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It's Time to Renew Your Passport: The View from AFAR

Plus: A mega-resort in Hawaii, a new brand from Hilton, and hiking near the Las Vegas Strip

Winter Storm Jonas wreaked havoc on the travel world in the early part of this week, causing airport closures and flight cancelations. Despite this drama, a handful of other travel stories also caught our attention, and we’ve compiled them for you here (as we do every week). If you have any questions about our coverage, please Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. And please share this column with friends!

State department bracing for record-breaking passport renewals

If you have a U.S. Passport that’s set to expire at any point in this calendar year, you should file the paperwork to renew it now. This was the gist of a recent article in The New York Times, which reported that the State Department anticipates a spike in passport demand throughout the year. What’s the reason for the spike? 10 years ago the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires Americans to carry passports when they visit Canada and Mexico, went into effect. And since most passports last 10 years, a lot of people will need replacements this year and next. State Department sources say they expect to issue more than 17 million new passports and renewals this year, about 1.5 million more than in 2015. This means that renewals will take six weeks instead of the usual four weeks. While new passports must be done in person (at local post offices), renewals can be done by mail. 

Atlantis plans world’s most expensive resort in Hawaii

Oahu’s quaint, sleepy Ko Olina resort area is about to get a lot busier. Atlantis Resorts Company has unveiled plans to build the world’s most expensive resort there—with a price tag that likely will exceed $2 billion. Officials are still working out the final details, and there is no stated timetable for the project, but the plan is to build the resort on a 15-acre parcel of land on the Diamond Head side of Disney's Aulani Resort. Eventually, sources say, the Ko Olina resort will have some of the same amenities as Atlantis’ resort in Dubai: an interactive aquarium, a dolphin encounter, and a shark habitat (to name a few). In other words, the place will be huge competition for the Aulani and just about every other resort on Oahu.

Bahamas Prime Minister vows that Baha Mar will open this year

Speaking of big and expensive resorts, the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Perry Christie, went on record this week vowing that Baha Mar, the empty $3.5-billion resort that was supposed to open 13 months ago (before it ran into funding problems) would open during this calendar year. How will that happen? Christie said that “five or six” potential investors are currently performing due diligence on the beach property to see if it was worth buying. But given all of the delays we've already seen, we’ll believe a Baha Mar opening when we see it.

U.S. News and World Report names best countries

Among those of us in the travel business, this is the ultimate popularity contest: The annual U.S. News and World Report ranking of the best countries in the world. This year Germany took home the title, followed closely by Canada and the United Kingdom. The United States (“We’re No. 4! We’re No. 4!”) and Sweden rounded out the Top 5, while Australia, Japan, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark filled slots 6-10, respectively. The rankings are based on global performance in a variety of categories like GDP per capita, citizenship, and cultural influence—click here to learn more about the report’s methodology. For travelers, the list provides a great roadmap for countries to visit this year. 

Bay Area braces for Super Bowl madness

Super Bowl 50 is upon us, which means a bustling week-long Super Bowl-related party in downtown San Francisco, a milestone (American) football game between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos next weekend—and snarled traffic throughout the Bay Area. The Big Game is also causing sky-high rates on room-sharing sites, and a story Travelpulse.com took a look at what AirBnB’s stats can tell us about just how crowded the city will be and who, exactly, will be there. On the flipside, a number of hotels are offering pretty serious specials and promotions in conjunction with the game. One promotion that caught our eye: a $1-million Super Bowl package at the Fairmont San Francisco that includes a four-night stay in the 6,000-square-foot Penthouse Suite, 22 tickets to the Super Bowl, and transportation to and from the event.

Hilton launches a brand for millennials; Kimpton expands to Europe

At a time when luxury properties are exploding, Hilton has announced bold plans to move in an entirely opposite direction: Budget-conscious hotels. Earlier this week the hotel chain unveiled Tru by Hilton, a new brand designed to appeal to younger travelers. According to Hilton officials, most Tru hotels will have spacious lobbies designed for mingling, a game room/theater combination space, and a re-imagined front desk. More importantly, standard nightly rates for Tru rooms should be between $90 and $100. So far, Hilton has signed more than 100 hotels to participate in the new brand, including properties in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Denver, Portland, and Nashville. The brand is expected to debut by the end of this year. In other hotel news, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, which was acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) last year, announced it would open its first hotel outside of the Americas, in Amsterdam, in 2017. According to a USA Today article, the hotel, which has yet to be named, will be a converted Crowne Plaza property (another IHG brand).

Chris Hemsworth: The new face of Australia

His brother might have dated Miley Cyrus (is that a good thing?) but Chris Hemsworth recently received an important distinction of his own: The Aussie hunk is the new face of Oz. Billing the elder Hemsworth as its “new Crocodile Dundee,” Tourism Australia announced that its new spokesperson would be the focus of a food-themed “Aquatic & Coastal” advertising campaign. The move was actually announced a few weeks ago, but was reported this week by Skift. While the man behind Thor is more of a hunk than the original Dundee (Paul Hogan, for you whippersnappers), Tourism Australia is banking on the modern star’s appeal with younger American travelers.

Sneak peek at New York’s new subway cars

New subway cars are likely coming to the New York City subway system by 2020, and this week New Yorkers (and the rest of us) got a glimpse of what the next-generation trains will look like. According to an article in The New York Times, the new design, called “open gangway,” is similar to an accordion-style bus, with the cars connected to each other instead of being sealed off with separate doors. The biggest benefit is increased capacity—in Toronto, which rolled out a similar style of subway cars, ridership has increased 10 percent since the upgrade. Paris, another city where the open gangway cars now are de rigeur, reported similar numbers. Officials from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said they could award a contract to build as many as 10 of the new cars next year.

Good reads

The Micronesian island of Peleliu was the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, but very few Westerners know about it. In a recent piece for Longreads, Anna Vodicka introduces readers to the island and its history, step by gruesome step. Vodicka’s feature stands out for its descriptions of details like the texture of its coral-paved roads and the colors of beach glass that wash up on the island’s beaches.

These days nothing satisfies quite like a multimedia piece that brings together stellar design and epic storytelling. Perhaps this is why the Runners World magazine project about Tom Denniss’ run around the world, is so great. The package, which originally was published toward the end of 2015, uses data and details tell the tale of the how Denniss set a world record by running 16,300 miles through 18 countries in 622 days.

Finally, in the self-promotion department, The Wall Street Journal’s “Off Duty” section published a story by yours truly about hiking in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area outside Las Vegas. The piece, titled, “Barely Leaving Las Vegas,” spotlights one particular wintertime adventure I recently had there with a friend, a hike that left me frozen, bruised, and thoroughly sold on the notion of traveling beyond Sin City’s casino resorts.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications includingTIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker,  Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.