Under-the-Radar Europe

Get clients off the beaten path in Europe, the world’s most visited region

Viking’s Into the Midnight Sun itinerary brings cruisers to destinations such as Hamnoy in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago. © 2018 Michelle Juergen

Viking’s Into the Midnight Sun itinerary brings cruisers to destinations such as Hamnoy in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago. © 2018 Michelle Juergen

With a thick-knit beanie atop my head and a scarf wrapped snugly around most of my face, I stood on the bow of Viking Sea with my arms crossed tight against my chest, teeth chattering like a novelty wind-up toy. Wearing every sweater and jacket I had brought with me, I was the human version of a seven-layer cake as I stood on my stateroom balcony, watching as the marker that designates the entrance into the Arctic Circle came into view.

We were just off the northwestern coast of Norway, sailing Viking’s Into the Midnight Sun itinerary. The trip primarily visits small, picturesque Norwegian towns and villages in the midst of the summertime natural phenomenon of the “midnight sun,” during which, north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never dips below the horizon.

Most often, our ship was one of just two or three in port, allowing us opportunities to truly explore the areas and engage in conversations with locals. It was a sharp contrast to much of my previous experience visiting European destinations, where I frequently felt packed like a sardine among hordes of tourists and rarely encountered any actual residents.

The world’s most visited region, Europe has long been vacationers’ destination of choice. And, despite terrorism, political and economic uncertainty and — more recently, anti-tourism demonstrations — attraction to the region isn’t waning.

In fact, in 2017, the continent saw 671 million visitors, a growth of 8 percent in international tourist arrivals over the previous year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)’s Tourism Highlights 2018 Edition. Last year also marked the eighth year in a row of sustained growth in Europe.

Overtourism, however, has become a loathsome side effect of such increases, and the travel industry at large is focusing more than ever on addressing the impacts of mass tourism worldwide. Travel advisors, too, should do their part in guiding clients toward more sustainable travel options — particularly for those interested in visiting Europe.

“I always try and talk someone into off-the-beaten-path or road-less-traveled destinations when they come to me. Some people say, ‘Sorry, I’m going to Rome/Florence/Venice,’ and that’s it; they’re afraid to miss the big stuff. But when they listen, they’ll get a more authentic experience.”
Lynda Turley, a luxury travel consultant for Alpine Travel of Saratoga

One key way to be part of the solution is to recommend under-the-radar destinations in the region. They’ll offer just as much history, natural beauty and culture as their more popular neighbors — and sometimes more so due to their lower visitor numbers.

Suggesting that clients swap, say, Italy in favor of the Balkan Peninsula; France and Germany for Eastern Europe; or Iceland for Scandinavia, can result in not only novel experiences, but also more immersion into local life — which is exactly what travelers are clamoring for, after all.

According to TripAdvisor’s global TripBarometer 2017/18 report, 89 percent of those surveyed agree that experiencing new places is important to them when traveling, a stat that Lynda Turley, a luxury travel consultant and independent contractor at Alpine Travel of Saratoga in California, takes into account when having conversations with clients.

“I always try and talk someone into off-the-beaten-path or road-less-traveled destinations when they come to me,” Turley said. “Some people say, ‘Sorry, I’m going to Rome/Florence/Venice,’ and that’s it; they’re afraid to miss the big stuff. But when they listen, they’ll get a more authentic experience.”

For clients willing to take a chance on the (relatively) unknown, we’ve rounded up some under-the-radar European destinations that deserve some time in the spotlight.

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The town of Leknes, Norway, is in the middle of the Lofoten archipelago. © 2018 Michelle Juergen

The town of Leknes, Norway, is in the middle of the Lofoten archipelago. © 2018 Michelle Juergen

Go East, Young Man

As traditional European hot spots such as Spain, France and Italy have become heavily impacted by overtourism — which has resulted in overcrowding, increased pollution and damage to historical and natural landmarks — travel suppliers and advisors are setting their sights on Eastern Europe.

“The new ‘Eastern Europe’ certainly is becoming more popular, considering that many people who are well-traveled have been to Western Europe and the ‘former’ Eastern Europe — which is now considered Central Europe,” said Trish Brys Overeem, an independent travel consultant for Los Angeles-based All-Travel.

