- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

NEW YORK — Sure, air travel is a hassle and the U.S. dollar doesn’t go very far in Paris and especially in London. This is not keeping Americans away from Europe.

Nearly 13 million Americans visited Europe last year, a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. The European Travel Commission expects those numbers to increase another 2 percent or 3 percent this year.

Here are some of the trends, events and destinations shaping those trips.

Short trips and byways. Now that you need a passport just to visit the Caribbean, some Americans — especially those already on the East Coast — are opting to spend a few more hours in the air to take a long weekend in Western Europe, according to Conrad Van Tiggelen, chairman of the European Travel Commission (visit www.visiteurope.com). “Traditional destinations like Paris and London are really going through the roof for short breaks,” he says.

Another trend is “combining the known and the unknown” by visiting landmarks in a major city, then heading off to the countryside, Mr. Van Tiggelen says.

“Seeing the Eiffel Tower is still a great thrill, as is going to the Vatican. But there is a subset of more sophisticated travelers yearning to see a more authentic side of Europe,” says travel writer and editor Pauline Frommer.

In Italy, an agritourism program enables travelers to “stay in a farmhouse set up for tourism and take part in the daily life and the making of particular products like cheese and wine,” says Cosmo Frasca, spokesman for the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York. In Amsterdam, take a ferry across the Amstel River, rent a bike, and “after 10 minutes, you’re in 17th- and 18th-century villages,” says Mr. Van Tiggelen, who is also the Netherlands tourism director.

Americans also increasingly are taking “experiential vacations,” says Peter Frank, editor of Concierge.com. “They want to engage in an activity — windsurfing in Croatia, hiking the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago de Compostela [in Spain] or taking a cookery class in Italy.”

For city visits, here’s a money-saving tip: Stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. The new “Pauline Frommer’s London” guidebook lists agencies that can set you up “in a room in someone’s apartment for 20 pounds a night” with a private bathroom, Miss Frommer says. “It makes Europe affordable again.”

Italy. The United Kingdom and France each gets more tourists from the United States than Italy does, according to Commerce Department statistics. Nonetheless, many travel experts say Italy is the country that most interests American travelers.

“Italy with a capital I, that’s where the action is,” says Mike Weingart, a Carlson Wagonlit travel agent in Houston.

AAA Travel booked more trips to Italy this year than any other destination in Western Europe, with a 9 percent growth over last year and a whopping 34 percent of all AAA bookings to the region.

“One of the top questions we have been getting is, ‘Where in Italy do I go?’ ” says Miss Frommer, who hosts a radio show with her father, Arthur. “It seems to be very popular among first-time visitors.”

Fodor’s has just come out with a new guide called “Essential Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice & the Top Spots in Between.” “The inspiration for the book came from just looking at our Web site and the reader comment boards,” says “Essential Italy” editor Matthew Lombardi. “There were all these little headers saying, ‘Rome, Florence, Venice, help me plan my itinerary.’ ”

Americans are “more savvy now about the pleasures of contemporary Italian culture,” Mr. Lombardi says. “They can go and see the Pantheon, but they also realize that great Italian food is not spaghetti and meatballs.” They want to sample regional identities, cuisine and villages in places like Tuscany and Umbria.

Eastern Europe. “People keep heading east,” says Mr. Frank of Concierge.com. “People who’ve done Paris and Rome and Florence and Madrid, they want to see what else is out there.”

Publishers are responding with a slew of new books, such as Miss Frommer’s “Eastern Europe,” due out Monday, and new DK Eyewitness Travel guides on “Czech & Slovak Republics,” “Cracow” and “Top 10 Dubrovnik & Dalmatian Coast.”

“There’s still a curiosity about the former communist countries and what they are really like,” says Douglas Amrine, DK Eyewitness Travel publisher. Yet with so many of these countries having joined the European Union, travelers rightly perceive that “the infrastructure will be there” in terms of hotels, restaurants and customer service to accommodate them, Mr. Amrine says.

For bargain hunters, the U.S. dollar goes further in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, but high-end travelers also will feel at home in a spate of new luxury hotels, from the Mandarin Oriental Prague to a Four Seasons in Budapest to the high-tech Domina Grand in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Mr. Frank says.

While the number of Americans visiting such places as Croatia is still relatively small — 154,000 in 2006 compared to more than 2 million to Italy — growth is strong, up from 115,289 Americans who visited in 2005, and more than 200,000 are expected in 2007, according to the Croatian National Tourist Office. AAA’s bookings to Croatia increased 440 percent this year over last.

“It’s the alternative Riviera,” Mr. Frank says. “Unspoiled. Beautiful. Great beaches, great food.”

What will be the next Croatia? Mr. Van Tiggelen picks Montenegro, also known for beaches and good food. Miss Frommer says the recent James Bond movie “Casino Royale,” which was set in Montenegro, helped pique American curiosity about the place.

Her prediction for “the next Croatia” is Bulgaria. “It’s right on the cusp of being discovered,” she says.

Elsewhere, Talin, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, offer “beautiful medieval cores that are still preserved,” according to Mr. Frank, while Miss Frommer calls Ljubljana “a fairy-tale city.”

Trains. A new high-speed train line that runs northeast from Paris begins commercial service June 10 to Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace; Luxembourg; Munich and Frankfort, Germany; and the Swiss cities of Basel and Zurich. The train will make it much faster and easier to plan day trips from Paris to places such as the cathedral in Reims and the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay — and champagne houses such as Moet & Chandon and Perrier Jouet. Tickets, reservations and timetables for TGV East service are available April 10 on www.raileurope.com/.

Rail passes that allow unlimited travel in Europe for Americans have long been popular, but new technology has made it easier to book point-to-point trips well in advance, according to Chris Lazarus, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for Rail Europe. Since 2003, sales of European train tickets to North Americans booking their trips from here have increased 18 percent, and year-to-date 2007 sales already are up 22 percent over the same period last year. Discounts for advance booking and fear that certain itineraries will get sold out also may be contributing to the increased sales, she says.

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