Every New Year's resolution involves three key ingredients -- the commitment to better one's self, the passion to try something new, and the inevitable promise to venture beyond one's comfort zone -- and no one act accomplishes those goals more than international travel.
With 2015 on the horizon, it's the perfect time to look ahead and seek new ways to discover the vast, wide world, and in the process, make changes for the better. But where should resolved explorers venture to achieve their New Year's travel resolutions?
Here's my list of the top 15 travel destinations for 2015, which includes countries that not only deliver unforgettable moments, but offer settings in which minds and hearts open and grow. This list was compiled by examining the growing demands of millennial travelers, new regulatory landscapes, the health of each country's tourism industry, and the love affair that this writer has had with each of these destinations.
1. Thailand. Thailand saw a significant dip in traffic in 2014 after governmental unrest, but Thailand is sure to come roaring back in 2015, with industry predictions of 29 million visitors by year end. These numbers aren't really surprising, though, as Thailand continues to be one of the most beautiful, spiritual, and welcoming destinations on the planet.
2. Iceland. As more travelers seek authentic experiences which also reflect their worldviews, Iceland has emerged as a top travel destination. The Land of Fire and Ice showcases the world's natural beauty at sites like the famous Strokkur geyser, the natural hot springs of the Blue Lagoon, and of course, the contemplative wonders of the Northern Lights, while Reykjavík, the nation's capital, offers plenty of great restaurants, night spots and northern culture.
3. Cuba. Everyone's talking about this island just 90 miles from Florida's coast that has been the forbidden fruit of travel for Americans for more than 50 years. With the recent announcement of the U.S. restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and a general loosening of rules regarding travel, there's no better time to visit the island nation than 2015, before everything changes. Friendly Planet Travel has been helping travelers visit Cuba legally for the past four years, allowing Americans to gain a deeper understanding of a culture that seems to have been frozen in time. Travelers meet local artists, street-smart entrepreneurs, and everyday Cubans where they live, work and play. For the true explorer, Cuba is one of the most amazing travel experiences possible, and to enjoy the island as it is right now, you better hurry before the country is forever changed by Western influences.
4. Greece. Greece is back, and I couldn't be happier. After years of a tourism downturn brought on by economic turmoil, visitors are finally returning in droves, ready and eager to experience the beauty, culture, and flavor of this Mediterranean paradise. While Athens is considered the crucible of Western civilization and definitely worth a visit, it's the islands that lure visitors back again and again. These magnificent islands are every bit as gorgeous, romantic, laid back, and fun as any place you can find on earth. There's Mykonos for romance, Santorini for breathtaking beaches, Crete for natural wonders, and so much more to discover.
5. Malaysia. A trip to Malaysia is like visiting two worlds at once. Peninsular Malaysia embraces Chinese and Indian influences resulting in richly spiritual, though thoroughly modern nation, while Malaysian Borneo -- which is split from West Malaysia by the South China Sea -- encompasses the country's wilder side, with dense, mysterious jungles and ancient cultures living according to tradition. All of this, plus some of the absolute best cuisine on the planet, make Malaysia a 2015 must-see!
6. Croatia. Croatia is the hidden gem of the Mediterranean. Long overshadowed by its famous neighbors, Italy and Greece, it will continue to grow into its own in 2015 and transition into a true Mediterranean hotspot. Turquoise waters, sun-drenched beaches, and hundreds of quaint islands make it the ideal destination for any traveler who seeks leisure at its finest. Some of the most complete Medieval walled cities are found here, along with pristine forest, sparkling lakes, and incredibly friendly, welcoming locals.
7. Dubai. As the United Arab Emirates continues to develop into one of the world's fastest growing tourism destinations, Dubai stands out as the ultimate international getaway for the world's rich and famous. Yet, travelers don't have to be international superstars to visit this luxurious city. In fact, Dubai welcomed 5.8 million visitors in the first half of 2014 alone. And no wonder. How many hot desert locations can you name where you can enjoy the beach (we're talking hot weather) in the morning and then, spend the afternoon skiing at an indoor resort attached to a fabulous designer mall? That's not the only thrill travelers will discover in Dubai. Try soaring to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, to check out a view. Or, how about a visit the Burj Al Arab, among the most luxurious and expensive hotels in the world, where a fleet of 25 Rolls-Royces stand at the ready in the courtyard to chauffer guests about. It's that kind of place, but you have to see it to believe it.
