once desolate places.
Beyond safaris, Africa offers myriad novel experiences for the traveller, whether it is flying over the Victoria Falls or standing in the hottest spot on earth with geysers. Some war-torn areas, which were previously no-go zones, are now peaceful enough to visit. These include the fiery lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo, in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. You can climb to the top of the 3,470m active volcano in 51/2 hours and, from the mountain’s rim, look into the bubbling lake.
This itinerary is offered by travel company A2A Safaris, which started sending Asian travellers to Africa in 2002. Its co-founder Jose Cortes, who is based in Cape Town, says he has been crafting “ethnocentric” journeys and will roll out more next year.
“We supplement wildlife and nature-based safaris with exposure to tribes and, more recently, war-torn or ravaged areas which are once again peaceful and amazing places to visit,” he adds.
Another former place of conflict that has achieved stability is north-east Ethiopia, which is near the border with Eritrea. The area was a no-go zone during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, which ended in 2000. Now, people go there to see the Danakhil Depression, which is billed as the hottest place on earth. The average year-round temperature is about 34.4 deg C and can go up to 50 deg C. The landscape, which lies about 125m below sea level, looks like an alien plain from another planet, dotted as it is with lava lakes, little geysers and salt pans.
Next year is a good time to visit because Singapore Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines expanded their codeshare agreement in April this year and there are now daily flights to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. From there, you can take a domestic flight to Mekele airport and drive to the Depression. Tour operator Lightfoot Travel, which recommends Ethiopia as one of the places to go in 2018, will tailor itineraries featuring attractions in Ethiopia, such as visits with the bull-jumping Hamer villagers, the underground churches in the town of Lalibela and opportunities to encounter rare Ethiopian wolves in Bale Mountain National Park. But if you must go on an African safari, there are more niche itineraries than ever. New tours are springing up that move beyond the touristy Big Five. For example, you could go to places such as Rwanda and Uganda to see up to 15 primate species – golden, blue and colobus monkeys included – in one safari.
Conservation-minded safaris are also gaining greater attention. For example, A2A Safaris runs “secret” tours to undisclosed areas in South Africa where rhinos are being studied and tagged. Clients will know where they are going only when they arrive in the country, to prevent illegal poachers from abusing the knowledge.
More African Adventures:
The country is easy to love, with its wildlife, wines and inspiring reputation as a “rainbow nation” of many cultures seeking to be one people. Next year is the centenary of the anti-apartheid visionary Nelson Mandela, so there will be a celebratory air with two years of events from sports to the arts to honour his legacy. From March 26, Singapore Airlines will launch daily services to Cape Town, up from four weekly flights now.
The island is set in scintillating blue waters and combines historical interest with great natural beauty. It was on the spice and slave routes for traders from the African Great Lakes, Arabian Peninsula and India, which explains its fusion cuisine and mix of religions. Stone Town is a rueful reminder of slavery, with a church built on a former slave market. As for exploring nature, you will be spoilt for choice. Travellers can sail on a traditional dhow to capture the sunset and spy rare Zanzibar red colobus monkeys.
#5: Exotic Experiences
Fancy visiting the Titanic shipwreck in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean? Well, do you have more than $100,000 to spare? Because you could technically dive there in a submersible, an underwater boat. You make the journey from the nearest town, which is St John’s on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, more than 600km from the wreck.
The trip from Singapore – which includes a submersible dive to the Titanic and a cabin on the dive support ship – will set you back $141,650, which is, apparently, the inflation-adjusted price of a first-class ticket on the doomed vessel which sank in 1912. When money is no object, travellers with deep pockets are chasing ever more adventurous itineraries. In fact, there is “nowhere too exotic or remote” for Singapore’s richest and most avid travellers, says Mr Chang Theng Hwee, founder of luxury travel company Country Holidays, which is behind the Titanic trip.
“They are looking for the ultimate or ‘wow’ experience in the most remote corners on Earth.”
