By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Happy New Year! And welcome to 2016… it’s going to be a great year to travel the world.

USTOA conducts an annual travel trend and forecast survey of the association’s active tour operator members, monitoring business trends, top travel destinations, and more. The most recent results were revealed at the Annual Conference & Marketplace held December 3-5 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago in Chicago, IL.

The punch line for 2016? Our members affirm a positive outlook for the year.

Headline news: member operators are confident about business in 2016

Overall, the tour operator members of USTOA are showing strong growth for this year, with more than a third (39%) attributing growth to an improved economy and higher consumer confidence… a positive sign for the travel industry as a whole.

Nine in 10 tour operator members anticipate a growth in sales in 2016 with more than half of members (57%) “optimistic” and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from seven to 10% or higher.

In 2015, three quarters of members responding to the survey reported an increase in sales over 2014, forty percent of which cited an increase of 10% or higher. More than two thirds (70%) of members also saw an increase in passengers in 2015; 60% saw numbers grow between four and nine percent, while 36% of indicated growth of 10% or higher.

Destination forecast: where are travelers going?

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

When asked which “emerging” destinations will gain popularity in 2016, members (not surprisingly) cited Cuba. About thirty four percent of USTOA members currently offer programs to Cuba, and of that number, more than half plan to increase offerings within the next few years. Cuba was followed by Myanmar, Iceland, Colombia, and Ethiopia and Japan (tied for fifth).

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Italy, for the fourth consecutive year in a row, topped the list as most popular international destination for travelers in 2016, followed by the United Kingdom; China, France and South Africa (tied for third); Peru and India.  On the home front, USTOA members forecast New York and California (tied for first), Arizona and Hawaii (tied for second), Nevada, Florida and Washington DC (tied for fourth) and Alaska as the most popular U.S. destinations for clients in 2016.

Participating tour operator members also named art and culture, honeymoon and romance, and family as the most popular travel categories for passengers.

Who’s traveling?

When asked who’s traveling, members responded that a little more than half (55%) of their customer base are baby boomers at 51 years of age and older. The next largest age group was 35 to 50 years old, representing about a quarter (23%) of customers. Roughly half (53%) of members saw a growth in the number of solo passengers in 2015.

Potential threats: what could hinder US traveler confidence in 2016?

While USTOA members view 2016 with optimism, they cited terrorism as the biggest threat to US traveler confidence in 2016. The second potential threat named was global financial instability, followed by political instability.

Of note, the survey was completed prior to the tragic events in Paris, yet there is little surprise that it jumped to the top of list given world events. Aware that the impact of such horrific events can be global in scope, our members are hopeful that the U.S. traveler continues to be resilient and keep exploring new cultures…it’s the best antidote to the misunderstanding that plagues world events today.

Based on the results, all roads lead to more travel. So, what are you waiting for? Visit our Travel Together page with videos and information on thirteen different destinations, including Cuba, for more inspiration. And visit our Dream Vacation Itinerary Finder – with those destinations and more – and discover the trip of a lifetime.