NEW YORK -- The Olympics, the World Cup and commemorations of World War I, D-Day and the fall of the Berlin Wall are some of the events that will spotlight destinations like Sochi, Brazil, Sarajevo, Normandy and Berlin in 2014.
Elsewhere abroad, a potentially game-changing high-speed rail service has just launched linking Paris and Barcelona. Some travelers may now prefer the train over a plane, with the train ride cut in half to just over six hours between the two cities.
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Back in the U.S., St. Louis marks the 250th anniversary of its Feb. 15, 1764 founding with celebrations in February including a re-enactment, parties and a music festival. Other events are planned throughout the year.
Harry Potter fans will have a new reason to visit Florida next summer when the Universal Orlando theme park opens a new area with attractions inspired by the books' fictional scenes in Diagon Alley and London. A train called the Hogwarts Express will take visitors back and forth between the new Potter attractions -- including a restaurant called the Leaky Cauldron -- and Universal's existing Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal also plans an 1,800-room 1960s-themed resort and eight new restaurants at the CityWalk dining area for 2014.
Nearby, Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., will open a new family coaster, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, in the spring.
Olympics and World Cup
The Winter Olympics, Feb. 7-23, take place in Sochi, a Russian Black Sea resort that's one of the least-known Olympic destinations in years. The indoor events will be held in ice arenas on the coast, while skiing and snowboarding are in the Caucasus Mountains 30 miles (50 kilometers) inland. With its subtropical climate and lush greenery, the coastal area of Sochi has long been a popular destination; some elaborate worker resorts from the Stalinist era remain, and new winter resorts are under construction.
The World Cup soccer games, June 12-July 13, will be held in 12 cities in Brazil: Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuaiaba, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Manaus, Natal, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Sao Paulo. The most exotic destination, Manaus, a steamy city in the Amazon jungle, may also be the most controversial: England soccer coach Roy Hodgson called it "the place ideally to avoid," while the London tabloid the Mirror called it a "crime-ridden hellhole." But loads of soccer fans are likely to travel there despite the bad press to attend some of the tournament's top matches, including England-Italy and Portugal-U.S. The city is also a gateway to Amazon tourism, with Manaus-based operators offering boat trips and tours into the jungle.
The summer of 2014 marks a century since World War I was triggered by the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Events are planned across Europe to commemorate the centenary -- http://www.1914.org -- and some U.S. tour operators like Road Scholar are offering itineraries visiting places connected to the war. Famous battlefields include Verdun, France; Gallipoli, Turkey, and Western Belgium, where red poppies still bloom in Flanders Fields, a battlefield immortalized in the famous poem: "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row."
June 6 is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, which marked a turning point in defeating Hitler in World War II. Past milestone anniversaries have drawn veterans of the invasion, but that generation is rapidly dwindling. President Obama, Queen Elizabeth and other heads of state have been invited to mark the solemn day on the Normandy coast.
Nov. 9 will mark 25 years since the Berlin Wall was breached, a powerful moment in ending communism in Eastern Europe and the Cold War. The wall, built in 1961, not only physically cut East Berlin off from the West, but also symbolized the division between Western Europe and communist-controlled Eastern bloc countries. The wall was completely torn down in 1990, but its destruction began in 1989. In the years since, reunified Berlin has become a trendy tourism capital -- described as "poor but sexy" by its mayor. Events and exhibits are planned to mark the 25th anniversary, including an installation of illuminated balloons on a 7.5-mile (12-kilometer) path where the city was once divided.
Homecoming, 'Frozen,' Vermeer and Hobbits
Scotland hosts its yearlong "Homecoming," inviting emigres and their descendants to return for clan gatherings and other events, including a re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn, an important victory 700 years ago in the Wars of Scottish Independence. The Homecoming is held every four years.
In Holland, the Mauritshuis museum reopens in June in The Hague. This small but important museum, housed in a 17th-century palace, is home to Vermeer's masterpiece, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," which has been drawing huge crowds at the Frick in New York following showings in San Francisco and Atlanta. The painting has been traveling with "The Goldfinch" and works by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters while the Mauritshuis underwent a two-year renovation.
In Norway, the Geirangerfjord will get some additional visitors as Adventures By Disney adds the destination to a new itinerary inspired by the movie "Frozen." The film's fantasy kingdom of Arendelle was based on the fjord.
New Zealand is hoping for an increase in visitors inspired by the second movie in the "Hobbit" trilogy. Tourism connected to "The Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" films has become a big business in New Zealand, where the movies were filmed. A survey by Tourism New Zealand showed 13 percent of international visitors earlier this year took part in some kind of "Hobbit"-themed tourism like visiting a film set.