With U.S. companies keeping their meetings close to home, it’s the association market that yields clues to the most popular emerging meeting destinations on the international scene.

"Destinations that proactively targeted this most resilient market segment over the last half decade are weathering the economic storm better than their competitors who only focused on big-budget corporate meetings,” says Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, Amsterdam.

In general, today’s emerging destinations offer a strong value for their currency, continue to invest in hotels and conference facilities, and focus on excellent service. So, which destinations are on the radar screen?

1. Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.—Located between the East and West, the Gulf region has made considerable inroads into the meetings market during the past decade. Dubai, its first significant player, remains popular. But a strong economy, excellent business facilities, luxury hotels, beaches, and an increasing capacity to host meetings are boosting Abu Dhabi’s profile. Despite the downturn nearly everywhere in 2009, Abu Dhabi saw a 2 percent increase in visitors, to 1.54 million; that number is projected to grow by 10 percent this year. To promote its commitment to increasing meetings business, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority is offering financial and non-financial resources to event organizers. Top markets include the U.K., United States, India, Germany, and Australia.

2. South Africa—With the 2010 FIFA World Cup taking place at 10 stadiums across South Africa this summer, it’s an excellent opportunity for Johannesburg, Cape Town, and other locations to showcase their meetings infrastructure—important for any long-haul destination with a favorable currency rate. New hotels and convention centers have been built and existing ones are refurbishing in preparation for the World Cup.

3. and 4. Beijing and Shanghai—In 2009, 5.2 million visitors traveled to China for meetings. After hosting the Olympic Games in 2008, Beijing attracted attention from the international meetings market with Olympic venues such as the China National Convention Center, now available for events. Meanwhile, Shanghai will gain worldwide exposure during Expo 2010, months of events that begin May 1.

5. Slovenia—Eastern Europe has made significant strides in the business travel and meetings industry. Slovenia served as the European Union Council Presidency from January to June 2008, and is emerging as a cost-effective destination for smaller meetings that offers diverse experiences all within a short drive: the Alps, the Mediterranean, wine country, historic towns, and more.

6. Zaragoza, Spain—The fifth-largest city in Spain, Zaragoza was host to Expo 2008, giving it world prominence with the participation of 99 countries and 5.7 million visitors. Cost is an advantage to this mid-sized city, located between Madrid and Barcelona. Accessible by air and rail, Zaragoza is targeting the international association market, with 56 conferences on the books for 2010. The Congress Centre of Aragon is its newest conference center, a legacy of Expo 2008.

7. Berlin—Berlin marked the 20th anniversary in 2009 of the fall of the Berlin Wall—along with a 4 percent increase in meetings booked. About 20 percent of its business events attracted international attendees. By the end of 2011, Berlin will consolidate its three airports, and Schoenefeld Airport will expand to become Berlin Brandenburg International. This will modernize and expand international routes to Berlin, preparing the German capital for the 22 million passenger arrivals projected for 2011.

8. Brazil—The biggest player in Latin America will host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

9. India—India is attracting an increasing number of industry association meetings, such as the 49th ICCA Congress, the annual convention of the International Congress and Convention Association, scheduled for October 23–27, 2010. As part of this congress, the Certified Meeting Professional exam will be given for the first time in India.

10. Lago Maggiore, Italy, a region now jointly promoted by Italy and Switzerland as Lago Maggiore Meeting Industry.

What international destinations are you watching—or booking? Post a comment and let us know!

Based in Chicago, Rob Hard is a freelance business travel writer and publisher of the Web site BusinessTravelDestinations, business travel views about international destinations, and an event planning guide for About.com. He is also founder of RH Communications Inc., a boutique marketing firm that provides creative and printing solutions. Reach him at editor@rhcommunications.com.