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The current state of global affairs paints a grim picture — the past year is littered with travel bans, acts of terror, natural disasters and a political narrative that, while certainly influential, has become equally as divisive.
Unsurprisingly, a ripple effect has been felt within the travel industry, which prides itself on the promotion of cross-cultural unity through open-minded interaction and discovery through nature.
“At least from a political standpoint, more and more countries are being isolationist,” said Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar. “That’s definitely the ongoing sentiment; they’re looking internally instead of opening up borders and welcoming others.”
But instead of hunkering down and staying put, today’s travelers have proven themselves to be as intrepid as ever. Armed with disposal income (thanks to a stable economy) and a wealth of information at their fingertips, they have become increasingly forthcoming about what they want — and that is to travel.
But providing consumers with trips labeled by a supplier as “authentic” or “experiential” is just the tip of the iceberg. As the world and its communities evolve, so does the definition of meaningful travel.
“It’s actually quite a challenge for our product managers to create experiences that are unique without having them be artificial,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of FIT operator Avanti Destinations. “Our travelers want to be able to meet more local people, exchange ideas and get insights into the local culture.”
Keith Baron, president of Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) USA agrees, noting that today’s tour operators have to continually find new ways to elevate experiential offerings.
“What was a bespoke travel experience just a few years ago is now considered very run-of-the-mill and easily duplicated, so we’re always looking for innovative ways to present these type of experiences and destinations,” Baron said.
Luckily, tour operators have been stepping up to meet the growing demand. But, even better, they’re treating their businesses as catalysts for positive change by introducing social-impact initiatives and “give-back” campaigns.
“At Trafalgar, we see travel as an opportunity to break down barriers,” Tollman said. “What happens when people go to new destinations is that they want to understand the essence of the destination. We all want to become better humans by learning from and understanding others.”
Dalgaard says his independent FIT travelers have been wanting to give back to the communities they visit, so Avanti recently added more volunteer-based experiences in Asia and Central and South America. And at A&K, a new line of Luxury Tailor Made (LTM) Journeys can be fully customized to reflect guests’ interests, which may include philanthropy. One Botswana itinerary within LTM this year includes a stop at a community bike shop started by A&K.
This comes about as the United Nations World Tourism Organization declared 2017 as the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, launching a yearlong campaign that promotes key areas of social-impact tourism, including mutual understanding, peace and security; cultural values, diversity and heritage; and inclusive and sustainable economic growth, among others.
And trips that incorporate these themes are in high demand, according to a March 2017 “Adventure Travel Trends Snapshot” released by the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Three of the four trending trip types dubbed “hot” with clients this year include cultural immersion, ecotourism and environmentally sustainable travel.
Some tour operators, such as Intrepid Travel, have long focused on social-impact tourism; its Intrepid Foundation, which was founded in 2002, supports more than 50 grassroots projects globally.
And G Adventures operates on a social-enterprise model, collaborating with destinations to direct money back into a local community, a process that fosters higher incomes within the destination and provides the “benefits of self-determination,” according to Taylor Hess, global purpose specialist for the company.
“Consumers are becoming aware of who they spend their money with and are preferring to spend their money with local people, not faceless corporations,” Hess said.
He highlights the company’s G Adventures for Good experiences, which offer adventure-themed journeys that allow clients to spend as much of their money as possible with local people. Additionally, the company’s Jane Goodall Collection, National Geographic Journeys tours and Local Living Tours “offer great examples of more ethical ways to experience the world and interact with wildlife and local people,” Hess says.
Travelers can also book Collette’s new Travel With Heart collection, which will offer community-driven tours in South Africa and Costa Rica for the 2018-2019 season, with plans to expand to other destinations in the years to come.
“We recognized that many of our guests are interested in seeing all parts of the world, and that giving back to these communities is often so much more than just financial dollars,” said Dan Sullivan, CEO of Collette.
And some tour operators are practicing charitable behavior as early as the booking process. When clients reserve a U.S. national parks vacation with Globus GoParks!, for example, the Globus Family of Brands makes a donation to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which aids families of firefighters who have been injured or killed in the line of duty.
For April 2018, Trafalgar is working on a new give-back campaign that will give clients the choice between paper tour documents or “e-docs” to be made available on a responsive web platform. For every traveler who opts for the e-docs in the registration process, a new tree will be planted in their honor, thanks to a partnership with nonprofit organization One Tree Planted. Although final details of the campaign are still being determined, Trafalgar’s Tollman says he’s eyeing Northern California — which was recently ravaged by wildfires — as a potential home for the young trees.
This give-back philosophy and trend toward sustainable travel has been warmly embraced by tour operators within the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), says Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA.
“Many members have a growing interest in investing in the destinations they travel to, whether it be financial or with employees and guests’ time and effort,” he said. “In today’s world, travelers want to not only connect with a destination, but also leave a positive footprint on it.”