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The 10 Biggest Travel Stories of 2015: The View from AFAR

Travel to Cuba, selfies with quokkas, increases in cruises and road trips, that baby whale video, and more.

Between multibillion-dollar corporate acquisitions, terror attacks, and selfies with furry friends, the international travel industry has had quite a year. As we wind down 2015 with our last column of the year, we look back on the Top 10 travel stories. We look forward to 2016 with high hopes and plenty of empty pages in our passports. See you again in January. Happy Holidays.

10. Quokka selfies go viral

Forget mugging with Caitlyn Jenner; the hottest selfies on the Internet this year actually were taken on an island in western Australia with furry marsupials  named quokkas (rhymes with “mochas”). These Muppet-like rodents are one of the main attractions on Rottnest Island, and after images of travelers posing with the creatures surfaced in February and March, social media went berserk. National Geographic Traveler covered the fad when it happened; later in the year, travel blogger (and my good buddy) Spencer Spellman went back to the island to see what the fuss was all about. The animals are endangered—researchers estimate there are fewer than 1,200 on Rottnest, and about 1,400 total. Let’s hope the spate of selfies helps raise awareness about the quokkas’ fate.

9. Loyalty points devalued

Travel industry loyalty points certainly aren’t what they used to be—a depressing development that played out during this past year. First, as reported most recently by Chris McGinnis, most of the largest airline carriers—including American, Delta, and United—moved from a system of points for miles flown to a system of points for dollars spent. While this benefits business travelers, it also makes it significantly more difficult for leisure travelers to cash in points for free flights or upgrades. At the same time, many hotel chains, including Marriott and others, increased the numbers of points necessary for a free night’s stay (for more on that, read this piece by The Points Guy). Sadly, devaluation may be inevitable in today’s marketplace. Here's hoping some of these brands will roll out new programs (or new program features) to benefit leisure travelers in 2016.

8.  Cruise industry keeps cruising

The cruise industry enjoyed record-setting growth in 2015, and many experts say this was one of the industry’s best years ever. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), more than 23 million passengers were expected to cruise this year—a four percent increase over the 22.1 million passengers who cruised in 2014. Among the ballyhooed debuts: The new Anthem of Seas, from Royal Caribbean; the Viking Star, from Viking Cruises; and the Norwegian Escape, from Norwegian Cruise Lines. The industry also welcomed more than two dozen new river-only cruises. This was newsworthy because it signals a shift toward smaller ships with an emphasis on intimate experiences, unique design, and luxurious amenities. The influx of smaller ships also opened up the map by adding a host of new ports, particularly in Asia and Australia. Finally, also according to the CLIA, a record 24 million passengers were expected to sail in 2016—a dramatic increase from 15 million passengers just 10 years ago.

7. The cost of oil and gas drops

Road warriors delighted all year as the price of gas dropped continuously. A year ago at this time, the cost of a gallon of gas was averaging about $2.54. Today it’s around $2.01. Earlier this month, the Automobile Club of America (AAA) announced North America was seeing the lowest costs in gasoline since 2009. And other experts predict there’s still room for prices to drop further—an Associated Press article quoted Tom Kloza, head of energy analysis for the Oil Price Information Service, as saying that gasoline could go as low as $1.79 per gallon by winter. All of this meant that more Americans took road trips in 2015; not surprisingly, AAA said nearly 42 million Americans would road trip for the holidays this year, an increase of 0.7 percent over 2014.

6. Freda Moon writes our Favorite Read: "Pregnant in Panama"

We’re partial to family travel stories around here, which is precisely why we’ve tabbed Freda Moon’s “Pregnant in Panama” feature—which ran in the November/December 2015 of AFAR—as our favorite read of the year. This was a different kind of family travel piece—a story with three different permutations of family. In the article, readers 1) follow Moon and her unborn daughter around Panama; 2) look back at Moon’s own personal history of traveling with her mother in Latin America; 3) see Moon reconnecting with her father in a postmodern spin on an intergenerational trip. The feature is raw, honest, self-reflective, and heart-wrenching. It also provides incredible color and detail about Panama. Just be sure you’ve got tissues handy when you give it a read (especially the kicker).

5. Major travel players consolidate

In many ways the travel world got smaller this year, as major mergers and acquisitions grabbed headlines all year long. Among OTAs, Expedia bought rivals Travelocity and Orbitz, then added vacation rental clearinghouse HomeAway. Among hotel companies, Marriott acquired Starwood (for a cool $12.2 billion) and Accor Hotels bought Fairmont, Raffles, and Swisotel. Among airlines, a decade of consolidation that began in 2005 came to an end in October with the last U.S. Airways flight (before the brand was subsumed into American Airlines). Of the nine biggest airlines by revenue in 2004, only four are still flying today.

4. Best fish story ever surfaces on YouTube

OK, technically this one wasn’t exactly a travel story. But the expletive-laden video of two Massachusetts residents’ encounter with a molamola (also known as a sunfish) on Massachusetts Bay was, without question, our favorite five minutes of YouTube all year. The hilarious clip of Michael Bergin and Jason Foster deliberating whether or not the leviathan is a “baby #@$%^ whale” and what to do about it racked up 3.2 million hits and undoubtedly did wonders for selling the Boston area as a travel destination (after all, Massachusetts Bay is one of the only places in the northeast United States where you can see sunfish in the wild). Bergin’s iconic line, “We are seeing some #$^% we ain’t never seen before,” is a rallying cry for all travelers who are experiencing something for the first time. We’ll be hearing it in our heads for decades to come. 

3. Terror attacks impact travel

Terror attacks have become a fact of life these days, and 2015 saw a number of horrific incidents that prompted people to rethink plans to travel. Perhaps the most egregious example: the six coordinated attacks that rocked Paris this November. Since the incident, visitation numbers are down to that city, and advance bookings are sagging. Our government may be partially to blame; just after Thanksgiving, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert about the possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. There’s no question that the strongly worded alert was the right thing for the government to do, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Not traveling lets the terrorists win. Instead, as AFAR’s cofounder and CEO Greg Sullivan wrote, we encourage you to get out there, experience the world, and immerse yourself in foreign cultures to learn and laugh and grow.

2. Nuke deal cracks open the door to Iran

When President Obama signed his 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, he also effectively lifted sanctions against the Persian nation, opening up the country to travelers in a big way. For decades, Iran had been difficult to get to—only about 1,500 Americans visit each year, most of them through tour operators. With looser restrictions, Masoud Soltanifar, director of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization, said he aims to attract 20 million international visitors a year by 2025, generating up to $30 billion in revenues. As of press time, there was some speculation that new visa restrictions might counterbalance any glasnost that would have occurred as a result of the nuclear deal. Obviously, this issue is still developing. We’ll keep tabs on it over the course of 2016.

 1. Travel relations warm with Cuba

Excitement has been building since President Obama announced in December 2014 that the United States and Cuba would work to normalize relations. Finally, last week, came the news everyone was waiting for: The two governments had hammered out an agreement that would enable U.S. airlines to fly direct passenger flights between the United States and Cuba. Specifically, an article in TIME said the deal opens the way for U.S. airlines to negotiate with Cuba’s government for as many as 110 regular airline flights a day—20 routes daily to Havana and 10 to each of Cuba’s other nine major airports. As we outlined in last week’s column, a lot still needs to happen before the first flight can touch down; the Federal Aviation Administration must conduct safety inspections of airports in Cuba, and airlines will have to price the new flights and work them into their respective schedules. Still, insiders seem to think flights could begin as early as the spring of 2016. Big news indeed.

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 including TIME, 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.