In line with its core focus on sustainable travel, Intrepid Travel is one tour operator highlighting off-the-beaten-track locales. Last year, it launched an itinerary that includes Moldova, one of the least-visited countries in Europe. Features of the 13-day Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explorer include a guided tour of Ukraine’s abandoned Chernobyl
Exclusion Zone; a boat ride through the Danube Delta in Romania; a stop in Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which still upholds Soviet values; and a visit to Moldova’s Milestii Mici, home of the world’s biggest wine cellar.

Although Moldova is practically the definition of “under the radar” — the country of 4 million residents saw just 100,000 visitors last year — Intrepid’s marketing of the area as a must-see European wine destination got clients’ attention.

“The demand was huge for the trip in 2017, so we have nearly doubled departures in 2018, and more departures for 2019 will be added, too,” said Darshika Jones, director of North America for Intrepid Group, who notes that sales from North America on 2018 departures are up 52 percent.


Don’t miss “The Trap” in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an arts district with galleries, workshops, studios, eateries and shops. © 2018 Getty Images


Don’t miss “The Trap” in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an arts district with galleries, workshops, studios, eateries and shops. © 2018 Getty Images

Nothing to Balk At

Another of Europe’s frequently overlooked regions is the Balkans, which includes countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.

“Romania and Bulgaria — which have been members of the European Union since 2007 — are still relatively inexpensive,” said All-Travel’s Brys Overeem.

She highlights Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which offers the best of both old and new European charm. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe, Plovdiv features hospitable locals, cobblestone streets and ancient fortresses and ruins, as well as a noteworthy food and wine scene, a strong arts culture, a bohemian quarter known as “The Trap” and the longest vehicle-free pedestrian zone in Europe. Active clients will appreciate the city’s proximity to the Rhodope Mountains and their plentiful hiking and cycling trails.

Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, connects the two parts of the city and is an example of Balkan Islamic architecture. © 2018 Getty Images

Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, connects the two parts of the city and is an example of Balkan Islamic architecture. © 2018 Getty Images

Intrepid’s Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explorer tour hits Romania’s wildlife-rich Danube Delta, but suggest a more in-depth visit for bird-watchers and nature lovers, Brys Overeem says. Immersive excursions with local operators bring guests through the thousands of square miles of rivers, canals, marshes, tree-fringed lakes and reed islands that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. It’s one of the best places to observe colonies of cormorants and pelicans — along with some 300 other species of birds — as well as 3,450 species of animals, such as wildcats, foxes, wolves, boar and deer.

River cruise line CroisiEurope is aiming to satiate travelers’ desire for undiscovered destinations, as well. New within the last two years is the line’s 11-day Journey Between Central Europe and the Balkans itinerary, which sails through Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia along the Sava and Danube rivers. According to John McGlade, the line’s general manager for the U.S. and Canada, the trip offers the mix of culture, nature and history that guests look for when choosing a cruise destination — without having to compete with massive crowds.

The sailing takes place onboard Victor Hugo, which, due to the growing popularity of the trip, will be refurbished this winter for the 2019 cruise season, McGlade says. The itinerary brings clients to spots such as Croatia’s Kopacki Rit Nature Park, one of the largest preserved wetlands in Europe; Vojvodina, Serbia, where travelers can discover Serbian art and architecture; and Brcko, Bosnia, Europe’s only entirely self-governing free city in existence.

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The Gothic-style Zagreb Cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia. © 2018 Shutterstock

The Gothic-style Zagreb Cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia. © 2018 Shutterstock

Croatian Vacation

Croatia is oft-visited for its picturesque southern port of Dubrovnik, which also lures “Game of Thrones” fans eager to tour the main filming location of the beloved HBO series. But to avoid contributing to the city’s severe overtourism issue, reroute clients to more central and northern parts of the country, which also hold beautiful natural and historical sites and are easily accessible for travelers exploring Italy.

Consider, for example, putting together a trip that visits UNESCO World Heritage-designated Plitvice Lakes National Park, known for its 16 lakes arranged in cascades and multitudinous waterfalls. The lush forest reserve in central Croatia is a two-hour drive from both Zagreb — Croatia’s inland capital — and the coastal city of Zadar, which is also worth a visit, says Turley of Alpine Travel.

“Zadar has one of the biggest and best markets of all the Dalmatian coastal towns,” she said. “Or, send travelers north to Rovinj; I’ve had clients ferry from Rovinj to Venice.”