His company started in 1994 by organising trips for students, mostly to Nepal. By 1996, he was sending clients on dreamy Antarctica cruises and soon started crafting bespoke itineraries for wealthy travellers that have included seven-continent odysseys and private jets. He is running another tour to southern Kazakhstan, to watch a rocket launch at an old Soviet cosmodrome. The six-day trip costs $4,880 and includes watching the spaceship launch from an observation platform, and sightseeing in Almaty, the largest Kazakh city. Exotic winter adventures include venturing deep into the Arctic Circle in search of the polar bear, or, on the higher end, cruising in a private superyacht with only family or friends, breaking through ice sheets and dining in the company of whales in Antarctica.
Eyos Expeditions, which creates bespoke cruises, led a party of 12 on a seven-day cruise on a chartered superyacht to Antarctica in January. Among the group of travellers was Ms Bernadette Rankine, the Singapore director for Bonhams, the fine art auctioneers and valuers.
She says: “A small group of friends and family onshore means that the feeling of wilderness is greater than when you share a beach and penguin colony with 100 people. We were the only people there.”
London-based luxury travel agent Scott Dunn, which has a Singapore office, also purveys bespoke experiences. The company’s recommendations include flying over New Zealand’s West Coast in a helicopter and gliding down to forage for lobsters, to be cooked on the spot.
Travel company Trafalgar has Italian itineraries that include a private dinner in a garden in the Vatican City after hours. It embeds insider food experiences with its guided holidays.
Or look for local experiences online. From the Airbnb Experiences site, you can book a swordplay lesson from a descendant of samurais for $88 in Japan, discover the world of Thai sacred tattoos (sakyant) for $81 and look for other experiences designed and led by local hosts.
If your budget is limited and you want intimate travel experiences, one way is to be friendly and tap local connections once there.
On a road trip to Sichuan, I asked a Tibetan villager if I could have tea at her traditional home. I was speaking to her as I was asking for directions. In the end, our party of three spent a lovely half-hour there as she fired up a wood-burning stove and filled our bowls with tea mixed with rich yak butter. She added doughy, yogurt-like grains, singing snatches of a Tibetan tune while we seemed to drift into a different country.
#6: Hawaii And Mauritius
There was a time when Singaporeans honeymooned in Hawaii, an ideal of island life in the middle of the Pacific. Singapore Airlines ended the route in 1992 but, a quarter-century later, its budget sibling Scoot is reviving the traveller’s romance with the volcanic archipelago, having commenced flights to Honolulu via Osaka earlier this month. Next year, why not say “aloha” to Hawaii? Round-trip fares start at $700 and flight time is just under 13 hours. There are four weekly flights on the wide-body, twin-aisle Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
With Scoot’s latest foray in mind, a number of travel specialists are putting Hawaii on next year’s go list. For foodies, Lightfoot Travel, which tailormakes itineraries, suggests sampling the island’s seafood, such as the snacks served on the patio of beachfront restaurant Leilani’s (www.leila nis.com). Dishes include coconut shrimp, fresh fish tacos and the hipster favourite, the Ahi Poke Bowl. Mr Nicholas Lim, president of Trafalgar (Asia), expects travellers to want to do more than just lie on the beach. He pictures them wishing to “connect with nature” – visiting the world’s largest volcano, walking through a lava tube, popping into a coffee plantation, island-hopping and learning about Pacific corals from local experts.
Another island destination to consider is Mauritius. Singapore had its SG50 and Mauritius will have its own Golden Jubilee. Next year, the tropical island in the Indian Ocean celebrates 50 years of independence on March 12. The culturally diverse country is hosting a light and sound show and will send an Olympic-style flame around the island to signify national unity as part of year-long celebrations. You can live in style. Among the resorts is The Residence Mauritius, a luxe colonial-style property owned by Singapore-listed Bonvests Holdings. The hotel can arrange a day excursion to Grand Bassin lake, which is sacred to Hindus, a local rum tasting with canapes and the cooking of Mauritian chicken curry.
