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1. KERALA, INDIA
Why? A new Indian biennale will make its debut in this coastal state.
Last year India hosted its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This year the country inaugurates a biennale of its own. To be held in the southwestern state of Kerala, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will feature contemporary painting, film, sculpture, installations, new media and performances by Indian and international artists. Most of the action will unfold in the colonial city of Kochi, whose contemporary art scene already offers more than a dozen venues, from the 2-year-old David Hall – a 1695 Dutch colonial mansion – to the longstanding Kashi Art Cafe, a restaurant-gallery-garden-cafe. To host the events, the city’s 19th-century Durbar Hall and other old buildings are getting top-to-bottom face-lifts.
But the most remarkable historical reclamation project is happening in the biennale’s other Kerala site, Muziris. A fabled ancient port that traded spices and silk with Egypt and Greece two millennia ago, Muziris mysteriously vanished sometime after the fall of Rome. Archaeologists have recently located and started to excavate the vanished settlement, which opened to tourists this year. The biennale’s start date is Dec. 12, 2012, or 12/12/12.
Why? Back on the tourist map after being off-limits for years.
With renowned cultural treasures, world-class boutique hotels and deserted beaches, Myanmar has long been high on intrepid travelers’ wish lists. For years, though, heeding calls by the pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others, many stayed away in protest of Myanmar’s authoritarian regime.
Now, however, this is changing.
Since November 2010, when Myanmar’s rulers held nominally free elections and released Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest, the boycott has been lifted and Myanmar is set for an influx of visitors.
Because the country has been so isolated, the deeply Buddhist “Land of the Golden Pagoda” resonates with a strong sense of place, undiluted by mass tourism and warmed by genuine hospitality. Travelers will find atmospheric hotels and a network of well-maintained regional jets serving the main sites. (Keep in mind that visas are still required and that the economy remains largely cash-based.)
But locals are aware of the potential downside of tourism as well. Aung San Suu Kyi has called for sustainable development and “trickle down” tourism where dollars will do the most good.
With these goals in mind, nestled along the banks of meandering Lake Inle in eastern Myanmar, the ViewPoint eco-lodge combines locally sourced materials with individually tailored activities supporting the local economy (like garden-to-table lunches at an island village house).
Similarly, in Ngapali Beach – a pristine swath of coastline on the Bay of Bengal – the Amara Ocean Resort ratchets up the om factor with a hand-built spa. The resort finances relief projects in the Irrawaddy River delta.
3. LHASA, TIBET
Why? New luxury hotels bring respite – and controversy.
Tibet’s holy capital is in the throes of a luxury-hotel boom. In Lhasa, this is news: Not only is operating an upscale hotel at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level no small feat, but real-estate developments here are, almost by default, also culturally loaded.
The majestic, 162-room St. Regis Lhasa Resort has been in full operation since May. In 2010, a charming Tibetan-owned villa called the Lingtsang reopened as a boutique hotel with opulent, colorful woodwork and courtyard verandas. And coming soon are the sprawling InterContinental Resort Lhasa Paradise and the 284-room Shangri-La, both scheduled to open in 2013.
On the upside, it’s the first time that travelers can get high-end amenities in a city where even basic hospitality has been a challenge. On the downside, the openings – like Lhasa’s booming population, new business districts and shopping malls – are seen by many Tibetans and interested outsiders as more cultural colonization and exploitation of a sacred land.
4. KOH RONG, CAMBODIA
Why? A string of islands recalls an undiscovered Asian paradise.
Many adventurous travelers are looking beyond the temples at Angkor to see what else Cambodia has to offer. One possibility is the Koh Rong Archipelago, whose main island is a 30-minute boat ride from the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Until recently there was no place to stay on this string of islands, but that changes with the opening of the Song Saa resort this year.
Rory Hunter, the owner, and his wife, Melita, discovered the untouched archipelago several years after they moved to Cambodia in 2004. Melita, previously an artist specializing in sculptural art installations, designed Song Saa to resemble a Cambodia fishing village – at least from the outside. Inside guests will find luxurious contemporary comforts like an infinity pool and Wi-Fi complimented by Asian antiques and market finds, like large driftwood columns, old copper bowls, recycled boat timber walls and century-old Cambodian day beds. (For about $600 per person a night.)
Guests will be able to snorkel with sea horses by day and swim in bioluminescent waters at night. And then there’s the food. The resort’s chef, Neil Wager, imported from the exclusive North Island resort in the Seychelles, will be serving up his own version of local Khmer cuisine starring sustainable local seafood
Why? Last year’s tragedy means more room for tourists.
The thought of traveling to Tokyo will most likely make some people nervous. Though the city is about 180 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl – and the State Department recommends travelers avoid only the area directly around the disaster site – Tokyo has suffered as well, a problem of perception as much as reality.
But from another vantage point, it’s a perfect time to visit. A decrease in tourism and business travel is making the city all the more accessible and welcoming. According to Laurent Vernhes, a founder and the chief executive of TabletHotels.com, a travel site with a curated list of distinctive lodging options, tourism has not yet returned to normal levels. “Rates are still down about 10 percent on average compared to the same time last year,” Vernhes said.
When I visited the city in the fall, it was clear that it is still crackling with energy. But now it’s possible to get a previously unthinkable last-minute reservation at one of the city’s many world-class restaurants or a room in hotels usually booked solid. A Saturday night dinner at Kagurazaka Ishikawa, a pricey but discreet restaurant with three Michelin stars and an artful tasting menu? No problem. And lodging options for all budgets have gotten easier. Chances are you can find a room at the elegant Park Hyatt Tokyo, a luxurious high-rise, or at the Tokyo Ryokan, a family-run hotel.
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