Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Thu December 24 2015

Staff Picks: The US Destinations That Raised Their Game in 2015

Destination & Tourism | Staff Picks | December 24, 2015

Staff Picks: The US Destinations That Raised Their Game in 2015

What turns a city into a destination? It's a very inexact science, but it usually involves the powers-that-be making a priority out of attracting visitors to their city. That can include creating tourist attractions, creating a foodie heaven with a vast array of culinary delights or excelling in the arts or nature - just to name a few.

Tourism boards have spent millions of dollars and have failed to hit the mark, while other cities just organically grow into a must-visit spot. We here at TravelPulse saw much of the U.S. in 2015 and have our own opinions on which cities or regions truly elevated their status this past year.

JOSH LEW, Senior Writer, Airlines and Air Travel

North Dakota is home to a huge oil boom at the moment, but its tourist attractions are few and far between. A majority of the people who visit for leisure head straight for the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There have been a number of promotional campaigns over the years (“Leave a Legend” comes to mind), but the one that got attention in 2015 was one of the best. The “Best for Last Club” takes the issue of North Dakota’s popularity (or lack thereof) head on.

People who try to visit all 50 states often leave North Dakota for last. Playing off this idea, the folks at the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Fargo (yes, THAT Fargo) created a “Best for Last Club.” Tourists who are there to cross the 50th state off their list can get a certificate and a t-shirt. This kind of self-deprecating good humor was noticed by the media as far away as Australia, and it actually made North Dakota seem like it could be a fun-loving, non-pretentious place to visit.

THERESA MASEK, Editor-in-Chief, Travel Agent and Agent@Home magazines

Chicago has been in the headlines much of the year for negative news — shootings, protests, police cover-ups. Spike Lee even named his latest movie “Chi-Raq,” a take on Iraq. All those issues must be dealt with, but I hope it doesn’t scare visitors away.

There’s so much going on that makes Chicago a rich vacation destination. In 2015, 10 stunning new hotels opened, several in meticulously restored historic structures, including the very first Virgin hotel and the Residence Inn. The Maggie Daley Park, named for the city’s former first lady, just opened an ice-skating ribbon for the second winter, against the backdrop of the city’s breathtaking skyline.

The city is even launching its own Chi-Town Rising New Year’s Eve celebration along the river with live music and a countdown. Don’t write this city off.

JANEEN CHRISTOFF, Senior Writer, Western Hemisphere Destinations

I am casting my vote for New Orleans for a couple of reasons. The city, which just marked 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, was named the second-best city in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure and tourism in the city is booming. Travelers have returned in droves and it is once again one of the top destinations in the country and enjoying a renaissance.

This designation comes with a string of other accolades that the city has been raking in over the year. New Orleans was also named one of the “52 Places to Go in 2015” by The New York Times, was named the number-one city for business travel by Conde Nast Traveler and was the Friendliest City in America by Travel + Leisure. With a cruise port that is set to welcome a record number of travelers and the continued rebirth of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, New Orleans is always offering something new. It is a destination that offers the full package of fun.

GABE ZALDIVAR, Senior Writer, Business Travel, Tech and Gear

It’s always nice when you have your eyes forced open by a city or town that caters so well to tourists.

Recently, I found that a return to Palm Springs was just what I needed for a pleasant surprise.

I hadn’t been there since I was a child and was hesitant as to what this sleepy oasis could offer on a weekend jaunt.

Not only is the food scene amazing, but the city itself runs a Buzz trolley through the heart of town for free. It’s exactly the kind of hop-on experience you hope to see in other locales and one that works so remarkably well in this desert treasure.

CLAUDETTE COVEY, Managing Editor, Vacation Agent and Agent@Home magazines

Year over year, Greater Fort Lauderdale has been polishing and expanding its tourism offerings, and 2015 was certainly no exception. The destination kicked off the year with a bang, outpacing its Floridian counterparts on the hotel occupancy front, reporting its highest levels ever in January (85.9 percent) and February (93 percent).

As its visitor numbers continue to rise, so too does its portfolio of hotels, with approximately 1,000 rooms coming online from 2015 to 2017. A notable addition this year is the new Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, which opened its doors this summer.

The destination, a pioneer in marketing to LGBT travelers, also brought national attention to those efforts when, in February, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau-hosted the Love is Love group wedding and vow renewal ceremony to celebrate legalization of same-sex marriages in Florida. The event drew couples alike from Europe, South America and 18 U.S. states, and included an address by singer and "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Lance Bass. In another coup on the LGBT front, Greater Fort Lauderdale played host to the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s first International Business & Leadership Conference in South Florida.

“We have been rolling out the rainbow carpet long before the economics matched the sentiment of how important the LGBT market is to Greater Fort Lauderdale,” says Nicki E. Grossman Nicki E. Grossman, CEO and president of the CVB.

TIM WOOD, Editor-in-Chief

I’m going to get a little homerish here. I was born and raised in Portland, Maine. It has always been a beautiful place to spend summers and I had my share of fun at the Old Orchard Beach pier and Funtown, U.S.A. By the time I was 18, I was dying to leave in favor of the adventure and endless possibilities of New York City.

In the quarter century I have been gone, Portland has undergone an amazing transformation. The city’s Old Port was always its tourism center, but it has grown into a many-layered destination as the district has undergone a complete economic revitalization over the past two decades.

It sports some of the best craft breweries in New England, a thriving arts scene with world-class galleries and an indie music scene that consistently produces some of the best up-and-comers in the country.

It has also become a foodie paradise, known for dishes far beyond its seafood roots. And its cruise port and civic center have both undergone extensive facelifts.

It’s no wonder Portland is making many of the 2016 “it lists” for places to visit. I’ve spent the last 25 years wishing I’d never left.

ROBIN AMSTER, Senior Writer, Travel Agents, Host Agencies and Consortia

New York City was the top U.S. destination this year according to Virtuoso’s luxury travel advisors. The Big Apple simply can’t be beat for culture, theater, cuisine, nightlife, sights—and excitement.

NYC & Co. continues to build on the city’s popularity with creative and aggressive marketing campaigns. Among them: This year it teamed with Mayor Bill De Blasio and American Express for the city’s largest dining program, promoting the diversity of restaurants not just in Manhattan but in all of the city’s five boroughs.

In other initiatives, the city is also promoting its other boroughs, including the Bronx and Queens, to both U.S. and foreign travelers.


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