Other than flying, you can also sail to islands. Cruises are a relaxed way to explore larger islands, such as the rugged coasts of Scotland, Greece or the wildlife-rich Galapagos. Travel company Bannikin Asia, which focuses on the Asian adventurer, suggests circumnavigating Cuba on a ship. Cruise companies offer diverse experiences there. For instance, you can stop at a bar where the daiquiri was created, stand atop a Spanish fortress and swim in an underground lake.
Other Island Locations:
Luxury travel company Country Holidays notes that Madagascar, off the coast of eastern Africa, is among its fastest-growing destinations. Because Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island, the company can arrange private charter flights for guests to see more in less time – playful lemurs, baobab trees, canyons and more.
Siargao, the Philippines The Philippines is awash with tropical islands and Siargao, 800km south-east of Manila, is still quite undiscovered. Known as the surfing capital of the Philippines, it is filled with Instagram-worthy lagoons. Cebu Pacific Air flies here from Cebu and Manila. Two hours by boat is Sohoton Cove, where you can swim amid sting-less jellyfish.
#7: Chile And Argentina
If Singaporeans can psyche themselves for day-long flights to South America, they will step into a charismatic continent with a spectrum of experiences from world-class chefs in Lima and coffee culture across Colombia to Galapagos wildlife and sultry Brazilian beaches. Of the 12 countries on the continent, Chile and Argentina will be fine destinations for Singaporeans to visit next year as more airlines are offering flights there, says Mr Nicholas Lim, president of travel agency Trafalgar (Asia).
In February, low-cost airline Norwegian will start flying to Argentinian capital Buenos Aires, which is on travel publisher Fodor’s 2018 Go List of hot destinations.
“With its flair for the creative, Buenos Aires has long attracted lovers of art and design,” said Fodor’s. Recently named the world’s first Art Basel City, it has a multi-year partnership with the international art fair that includes a week of public art next September.
The Brazilian coast is also a sizzler. Airbnb, based on booking data for the first half of 2018, forecasts that more travellers will flock to Brazil’s string of oceanside towns, with at least a dozen of these doubling in bookings.
“Beyond the big cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, destinations like Matinhos, Guarapari and Ubatuba are drawing travellers to endless miles of beaches and less of the urban bustle,” the online accommodation service noted in its forecast of 2018 travel trends this month.
For a remote adventure, you could explore silent, otherworldly Bolivia in western-central South America. The place is especially popular with photography buffs, so if you’re an enthusiast, strap on your camera gear and head there. Bespoke tour operator A2A Journeys is organising “art-photographic” trips to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat next year. The salt pans fill with water during the December-to-March rains and become a giant mirror. The tour will include star or night photography. “I expect this to be a huge hit in Singapore, given the increasing interest in photography and the desire for wide open spaces, zero light and noise pollution and just being in front of natural beauty,” says Mr Jose Cortes, co-founder of A2A Journeys.
South America need not be outrageously expensive for the traveller. Ms Xinen Chua, 28, spent eight months travelling through eight countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. She quit her job as an associate in a hedge fund to travel between May 2016 and January this year, spending a total of $18,000 or about $50 a day. All possible because she couch-surfed and took buses often. Yet, she did not miss out on the best adventures – hitchhiking solo in Patagonia at the tip of the continent for five weeks, stargazing and cycling in the Atacama Desert of Chile, relishing Peruvian ceviche twice a week – and travelling with locals everywhere. Ms Chua, who now has a portfolio of travel projects that includes freelance writing, says: “I encourage people to spend more time in the continent to make the long flight worth it.”
Elsewhere in S. America:
At the lost city of Machu Picchu, marvel at the engineering genius of the Incans who built lasting edifices. Nearby, visit weavers in a mountain village and eat their flavourful potatoes destined for gourmet restaurants, or trek in the Sacred Valley, where new routes are being mapped.
Savour the bean-to-cup experience by visiting coffee plantations and lingering in a hip cafe in the capital, Bogota. Medellin, conferred the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2016, is set among peaks. Once an unsafe city, savvy urban policy has transformed it into a trendy, artsy place. Capurgana in Colombia has an edgy charm with its brightly painted bars.
This story first appeared in www.straitstimes.com