10 fastest-growing travel destinations in Europe (and what passes for Europe)

France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom may be among the world’s most frequented vacation hubs — with France taking the global crown with a staggering 86.9 million international tourist arrivals annually — but these already popular places can only stand to grow so much year over year.

This leaves such lesser known destinations as the Republic of Moldova to jump further faster.

According to new data from the U.N. World Tourism Organization, in 2017, for instance, French tourism grew by 5.1 percent; its landlocked competitor-nestled between Ukraine and Romania-saw a visitation spike of 19.6 percent when it welcomed 145,000 visitors last year.

“When you’re talking about these fast-growing destinations in Europe, there’s often a lack of name recognition, compared to more popular countries,” says Warren Chang, chief operating officer for bespoke travel outfitter Cox & Kings’ Americas division. “But so many of these places have robust histories and a really understated romantic feel — plus diversity of culture and beautiful nature.”

Another benefit, he says, is accessibility.

“Off-the-beaten-path travel is more comfortable in Europe, where English is more commonly spoken, and while it might take time for a place like Moldova to develop as a stand-alone destination, it’s easy for people to tack short explorations of these countries onto their existing itineraries,” Chang says.

For the well-traveled Europhile — and those whose definitions of Europe stretch beyond Western Europe to include, as UNWTO does, countries in Central Asia and the Middle East — these are the top 10 places to go next. They’re ranked by year-on-year growth.

10. Armenia (18.65 percent year-on-year growth): Among the destinations Chang expects to surge in 2019 is Armenia; in fact, Cox & Kings is slated to debut a new itinerary pairing the country with Georgia in the near future. Among the outfitters already serving the destination are Abercrombie & Kent, Ker & Downey, and TCS World Travel, who collectively tout historical riches such as Mount Ararat (where Noah’s Ark is said to have made landfall), the charming capital of Yerevan, and — yes — its most famous cultural descendants, the Kardashians. On trips with Abercrombie & Kent, guests also get in deep with local traditions: visiting brandy distilleries, meeting carpet makers, hearing spiritual chants in ancient monasteries, and learning to make lavash (a type of local flatbread) with an Armenian family.

Vendors wait for customers at a patterned rug and carpet store at the Vernissage open-air market in Yerevan, Armenia, on Nov. 19, 2016. (Bloomberg photo by Andrey Rudakov)

9. Bosnia and Herzegovina (18.66 percent): “Croatia and Montenegro have long been popular destinations for us, but this year we’ve seen demand for experiences in Slovenia and Bosnia increase,” said Tom Marchant, co-founder of luxury travel outfit Black Tomato. As Croatia deals with extreme over-tourism (it notched a record 15 million arrivals last year), the remaining Balkan locales are emerging as a fascinating, crowd-free alternative. Bosnia and Herzegovina is leading the pack, with its 16th-century mosques, Ottoman architecture, and vibrant street art scene. Many travelers take day or weekend trips to scenic Mostar — a quick way to scratch the surface — but it’s also possible to dedicate a whole vacation to this historically rich country, including the diverse capital of Sarajevo, the towering waterfalls at Kravica, and the mountain village of Lukomir, said to be the country’s most isolated enclave.

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8. The Republic of Moldova (19.6 percent): The sharp percentage growth in tourism to Moldova reflects what is, in reality, an incredibly nascent tourism scene: This little republic (population: 2.5 million) has in recent years held the title of least-visited destination in Europe. But that’s changing. Luxury group tour operator Intrepid Travel cites a cultural resurgence — marked by a burgeoning wine scene and unspoiled natural beauty — as the reason and has introduced new itineraries and more than doubled its bookings to the country this year, compared to last year. “The country has some of the best up-and-coming vineyards on the continent, including a vineyard that sits on top of 125 miles of underground cellar tunnels — the largest quality wine collection in the world,” says Darshika Jones, North American director for Intrepid Travel.

