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Mr. Chi beamed a proud grin as he thrust a massive glass bottle in front of our faces. This particular homemade hooch was infused with deer horns, while the others were flavored with sand dollars, starfish or baby scorpions by the dozens.
My friends looked quizzically at the bottle as his wife — who had just prepared a lovely stir-fried lunch for us in their home — placed a set of shot glasses before us. One by one, the other guests backed out, so it was up to me to be courteous, keep an open mind and toss one back for the team.
Lunch at this local couple’s home in Old Beijing was one of the most memorable experiences I had during my first trip to China. Not only was it an opportunity to see what life is actually like in the city, but it was also a crash course in authentic home cooking.
“An invitation into the home of a local allows travelers to truly connect with a destination through the people who build their lives there,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). “More and more of our members are offering home visits ranging from cooking farm-to-table family recipes at a 17th-century farm in France to savoring freshly baked bread in a private village in Oman.”
As leisure travelers demand more authenticity on their vacations, the desire for meet-the-locals experiences has grown exponentially in the escorted-tours segment. Now, tour operators are refining their product offerings to keep up with the trend.
Trafalgar, for one, has evolved its product over the last few years to ensure that each of its itineraries includes opportunities to mix with locals.
“Our research indicated that travelers were increasingly seeking deeper, richer vacations, so we set out to create experiences that guests simply cannot find on their own,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar. “Since we are a well-established company, our product teams were able to use their relationships to enhance our product with more unique, local experiences.”
Today, Trafalgar itineraries include at least four Insider Experiences per trip, which could include dining with a family in their farm or winery; under-the-radar attractions known only to locals; or overnight stays in properties with rich cultural or historical significance. Accommodations range from Ashford Castle in Ireland and the cave-like Dilek Kaya Hotel in Turkey to Boston’s Omni Parker House hotel, where some say John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.
Similarly, each Insight Vacations itinerary includes Signature Experiences, which introduce guests to local shopkeepers, artisans and restaurateurs in an effort to engage them in regional culture. The luxury tour operator unlocks doors closed to the public, whether that’s meeting with England’s Duchess of Northumberland for an exclusive tour of her gardens or riding through Germany's Bavarian Forest in a horse-drawn wagon — on the way to a hands-on glassmaking workshop.
With Adventures by Disney, local experiences have always been part of the journey. Each itinerary is designed to give guests a chance to not only meet locals, but to learn from them, too. In Crete, for example, guests tour olive groves with a shepherd and learn how to make cheese using sheep’s milk. In Queensland, Australia, clients paint their own boomerangs and learn how to throw them under the guidance of the indigenous Tjapukai tribespeople. Guests who travel with Adventures by Disney to Luang Prabang, Laos, gain some very specific skills, as well. They can try their hand at the 13 stages of rice production — from planting to harvesting — and discover how local farmers live off the land.
Tour operators are increasingly focusing on “people-to-people” experiences for travelers, such as meeting olive farmers in Crete. // © 2016 iStock
Learn about cheese-making in Switzerland // © 2016 iStock
Like the writer did, travelers can enjoy a home-cooked meal in China. // © 2016 iStock
Taste Chinese delicacies. // © 2016 iStock
Find out more about artisans, such as glass blowers. // © 2016 iStock
Visitors to Cuba are required to partake in "meet the people" activities. // © 2016 iStock
Technically, Americans still cannot enter Cuba as tourists. // © 2016 iStock
Interactions with the locals enable a better understanding of Cuban culture. // © 2016 iStock
Witness tribal customs in Papua New Guinea. // © 2016 iStock
Rice farmers offer an inside look into the local community of Laos. // © 2016 iStock
Learn about everyday life in a Beijing hutong. // © 2016 iStock
At the CoreWhile some tour operators weave local experiences into each of their itineraries, other companies have built their brands around grassroots travel experiences. One example is small-group adventure travel company Intrepid Travel, founded by two best friends as they were road-tripping through Africa 25 years ago.
“Intrepid was built on the idea of offering immersive and real travel experiences that, at the time, were far from mainstream,” said Darrell Wade, co-founder and CEO of Intrepid. “When we started, we were definitely a niche product category, and very few travel agents sold any adventure travel products. These days, most agents do sell Intrepid, and many book more than 100 clients a year with us. I think people are becoming better educated and more experienced about what they expect from travel. Whereas people used to be happy to sit on a bus and look out the window at the destination, now they’d rather be truly immersed.”
Recently, Intrepid has focused on the unexplored regions of the world with its new Expedition trips. On an Expedition itinerary, guests might take a dip in the sulfur baths of Georgia’s Svaneti region, interact with dozens of tribes at the Rabaul Mask Festival in Papua New Guinea or take a boat out on Lake Koman in the remote northern reaches of Albania.
