| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Travelers still long to experience far-off places and exotic locations, but destinations are not the only driving force in the travel industry.
Travel experts say vacationers are increasingly matching their interests and passions, whether it is cooking, yoga, wine-making, culture or a longing for adventure, with the places they decide to visit.
"Travel continues to evolve from something they want to something they actually need," Ellen Bettridge, vice president of the American Express Retail Travel Network, said ahead of the opening of the New York Times Travel Show on Friday.
"We are hearing from travelers that it is not always about the destination, but also about what their passion points are, what motivates them, what they love to do in their life."
Although cruise lines, including Disney which christened its newest ship, the Disney Fantasy, in a star-studded ceremony on Thursday evening in New York, have been at the forefront of theme travel with family, cooking and art-themed cruises, the trend is also steaming ahead on dry land.
Many of the hundreds of exhibitors from 150 countries at the New York Times Travel Show on March 2-4 will be focusing on more than just exotic destinations to lure visitors.
Doug Duda, a chef and host of the cable television show "The Well-Seasoned Traveler," said in addition to culture, art and adventures, food and wine are playing a bigger part in travel choices.
"I think people are building their travel around, for example the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (in Miami) or the New York City Wine and Food Festival, and coming to town at that time of year to have access to dining experiences that just aren't available any other time of year," he said.
Duda attributes the rise in culinary destinations to celebrity chefs, television food shows and countries, regions and U.S. states promoting their unique culinary experiences from Singapore's hawker food centers or cooking classes in France to wine trails in California or cheese trips in New England.
"Part of this is motivated by the fact that people were getting more interested in food culture, not just the restaurant but how wine is made and where cheese comes from or how they get those oysters," he said.
"It is really about understanding how people travel and how they like to organize their time."
Although the culinary experience is a big draw, on the flip side Bettridge said there is also increasing interest in hiking tours and outdoor, active vacations and expedition-type holidays in all age groups.
"It is across the board," she said, "It depends on what their passion is."
And despite the lackluster economy, Bettridge said data from American Express shows U.S consumers are planning to spend 11 percent more on vacations in 2012 than last year.
"Travel is coming back strong. We are very pleased by the indicators we have," she said.
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; editing by Paul Casciato)