In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic dominated the global conversation – and rightfully so. But even as the world struggled to cope with COVID-19, that urge to explore didn’t just disappear, and now, as vaccines begin to roll out in the US and abroad, travelers are optimistic about returning to a peripatetic lifestyle in the new year. 

In research conducted across the board, frequent fliers reported fantasizing about future travel while they were confined to quarters, and it was that sense of escapism that helped them get by. In response to a Booking.com survey comprising nearly 21,000 people across 28 countries, a massive 94% of US travelers said they spent time in lockdown looking for vacation inspiration, while an Airbnb survey of 1000-plus US adults revealed that more than a third daydreamed daily – or even more frequently – about the places they’d go when restrictions eased. 

“Our research also shows that despite the uncertainty that continues to pervade people’s lives, the more they stay at home, the more the thought of getting out gives them confidence in the future,” Airbnb said in a press release. “When asked how planning for a future trip makes them feel, the most selected answer by respondents was simply: hopeful.” Here are six destinations trending for 2021. 

A beautiful beach with over-water bungalows in Maldives
Between its gorgeous beaches and luxe accommodations, Maldives makes for an alluring escape © haveseen/Shutterstock

Maldives

Big-ticket trips were put on hold in 2020, but plenty of globetrotters are looking to compensate in the new year. In response to the Booking.com survey, more than half of US participants reported that lockdown inspired “a heightened desire to see even more of the world,” with 46% adding that they’d be traveling more in the future to make up for lost time. Vrbo’s 2021 trend report also revealed travelers’ plans to hit the road more than they did pre-COVID, with 33% of respondents saying they were now willing to spend more than they would’ve been before the pandemic. 

Enter: the luxurious resorts of Maldives. In surveys and search results alike, the remote archipelago famed for its pristine beaches and lively underwater ecosystem is trending high. Named the top destination for 2021 by Club Med per Google search data, it also made Expedia’s list of the most-searched destinations for 2021, coming in at number 11, with the island of Maafushi, part of the Kaafu Atoll, featuring on Airbnb’s list of top trending destinations based on search results for travel in 2021. 

Italy's Ischia Porto as seen from the ferry boat leaving the island on a sunny day
Known for its thermal spas, among other things, the volcanic island of Ischia is one of Airbnb's top trending destinations © LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Italy

As far as classic locales go, Italy’s powerful pull shows no signs of lessening. Airbnb’s survey revealed a keen interest in the volcanic island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, and according to recent data from Club Med, Sicily has become even more popular than it was this time last year, with bookings at the company’s all-inclusive resorts in Kamarina and Cefalù increasing at 214% and 350%, respectively.

"We're seeing a trend in 'bucket list bookings' for destinations like Egypt, Greece, and Italy,” Christian Wolters, chief marketing officer for TourRadar, tells Lonely Planet. The online marketplace for multi-day tours saw a huge spike in reservations on Black Friday – a 600% increase over 2020’s bookings up to that point – primarily driven by US customers eager to get back overseas. “If 2020 taught us anything as travelers, it's to not take travel for granted,” Wolters says. “I think the pandemic has jolted a lot of frequent travelers and it has motivated them to cross off those bucket list locations while they still can.” 

Arch of Cabo San Lucas in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Four of Expedia's top 20 destinations for 2021 can be found in Mexico, including Cabo San Lucas © Joe Petraglia/500px

Mexico

After months of indoor living, it should come as no surprise that some of the most in-demand destinations involve warm weather and white-sand beaches – and America’s neighbor south of the border has plenty of both in ample supply. Priceline’s booking data reveals a significant increase travel to Mexico, with hotel bookings up 113% in the first quarter of 2021 as compared to last year, and one-fifth of Expedia’s top-20 most-searched destinations for 2021 travel can be found there as well: Cancún, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, and collectively, Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Tulum is also a crowd-pleaser for Airbnb users looking for a getaway close to home, and the quiet seaside town of La Misión, in Baja California, is one of the platform’s top trending destinations.

Seoul cityscape and cable car
Thanks in no small part to its pop-culture dominance, South Korea is piquing the public interest © LeoPatrizi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

South Korea

Between last year’s Academy Awards darling and a rapidly growing international fascination with K-pop and dramas, it’s no wonder South Korea is trending for 2021. In its first-ever year-in-language report, the app Duolingo calls the phenomenon the Korean Wave, noting that the language is the second fastest growing in the world and the seventh most popular to study worldwide. As the country’s capital and its biggest metropolis, Seoul is a cultural hub that balances fast-paced modern life with a reverence for tradition, whether that means sampling the soju or paying your respects at one of the city’s historic shrines – and it’s also one of Airbnb’s top-searched destinations for 2021. 

Aerial of Newfound Gap Road (US Route 441) cutting through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on an autumn morning.
Road trips and outdoorsy destinations like the Great Smoky Mountains are both trending for 2021 © rickberk/Getty Images

Great Smoky Mountains

As countries closed their borders and the State Department recommended Americans refrain from journeys abroad, domestic destinations enjoyed newfound favor – and with concerns surrounding the risks involved with air travel, road trips became more common than ever. Though research indicates that US travelers are more willing to consider an international flight now than they have been since the pandemic began, the road-trip trend looks set to continue in ‘21, with 59% of families surveyed by Vrbo saying they’re more likely to drive than fly on their next trip and 62% of Airbnb’s respondents saying they’re interested in destinations within driving distance of home.   

And if said destinations are outdoorsy ones, so much the better. With the need for social distancing still going strong, places where travelers can get back to nature and enjoy activities like hiking, camping, and fishing have a particular allure, and to that end, protected lands like the Great Smoky Mountains – a perennial favorite, and one of Airbnb’s top destinations for 2021– are set to trend in the new year. 

Aerial view of Las Vegas strip in Nevada as seen at night
Las Vegas tops the list of urban escapes for the second year running © f11photo/Shutterstock

Las Vegas

While it’s true that small towns and rural attractions became ever more appealing for safe and responsible excursions in 2020, urban escapes also have their fans. According to a Priceline analysis of hotel bookings from September 1 to November 30, 2020, as well as hotel searches on the platform during that same period, Las Vegas is the most popular destination for the first quarter of 2021 – for the second year in a row. Expedia’s search data also has Vegas as the country’s biggest urban draw, and even though 54% of the people surveyed for Vrbo said they’d be more likely to visit a national park than an amusement park, both Expedia and Priceline name Orlando – home to Disney World and Universal Studios – as the runner-up.

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