NEITHER snow nor sleet nor hurricanes nor dismal dollar-euro exchange rates are discouraging Americans from making their appointed foreign rounds.
Based on statistics from U.S. airlines, 2005 looks as though it will end up as a record year for globe-trotters. Through last November, passenger volume on international flights showed a 9.4% increase from the same period in 2004.
Most of us are visiting or revisiting traditional favorites, such as Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Western Europe. But as Americans embrace foreign exploration, many are growing impatient with old places and faces. The sophisticated — or jaded — traveler wants to know what's next.
To find out, I interviewed travel agents, tour operators and the peripatetic John DiScala of http://www.johnnyjet.com , who says he logs more than 100,000 air miles a year gathering information for his travel website.
Among the places these experts see piquing interest in 2006:
Africa: Abercrombie & Kent, a tour company that caters to experienced, upscale travelers, last year sent 65% more clients to Africa than in 2004, said Pamela Lassers, spokeswoman for the company's North American branch. Egypt and Kenya led the way; Ethiopia is an up-and-comer.
Interest in Egypt, Lassers said, got a boost from the latest touring exhibition of treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb. The home of the boy king retains its glitter despite terrorist attacks that killed tourists in April and July.
Kenya's safaris still draw many takers, although a long-standing travel warning from the U.S. State Department cites the country's "continuing terrorist threats."
Ethiopia is "one of the culturally richest nations in Africa," Lassers said. Italy's decision last year to return an ancient granite obelisk, looted by Italian troops in 1937, helped raise Ethiopia's profile, as did the recent Imax documentary "Mystery of the Nile," which featured the country's archeological sites.
Antarctica: This remote continent is emerging as a family destination, aided by comfortable cruise ships that make it easier and safer to visit.
Its profile soared when last year's hit documentary "March of the Penguins" showcased its pristine scenery and unique wildlife.
China: New airports such as Guangzhou's Baiyun, better domestic air service and an array of luxury hotels have increased the comfort level in this vast Communist nation.
Besides tourist touchstones such as the Great Wall and the terra-cotta warriors near Xian, the outlying areas of Mongolia and Tibet attract travelers eager to experience traditional cultures before they become Westernized, Lassers said.
It's not yet clear how the recent resurgence of avian flu in Asia may affect China's popularity in 2006. Although most fatalities have been in Southeast Asia, a handful have been in China.
Eastern Europe: This is Europe without the dollar-bashing British pound and euro, and, often, without the camera-toting crowds.
River cruises on small ships are making Prague in the Czech Republic, Budapest in Hungary and other eastern capitals more accessible to novices who don't want to invent their own country-hopping itinerary or unpack and pack each day.
Croatia, which has a stunning Adriatic coast, sunny beaches and historic cities such as the medieval-walled Dubrovnik, has long attracted European vacationers. But Croatia was off-limits during the 1990s civil war, from which it is still recovering.
"It's been opened for a few years," DiScala said. "But Americans are just discovering it's safe."
To the north, the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reward visitors with distinctive cultures. "Tourism is in its infancy," DiScala said. "They are welcoming to people, and it's cheap."
India: New nonstop flights from U.S. gateways make India less grueling to get to, and domestic air service within India is improving too. From pashminas to Bollywood, India's culture is hot, even as labor outsourcing keeps the country on the news pages.
Meanwhile, a string of pampering rural retreats run by Amanresorts, Oberoi, Taj and other companies is wowing the moneyed classes. They include converted maharajahs' palaces and over-the-top tented camps, and many provide "simply unforgettable" luxury and service, Lassers said.
With its India business in 2005 up 55% from the previous year, Abercrombie & Kent has opened a third office in India, in Jaipur. (The others are in Agra and Delhi.)
Nicaragua: A Costa Rica alternative, this Central American nation is an easy flight from Miami, "really cheap" and has great surfing, DiScala said.
Among those heading to Nicaragua, he added, are "people in their late 20s or 30s who have a sense of adventure" — plus, probably, an image of the country that postdates the lengthy Sandinista-Contra civil war of the 1980s.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: The damage to Cancún last fall as a result of Hurricane Wilma has apparently sent some tourists to Mexico's other coast.
The Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta moved from No. 12 in 2005 to No. 5 in 2006 as Cancún slipped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the annual forecast of top international destinations released Jan. 4 by Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, an international network of travel agencies. The survey asked 363 of the network's agents to predict the most popular destinations, based on recent bookings.
Puerto Vallarta's allure includes easy access from the West Coast, mostly mild weather and luxurious beach resorts.
South America: No longer off the radar of many U.S. travelers, our neighbor continent to the south is registering lots of blips. Travel agents report surges in bookings to Argentina, Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
Several years ago, when cruise lines shifted ships there, South America was a hard sell, said Judy Lucas, who owns Concierge Cruises & Tours outside Tucson. Now, she said, many 2006 cruises are sold out.
Among the continent's appeals: cheap prices, no jet lag (because of similar time zones), renowned archeological sites, traditional cultures, spectacular scenery and cosmopolitan cities such as Buenos Aires.
With many of the world's tropical regions threatened by avian flu, weather disasters and unrest, Lucas said, South America offers a close-in alternative for cultural- and eco-tourists.