8. Vietnam. Vietnam has recently been named one of Trip Advisor's Destinations on the Rise for 2015, with the port city of Da Nang ringing in praises from travelers across the world. But Vietnam has much more to offer than a beautiful coastline. Explore Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), a city that perfectly unites the energy of a world-class metropolis with the quaint sophistication of a French village. Here, as in all of Vietnam, the preferred mode of transportation is the motorbike, and I'll bet you'll find watching the veritable river of traffic negotiating the road among your favorite attractions. Or sail through Ha Long Bay, an inlet with emerald waters and otherworldly limestone cliffs, known as karsts, protruding from the water in random patterns. In addition, Vietnam is foodie heaven. You can eat your way throughout the country, including the street food, enjoying cuisine that is amazingly fresh and delicious.
9. South Africa. The 2014 Ebola scare deterred travelers from visiting Africa, but as the panic has subsided and travelers have realized that South Africa is Ebola-free, tourists are once again eager to get up close and personal with the Big 5 -- lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, and rhinoceroses -- while on an authentic African safari. South Africa is also one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with a rainbow population, a gay-friendly attitude, townships like Soweto which produced Nelson Mandela, among the world's greatest leaders, and cities like cosmopolitan Cape Town and historic Johannesburg. And by the way, among the finest wines in the world are found in South Africa, and you won't have any difficulty finding great food to pair with those great wines, either.
10. Japan. More than 13 million travelers will have visited Japan in 2014, and tourism numbers are only expected to increase next year. Japan is a land built upon ancient traditions, but since its introduction to the Western world, the island nation has adopted an entirely modern persona while maintaining tradition. Travelers can visit the bustling streets of Tokyo -- one of the world's most modern metropolises -- and then just as easily hop a high-speed train to explore the ancient pavilions of Kyoto. Some of the most spectacular scenery in the world is found in Japan, and when it comes to color, there's nothing like the cherry blossoms that bloom in the spring. Japan's a unique, fascinating cultural destination, and it will continue to grow in popularity in today's interconnected world.
11. Costa Rica. Costa Rica is finishing up a stellar year for tourism, with some 27 million tourists visiting the country in 2014 alone, and experts are predicting visitor numbers to continue to rise in 2015. And it's no surprise. Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, one that boasts incredible ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, cloud forests, mountains, rivers, volcanoes, and coastline on both the Caribbean and Pacific. As a nation, it's a pioneer in environmental protection, with a huge part of its land mass set aside and protected by law. The people, affectionately known as "Ticos" are amazingly friendly and welcoming, and you'll be hard-pressed to resist joining them in their enthusiasm for their country. It's the ultimate destination for those who cherish the purity of nature and are seeking a little adventure along the way.
12. Egypt. It's been four long years since Egypt has been on our radar as a "must visit" spot, but now that the political situation has stabilized, tourists are returning in ever greater numbers to see the Great Pyramid of Giza, the mythical Sphinx, and King Tut's tomb, plus other antiquities along the Nile. Egypt is one of those bucket list destinations that everyone plans to visit at least once in a lifetime, and for good reason. The historical and cultural treasures of Egypt are among the most important in human history. The Egyptian people are among the most hospitable in the world, and since Egypt is just starting to recover from a long touristic drought, the prices will never be this good again.
13. China. China is a land where the ancient past perfectly meets the modern present, where the most populous country in the world is rushing to pull its citizens into the 21st century in record speed. Between the glistening skyscrapers of Shanghai, the incredible Terra Cotta Army in Xi'an, and the formidable, imposing Great Wall near Beijing, travelers can experience the best of the old and the new. China is full of contrasts, which makes it such a fascinating destination. You'll find plenty of sleek, expensive cars sharing the streets with bicycle rickshaws, formal Tiananmen Square, with its huge portrait of Chairman Mao, overlooking People's Park where citizens practice Tai Chi, learn to play ancient instruments, have an ear cleaning, and enjoy a cup of tea. And there's so much more to see, do and experience, making China one destination that many travelers visit again and again.
14. Peru. For the third straight year, Peru has been named a top culinary destination by the World Travel Awards, placing it on par with France and Thailand as one of the world's greatest food nations. Peruvian cuisine takes advantage of the nation's diverse geography, which consists of jungles, coasts, and mountains, and combines it with European, African, and Asian influences to create unmatched global cuisine. While Machu Picchu is Peru's initial draw, Peruvian food keeps travelers returning again and again.
15. Australia. Australia has long been one of the world's most popular destinations, and 2015 will be no different. The nation's unbeatable nightlife, world-class beaches, and unparalleled natural beauty -- from the Great Barrier Reef to the Australian bush -- make it a must-visit destination for all worldly travelers. Australia is a long way to travel from the USA, but it's worth every minute of the journey. And with English as the spoken language, it's easy to get around, meet friendly folks and participate in life the Aussie way. Why not add it to the 2015 bucket list?
There you have it, the top 15 destinations of 2015. Are you ready to get out there and see the world?