7. Azerbaijan (20 percent): Yes, the World Tourism Organization places Azerbaijan in Central/Eastern Europe in its report. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s another surprising fact: Bookings with Intrepid Travel to visit Azerbaijan have increased by a full 322 percent. The Caspian Sea-facing capital, Baku, is a fascinating hodgepodge of old and new. Its cobbled Old Town streets are lined with market stalls and well-preserved buildings, while the Flame Towers downtown are a modern architectural marvel in the vein of the Burj Khalifa. That the city likens itself to the “new Dubai” is no accident — it’s an oil-rich, fast-growing hub at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Combine a visit to the capital with some of Azerbaijan’s more remote delights, such as seeing copper artisans in Lahic or petroglyphs in Qobustan National Park.

6. Macedonia (23.5 percent): Riding the Balkan heat wave is Macedonia, whose longtime claim to fame stems from hometown hero Alexander the Great. Like Moldova, its visitation numbers are exceedingly small — it claimed just 631,000 arrivals in 2017 — making it one of the least-discovered destinations in Europe. Few luxury outfitters plan trips here, though Cox & Kings is an exception; on an itinerary that combines Macedonia with several of its neighbors, such as Croatia and Montenegro, the operator includes the 10th-century Byzantine church, Sveti Naum, set high on a cliff near Lake Ohrid.

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Sveti Naum near Ohrid in Macedonia. (Getty Images)

5. Iceland (24.11 percent): Haven’t been to Iceland yet? What are you waiting for? The country has been skyrocketing to the top of bucket lists for years and has multiplied its arrivals by 450 percent since 2010. That kind of red-hot growth shows no signs of slowing down as the country ramps up its luxury infrastructure with posh hotels (some with secret VIP suites) and exclusive experiences. That’s making it a focus for Black Tomato, says Marchant. “We’re developing new, once-in-a-lifetime programs everywhere from underground hot springs to vast highland lakes and waterfalls — think meditation in glacial caves, private hot spring spas, and heli-yoga atop a volcano.”

4. Turkey (24.14 percent): Political turmoil, followed by fast and furious rebounds, chased by economic woes have kept Turkey’s tourism industry on a roller coaster. At the moment, it’s booming. “Turkey is Intrepid Travel’s fastest-growing destination to date in 2018,” said Intrepid Travel’s Jones. The company is adding three new itineraries for 2019 to keep up with the demand: a winter-themed trip focusing on iced lakes and snow-capped mountains, a culinary journey, and a weeklong “highlights” tour for time-crunched travelers. Black Tomato’s Marchant has seen similar growth. “Enquires and bookings to Turkey in the last year have more than doubled,” he tells Bloomberg. He credits pristine beaches and a spate of new hotels, such as the Edition Bodrum, which just opened its doors in the country’s top resort town in July.

A visitor uses her smartphone to take a photograph at the Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul on Aug. 3, 2017. (Bloomberg photo by Kostas Tsironis)

3. Israel (24.6 percent): It may be surprising to see the World Tourism Organization categorize this Middle Eastern country as part of Europe, but anyone who’s eaten their way through Tel Aviv or Jerusalem will understand how well tiny Israel competes with its mainland continental rivals. The country’s diverse culinary traditions have become a big draw for Intrepid travelers, but other companies are putting the spotlight on Israel’s perennial appeal: its religious and historical significance. That’s what Abercrombie & Kent is focusing on in its latest small-group journeys, which focus on the dramatic landscapes and ancient towns that literally bring the Bible to life. “It’s not about what’s new in this ancient land,” says the company’s vice president of product development, Stefanie Schmudde. Inquiries from culturally curious travelers have experienced a triple-digit increase in the last year alone, she adds.

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2. Georgia (27.9 percent): You heard it here first: Georgia is next on the lips of serious globetrotters. To many industry insiders, including Marchant, this next-big-thing seemed to come out of nowhere. “Admittedly this is a country where we didn’t expect to see such a surge this year, but once you look behind the surface, it makes sense,” he says. Why? “As culinary adventures become an increasingly prevalent catalyst for travel, Georgia’s historic cuisine is offering the perfect excuse to visit this untouched corner of Europe.” Add a batch of ultra-cool hotels, bars, and restaurants in the capital of Tbilisi-take Stamba, a new Design Hotel property in an old publishing house, with a surprisingly posh, Orient Express-inspired casino — and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

San Francesco gate in San Marino. (Getty Images)


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