Each year, I put together a list of the top five destinations of the past year. Major sporting events, world festivals and even a visit from a royal or two can all put a destination in the spotlight.
At the start of 2014, Lonely Planet declared Brazil the destination to watch, an obvious pick in light of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, followed by the less obvious choices of Antarctica, Scotland, Sweden and Malawi. TripAdvisor chose Havana, Cuba as the must-visit location of 2014, especially among Americans as rules for visiting the Caribbean country relax. And Hotels.com went sporting heavy, listing World Cup host Brazil, Tour de France starting point Yorkshire and Winter Olympics host Sochi as hot destinations for 2014.
How did these destinations fare now that the year is coming to a close? As always, it’s easier to look back than ahead. Here are the five places I think were the most talked about in the year that was.
New Zealand: New Zealand makes a return to my list of top destinations of the past year, thanks to the release of the final ‘The Hobbit’ movie and an Easter visit from Prince William and Duchess Kate, along with Prince George on his first official royal engagement. The number of international visitors to New Zealand has increased by about 10% year-over-year thanks to ‘The Hobbit.’ Director Peter Jackson filmed the entire trilogy, as well as ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ in New Zealand and fans of the films can visit real locations across the country that feature in the film, including the original Hobbiton set in Matamata.
The springtime visit of Prince William, Duchess Kate and baby Prince George also drew a huge amount of attention to New Zealand this year. The royal couple were greeted by Maori warriors in a traditional welcome ceremony, rode a jet boat on the famed Shotover River and even met Jackson for a tour of his aviation museum. Prince George took part in his first official royal engagement during a play date at Government House in Wellington.
Rio de Janerio, Brazil: Rio had a huge year in 2014, acting as one of the host cities for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, which saw an estimated 1 million people travel to the South American country. The city also hosted its annual Carnival celebrations in February, an uber popular event that saw an estimated CDN $952 million injected into the city’s economy from nearly 1 million tourists. Rio hardly has time to catch its breath after a busy 2014, though, as preparations for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics are well underway.
Toronto: Ontario’s capital had a busy 2014. Toronto hosted the 2014 WorldPride festival in July, a celebration of LGBT rights that organizers expected would draw even more visitors to the city than the 1.2 million people the 2011 Pride Week celebrations did. This was also the first full year Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada was open in the city, celebrity brothers Donnie and Mark Wahlberg opened their first Wahlburgers location outside the U.S. in Toronto in the fall, and, for better or for worse, ex-mayor Rob Ford kept the entire world talking about Toronto as his 2013 crack scandal continued into his last year in office. Plus, six of Facebook’s 12 most checked-in locations in Canada in 2014 were in Toronto. Look for Toronto to stay in the spotlight in 2015 as the city prepares to host the Pan Am and ParaPan American Games next summer.
New York City: I have yet to feature the Big Apple in my year-end roundup, but 2014 seems like a good year to do so. In addition to the never ending parade of events in New York — from literal parades, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree to New York Fashion Week — New York opened the National September 11 Museum in May. This poignant testament to the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 and the city’s resounding strength in rebounding from the attacks follows the opening of the September 11 Memorial in 2011 and even attracted a visit from the young royals, Prince William and Kate — without Prince George, this time. William and Kate’s glamorous first visit to New York City came in December and attracted international attention. In addition to the September 11 Memorial, William and Kate visited other iconic sites like the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even met New York’s own royal couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, during an NBA game at the Barclays Center.
Sochi, Russia: What would a list of the top five destinations of 2014 be without Sochi? The Russian city hosted this year’s other big sporting event in the Winter Olympics. More than 1.1 million event tickets were sold for the 2014 Olympics, which got off to a slightly rocky start, what with that fifth Olympic ring not opening during the opening ceremonies and incomplete or improperly finished lodgings. The Games ended on a stronger note, though, and Canada finished third in the medal standings. However, as seen in this photo essay from Gizmodo, Sochi had turned into a ghost town just six months after the Games as tourists left town and businesses struggled to stay open. The long-term impact on the Russian town remains to be seen, but in February 2014, all eyes were on Sochi.