IN DEPTH

The travel hot spots to watch in 2020

Ruins of the Temple of Zvartnots with the Mount Ararat in the background in Armenia. Picture: Shutterstock
Ruins of the Temple of Zvartnots with the Mount Ararat in the background in Armenia. Picture: Shutterstock

Overtourism and the value of our dollar are driving new destinations. Bernadette Chua picks some of next year's hotspots.

More intrepid, more environmentally conscious, more immersive, more transformative and more active - that's the picture of the Aussie traveller painted by travel experts from Flight Centre, Booking.com, National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveller.

They might have added, "more demanding". But these desires will ultimately dictate where we'll go next year.

Africa is high on the 2020 hotlist. As countries open after years of civil unrest and investment pours in, we are starting to see the emergence of Ethiopia and Senegal as tourist destinations. While most people associate Africa with animal safaris, the coastline is also something to consider. But if you are looking to see wildlife in action, Uganda and Rwanda are two places to see gorillas in their natural habitats.

The Caucasus region is fast becoming a popular destination for travellers looking for something different. Countries such as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, wedged between Turkey, Iran and Russia, with the Black and Caspian seas on either side, are all rich in history and culture.

These destinations are relatively unexplored by tourists, and there are few signs of Western brands or commercialism. In Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi, chains such as the Marriott, Sheraton and Radisson have only recently opened hotels. The city's architecture reflects Georgia's scarred history under Persian and then Russian rule. As visitors walk the cobblestoned streets, they see a mix of Eastern Orthodox churches, art nouveau buildings and Soviet Modernist structures.

If you are looking to see wildlife in action, Uganda and Rwanda are two places to see gorillas in their natural habitats. Picture: Shutterstock

If you are looking to see wildlife in action, Uganda and Rwanda are two places to see gorillas in their natural habitats. Picture: Shutterstock

Food is hardwired in the Georgian culture and service and hospitality are impeccable in Tbilisi. Stalls at the Deserters' Market are piled high with barberries, tomatoes and all kinds of pickles. And you'll find cuts of meat right next to fresh fruits and vegetables, as all the stallholders vie for space.

Armenia is popularly associated with Armenian-American reality-TV family the Kardashians and pop superstar Cher. But the mountainous country is defined by its religious sights, including the World Heritage-listed Temple of Zvartnots and the fourth-century Etchmiadzin Cathedral, one of the most ancient examples of Christian architecture anywhere in the world.

The capital of Armenia, Yerevan, is on the Hrazdan River and serves as the country's administrative, cultural and industrial centre. It is the world's oldest inhabited city - in fact, 29 years older than Rome. But through invasions, Communism and Soviet rule, many of the city's original sites have diminished.

These days, the cosmopolitan city is a mix of European-like buildings - you could think you're in Vienna when you stand in Yerevan's Republic Square. The city has over 50 museums, many of which have free admission. To learn about one of the darkest times in Armenian history, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute gives detailed accounts of the more than one million people that were killed by Ottoman Turks during World War One.

On the Caspian Sea, the low-lying city of Baku is the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan and is known for its medieval-walled old centre. The city's French-style architecture is juxtaposed with futuristic buildings that stand up like glass spikes on the cityscape.

The mishmash of its architecture and food reflects the identity issues of the locals. Filmmaker Teymur Hajiyev told National Geographic, "We speak Russian, our names are Islamic or Persian, we try to be Turkish. We have a Frankenstein culture. We haven't figured out what it means to be Azerbaijani."

Aside from the usual tourist attractions, Washington DC has an amazing food scene. Picture: Shutterstock

Aside from the usual tourist attractions, Washington DC has an amazing food scene. Picture: Shutterstock

In the United States, the Big Apple and the City of Angels have long been popular destinations for Australian holidaymakers. But in 2020, with the weak Australian dollar, travel experts advise to look at other, more affordable, cities than LA or New York.

Oklahoma City is fast becoming an arts and cultural destination. Next March, the new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center will open its galleries, performance spaces, studios and cafe. The recently opened Scissortail Park is a massive urban oasis for the city that stretches from downtown to the Oklahoma River.

