By Brian Jewell
They are the adventurers, the trendsetters and the big spenders: For years, bank loyalty clubs have run some of America’s most sought-after group travel programs. And although group travel has grown and diversified in recent years, bank groups still lead the way, particularly when it comes to international travel.
As more travel groups look into the possibility of going abroad, bank groups have blazed a trail of great international destinations to visit. This summer, we polled the readers of our sister publication Bank Travel Management to find out where bank club directors are taking their groups for 2013. Here’s a look at their eight favorite international destinations and a preview of what to expect if you take a group there as well.
For several generations, international politics have made travel to Cuba all but impossible for Americans. New provisions put in place by the Obama administration, however, have created opportunities for groups to visit on “people to people” exchanges and released the pent-up demand for this destination. Groups have been visiting the island nation for about a year now, and tour operators report long waiting lists for these popular tours.
Top Stops: Because tours to Cuba are operated under a very specific provision carved out of the general U.S. embargo, groups are limited to full-time itineraries that their tour operators have preapproved with the American government. Many of these itineraries focus on visits around Havana, where travelers meet with local artists, musicians and community leaders.
Small Treasures: Cayo Santa Maria is a coastal area that has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The area has beautiful beach resorts, but government-regulated itineraries don’t allow for lounging. Instead, groups visit cultural centers, sugar cane plantations and historic towns in the area. Small concerts or salsa dancing lessons are often included.
Great Tastes: Cuban cuisine blends Spanish, African and Caribbean flavors. In addition to famous dishes such as Cuban pork sandwiches, visitors should try more traditional fare such as arroz con pollo — a chicken and rice dish — and “sofritos,” which consist of sauteed bell peppers, onions and garlic.
When to Go: Since the product is in such high demand, tour operators are offering Cuba trips year-round. The biggest consideration is the current political climate in the United States: Groups interested in going should avail themselves of the first opportunity that they find, since the future existence of this new travel provision cannot be guaranteed.
With its nearby location and familiar culture, Canada is an international destination where Americans feel instantly at home. For many of us, Canada was our first introduction to traveling abroad. And although it has a lot in common with the United States, Canada also has a lot of unusual elements as well, including a distinctive maritime culture and French-speaking territories.
Top Stops: With more land mass than the continental United States, Canada is too big to manage all in one trip, so many groups plan visits to different parts of Canada every few years. The Canadian Rockies are a perennial favorite, blending spectacular mountain scenery with the romance of train travel. In the east, Toronto, Windsor and Niagara Falls have been popular with American visitors for generations. And the coastal areas, such as Nova Scotia and Vancouver, boast a charm that draws some visitors back year after year.
Small Treasures: In Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a picturesque Victorian village set in a vineyard country that produces some of Canada’s top ice wines. In British Columbia, a town called Kelowna gives groups a gateway to a region full of orchards and fresh produce.
Great Tastes: For seafood fans, there’s no better place for shellfish than Prince Edward Island, a small maritime province known for its large supply of succulent bivalves. Throughout the rest of the country, you can also sample “poutine,” a favorite Canadian dish consisting of french fries, cheese curds and gravy.
When to Go: With winter skiing, spring flowers, summer hiking and fall produce, Canada is a genuine four-season destination.
From the canals of Venice to the Coliseum in Rome and the splendor of Vatican City, Italy enjoys a long list of iconic sites that put it at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. Americans visit the country en masse for its history, scenery, architecture and food. In Italy, everything drips of romance.
Top Stops: No group should spend time in Italy without taking in its signature sights and renowned experiences. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is among the world’s most popular photo ops, and your travelers will never forget being serenaded by a gondolier as he paddles them through a Venetian canal. Rome has numerous historic and architectural highlights that take several days to tour, and the Vatican is the world’s most-visited religious site.
Small Treasures: Many of Italy’s famous sites are also famously crowded, so groups should schedule some time away in more remote regions. You will find peace, farmland and delicious food in Tuscany, and a quiet but impressive art scene in Emilia-Romagna. The coastal town of Portovenere provides gorgeous oceanfront views without the large crowds of destinations on the Riviera.
Great Tastes: True Italian food is the stuff of legend, eclipsing the best of dishes available in stateside Italian restaurants. You’ll no doubt have plenty of pasta, but make sure you also try a slice of traditional pizza in Naples, where it is coated with olive oil and cooked in a brick oven.
When to Go: Due to an abundance of heat and a lack of air conditioning, many American groups avoid traveling to Italy during the summer. Experts suggest visiting between April and June, or between September and October.