Zvonimir Androic, owner and president of Via Tours Croatia — a family-owned tour operator that crafts private, fully customized trips in the destination and its surrounding countries — says he has seen a huge rise in requests for under-the-radar Croatian locales over the last few years.

“While Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar and Zagreb are top cities in Croatia, we are seeing more travelers asking for off-the-beaten-path towns, such as the Sibenik, Zadar and Istria regions,” he said.

Androic notes that since Via Tours Croatia opened sales to the U.S. market four years ago, it has nearly doubled its number of bookings each year.

Croatia’s central location within Europe makes it perfect for country-hopping, which may help advisors persuade clients to tack a few lesser-visited destinations onto a typical European itinerary (or even swap out some hot spots altogether).

“Travelers from the Americas love multicountry itineraries, so places such as Bled and Ljubljana in Slovenia, as well as Montenegro, Albania and Bosnia, are new and upcoming spots that they are starting to dig into,” Androic said.


Nordic State of Mind

Countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark — once more of an afterthought to a Europe trip and often only visited as part of a Baltic cruise — are starting to see more purposeful visitation.

Sofia Hedman, group operations coordinator and family travel specialist for Maryland- and Delaware-based Accent on Travel, says she is noticing more clients heading to these regions as part of their main itinerary, and deeply exploring the countries on land tours.

Hedman — who serves as her agency’s go-to advisor for queries about Scandinavia, thanks to her extensive travels throughout the region and her Swedish-born-and-raised parents — says the area has grown in popularity particularly among multigenerational clients.

“Recently, I had a grandmother take her two grandkids on an extensive tour featuring less visited towns such as Gothenburg and Smogen, Sweden, where they celebrated the popular summer festival Midsummer, and Helsinki and Porvoo, Finland, along with more well-known cities such as Stockholm; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway; and Reykjavik, Iceland,” she said.

If a Europe trip is on your clients’ radar, send them north, Hedman suggests.

“Scandinavia is worth a visit because of its beauty, the warmth of the people and the ease that your clients will feel when they are there,” she added. “English is widely spoken, and the small towns are easier to navigate than some larger European countries. There’s also a wide range of activities you can experience, whether you are looking for history, culture, art, music, shopping or the outdoors.”

One Nordic destination that has swelled in popularity in recent years is Iceland, which has sparked debate over whether the island nation’s infrastructure can handle the growing tourism numbers — not to mention, whether the influx will damage the vast, pristine wilderness.

“As the world becomes more accessible, we’re finding that travelers are more open-minded to unfamiliar destinations that are increasingly easy to explore. The world is full of incredible sites and experiences — the tourism industry needs to provide these options to travelers.”
Darshika Jones, director of North America for Intrepid Group

To help lessen the burden of visitors to the country, Intrepid is encouraging travelers set on chasing the northern lights to head to Finland instead. Its eight-day Finnish Lapland in Winter trip, which was new in 2018, gives clients a look into local life, including learning reindeer herding from a Finnish family, exploring the remote terrain via dogsled and, of course, searching the night sky for the aurora borealis.

“As the world becomes more accessible, we’re finding that travelers are more open-minded to unfamiliar destinations that are increasingly easy to explore,” said Intrepid’s Jones. “The world is full of incredible sites and experiences — the tourism industry needs to provide these options to travelers.”

Viking, too, understands this: Beyond providing a baptism into small-town Norwegian life and culture, its Into the Midnight Sun sailing offers a thoughtful look into some of Europe’s other lesser-visited destinations, such as Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands.

“Vikings were explorers, and our ships are built with their spirit of exploration in mind,” said Torstein Hagen, founder and chairman of Viking. “We design every aspect of our ships and cruises so that our guests can spend more time immersed in their destination.”

The grandeur of Norway, which is perhaps best summed up by a four-letter word — epic — was magnified by the quietude of the towns we visited.

In Geiranger, for example — a village of just 200 residents — our Viking ship, along with only one other cruise vessel, had the UNESCO World Heritage Site all to ourselves. After a stop at the visitors center to inquire about the top hikes, I trekked up a misty mountain abutting the scenic fjord; my steep journey to the Storseterfossen waterfall was punctuated by deep silence, sightings of a mere handful of other hikers, and all the time I wanted to take in the 100-foot-high roiling waters.

In a society that so often values a hurry-up-and-stay-busy mentality, the ability to stop and reflect on the beauty of a destination — without being rushed along — is truly precious.

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