Washington DC has fantastic museums and frequent new restaurant and hotel openings, as well as a revitalised waterfront. Aside from the usual tourist attractions - the White House, the Smithsonian museums and the Washington Monument - the city's food scene is a big draw.

Maydan, hailed by Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and GQ as one of the best new restaurants for 2018, serves North-African and modern Middle Eastern fare. Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli's Officina is one of the most-talked-about restaurants in the city. The open-kitchen Italian eatery has chef's-counter seating and serves handmade pasta.

On the other side of the world, Brexit has focused the minds of travellers on the United Kingdom, but there are some great places in Scotland to visit. Nature-lovers should visit some of the hundreds of islands in the Hebrides archipelago. It's home to rugged landscapes, fishing communities and remote Gaelic-speaking communities. It's all about the great outdoors. You'll say "good morning" to hikers, take a sea kayaking trip and dine on fresh fish and seafood, especially langoustines, paired with a single-malt whisky, of course.

Zipping around Tokyo, Mario style. Picture: Shutterstock

Zipping around Tokyo, Mario style. Picture: Shutterstock

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will drive Australians' interest in Japan, which is already high thanks to the country's food, fashion, maikos and mystery. It has become a hotspot for annual highlights such as cherry blossoms in spring, fall foliage in November and wonderful ski slopes during the colder months.

And finally, while places like Indonesia and Thailand have long dominated the holiday bookings for Australians, Bhutan is one to watch for 2020. Nestled between China and India, Bhutan is coated with thick woods and lanced by deep ravines. It's a serene destination where there are no traffic lights, smoking is illegal and archery is the national sport.

There are temples built into the side of the mountains, and you'll find monks playing board games and sharing stories, when they are not deep in prayer or meditation.

We hope this inspires you to try new experiences, and the Explore team is looking forward to seeing where you travel to in 2020.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie

Take a paddle along the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Beach, which recently made the top 10 beaches in Australia.

Take a paddle along the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Beach, which recently made the top 10 beaches in Australia.

Our sunburnt country has much to offer travellers in 2020. Lonely Planet has named Lord Howe Island one of the top destinations to visit next year. About 600 kilometres from the New South Wales coast or a two-hour QantasLink flight from Sydney, the island's tropical climate, idyllic lagoons, soaring mountains and abundant marine wildlife are still very much an untouched paradise.

You won't find shopping centres, nightclubs, discos, jet skis or bungee jumps here. The local government of the World Heritage-listed island has long shooed off developers and only residents are able to buy land on Lord Howe Island.

It's a place where visitors can be at one with nature - to swim, hike, paddleboard, kayak and take in the views. The pristine waters surrounding the island are home to more than 500 species of fish and 90 species of coral. Visitors can handfeed fish at Ned's Beach, a sanctuary zone where no recreational fishing is allowed.

The marine park also boasts some of the best diving in the world, with 60 dive spots for enthusiasts, including Ball's Pyramid, the imposing sea stack that rises 551 metres out of the water.

There is some remarkable diving to be found here, where you will see rainbow runners and amberjack, marlin, dolphin turtles and Wahoo swimming in this underwater cave paradise. It's also the only known place in the world where the Ballina angelfish can be sighted while scuba diving.

Tourism Australia beach ambassador Brad Farmer has compiled a list of our country's top beaches. The listing of Wagga Beach in ninth spot proved controversial - at about 270 kilometres away from the coast, it is the first inland beach to make the list.

"It's a beautiful grassy spot on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. There are barbecues; I saw dogs, people playing cricket, and everyone from kids to army recruits swimming," says Farmer.

Visitor numbers to Wagga Wagga were up seven per cent in 2018. Known as the "place of many crows" to the local Wiradjuri people, it is becoming a cool regional town to visit.

Its boutique hotels, fine dining and a burgeoning art scene are all worth checking out. The region is also known for its wineries and microbreweries. Its climate is humid subtropical with a semi-arid influence, which makes it a prime growing area for grapes.