“I just don’t think passive tourism has a role in the future,” Wade said. “We engage and excite our travelers, and if we can’t do that, then I don’t think we should be in the business.”
Learning Journeys makes its clients' interests the focus of its trips. As the name suggests, Learning Journeys gives guests the opportunity to improve upon their particular passions, whether that's learning Italian from the mouth of a Sicilian or perfecting their downward-facing dog posture with a Himalayan yoga master. Guests even have the opportunity to attend off-the-beaten-path festivals to help them take their skills to the next level.
“Travel agents should stop thinking about traditional travel offerings — people are looking for journeys of self-discovery,” said Carol Dimopoulos, president of Perillo Tours Global Brands, the parent company of Learning Journeys. “Ask your clients about their interests before asking where they want to go. You will attract a new demographic and expand your current offerings to your existing clients.”
Learning Journeys is also committed to giving back to local communities. To that end, a portion of each trip’s cost will support the community and organizations that play a critical role in guests' itineraries.
People-to-People Travel in CubaCuba — one of the hottest travel destinations right now — is one of the few nations where meet-the-locals programs have flourished out of sheer necessity. Even with President Obama’s visit to Cuba last month, the announcement of direct commercial flights resuming between the U.S. and Cuba and the news of Starwood’s first U.S.-Cuba hotel deal since the 1959 revolution, travel to Cuba remains complicated for U.S. citizens.
Technically, Americans still cannot enter Cuba as tourists. But, as of March 16, individuals can now travel to Cuba on their own — provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in the destination or promote the Cuban people’s independence from the country's authorities.
“Most tour operators believe the easing of travel restrictions will grow awareness to visit Cuba, and that, in turn, will also help drive business,” said Dale of USTOA. “One of the core benefits of booking travel with a tour operator can be summed up in one word: access. The access that tour operators provide travelers around the globe — singular experiences, trusted on-the-ground guides, accommodations and dining options — is even more critical in Cuba, where free and unrestricted travel is still not allowed.”
Peggy Goldman, founder and president of Friendly Planet Travel, also believes that tour operators provide value in Cuba, adding that it would be difficult for individual travelers to create meaningful programs that conform to the law.
“The real value of these trips is in the extensive programming, based on deep connections in the country, that allow a visitor to see and experience Cuba and the Cubans — where they live, work and play,” she said. “An individual traveler simply cannot duplicate those experiences.”
With Friendly Planet’s Discover Havana tour, for instance, guests visit a local ration store to learn about Cuba’s two-currency system; watch a performance of the Cuban National Choir; and visit with political artist Lester Campa in his studio. On a nine-day tour through Trinidad, Cojimar, Las Terrazas, Havana and other locations, guests will dance alongside locals at a neighborhood block party, learn about the religion of Santeria at Templo de Yemalla and gain a better understanding of Afro-Cuban culture at a community center in Matanzas.
Travelers who wish to explore particular interests in Cuba can do that on an escorted tour, as well. LaTour, an Isramworld Company, has partnered with PrideWorld to offer LGBTQ-themed itineraries. In both Havana and colonial Santa Clara, guests have opportunities to mingle with LGBTQ Cubans, from artists and dancers to musicians, and learn about their particular achievements and struggles. Likewise, LaTour’s Shalom Cuba program includes meetings with Jewish Cubans and visits to their synagogues and neighborhoods. Guests will also be treated to a Shabbat dinner with members of the local Jewish community, meet Cuba’s only kosher butcher and chat with the president of El Patronato Jewish Community Center about life in Havana.
“The best aspect of my people-to-people tour in Cuba was meeting senior citizens, musicians, artists and schoolchildren and getting to see how full of hope their lives were despite the obvious poverty throughout the country,” said traveler Phil Marzullo, who visited Cuba with LaTour. “I was so impressed by their spirit and joy of life in a very difficult environment, and I hope the new U.S. involvement makes things better for these amazing people.”
Living in someone else’s shoes, even for a day, can be a truly impactful experience — regardless of the destination. The personal stories of local people and the lessons they teach have the power to stay with clients for years to come.
“One of the most memorable local experiences I’ve had was on an escorted tour through Turkey with Globus,” Dale said. “We were in the Ephesus region, and our guide brought us to a small family-owned restaurant called Bizim Ev. The owner invited us into the kitchen to share her family’s decades-old recipes. As we cooked dishes alongside her, we learned about the origins and flavors of the different ingredients and why these recipes were so important to her family. I still dream about that meal to this day.”