Cottontails is about a 20-minute drive from the town centre and boasts a restaurant overlooking the vineyards and olive trees.

Thinking outside the box but perhaps in the container, the Belisi Farmstay, a luxury new boutique accommodation offering, has featured in Instagram's #stayinthebush campaign to help struggling regional and rural communities.

The two-bedroom cottage sleeps six and is perfect for families. Guests are encouraged to interact with the horses on the property, dine on locally sourced produce, and have a soak in the stone bath while admiring the country vista.

Where to instead...

Escape the crowds by visiting one of these hidden gems on your next holiday.

Rijeka instead of Dubrovnik

Since HBO's hit series, Game of Thrones, millions of tourists have flocked to see the ancient city of Dubrovnik. Avoid the mass influx of people by visiting Rijeka, Croatia's third-largest city, which boasts urban beaches, street festivals and charming monuments exuding their Italian influence and grandeur. The city has been named a European Capital of Culture for 2020 and works are currently underway on the city's first art quarter.

Verona instead of Venice

As Venice increases tourist taxes, and St Mark's Square fills up with more people, the appeal is now all Verona's. This medieval old town was made famous as the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and while it still attracts plenty of tourists, its atmosphere of Renaissance romance has not dimmed. In the city, aside from events such as the summer opera festival, restaurants predominately feature regional wine and hinterland produce. It's now shaped to be one of Italy's most attractive cities.

Guadalajara instead of Mexico City

While Mexico City is a fascinating and lively place to visit, don't overlook the country's second-largest city, Guadalajara. It's the birthplace of mariachi and tequila, and there's a lot to love about this youthful city. The city centre's buildings are a stunning mix of Gothic, Moorish, baroque and neoclassical architecture. The city is also home to film, literature and book festivals.

Sumba instead of Bali

Bali still reigns as one of Australia's favourite overseas destinations due to its proximity and affordability. But just an hour's flight from Bali's capital, Denpasar, is the island of Sumba. It is circled by white-sand beaches and while it once was one of Indonesia's poorest islands, a wave of investment has seen five-star resorts and surf shacks popping up. It's a great place for hiking, horse-rides and bike riding.

Warsaw instead of Budapest

The capital of Hungary, Budapest, is on the River Danube, making it an iconic destination for many river cruise lines, drawn by the city's Charles Bridge and Parliament House. But Budapest is just a one-hour flight away from Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The attractive city on the Vistula River is steeped in history. Much of Warsaw was destroyed during the German occupation in World War Two but, today, it boasts lovely gardens and many of the Gothic, baroque and Renaissance buildings have now been restored to their former glory.

Kyoto instead of Tokyo

A geisha in Kyoto with a special kimono for the day of her erikae. Picture: Shutterstock

A geisha in Kyoto with a special kimono for the day of her erikae. Picture: Shutterstock

Millions of tourists will be heading to Tokyo next year for the Olympics. Yes, Tokyo boasts robot cafes, brilliant hole-in-the-wall yakitori restaurants and an endless number of bars, but it's worth visiting Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. The city is home to stunning shrines, manicured gardens and it is the last place in the country where visitors still see maikos and geikos darting around the Gion district from teahouse to teahouse.

Giethoorn instead of Amsterdam

Like Venice, Amsterdam has increased its tourist tax for day visitors. While the canal city is still a favourite with visitors, Giethoorn is just 90 minutes away from the capital. The quaint car-free village is like something out of a storybook. Boat is the primary means of transport around town and as you sail the canals, you'll see thatched-roof houses built on small peat islands all connected by some 170 bridges.

Siargao instead of Boracay

Boracay has had a surge of visitors coming for its pristine beaches over the last decade. In 2018, the Filipino government closed the island for six months to clean and rejuvenate after it suffered from the excesses of overtourism. While it has reopened, there are many other places to visit. Siargao in the south of the Philippines is a surfers' paradise. The island's activities revolve around the water, and there are some amazing cave and rock pools to discover, as well as snorkelling and paddle boarding. It's all about island-hopping and relaxing.