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Alternative Senior Travel

Alison Gardner Describes the Options for Mature Travelers to Dr. Clay A. Hubbs

Writer, photographer, and book and magazine editor Alison Gardner’s Canadian passport reads “Citizen of the World.” As the associate editor of Canadian Maturity for six years she developed a particular expertise in alternative travel, focusing on older adults and women and solo travelers of any age. I’m pleased to announce that Alison has agreed to join Transitions Abroad as its Senior Travel Editor effective with the July/August 2004 issue. I recently spoke with her about her book and website devoted to alternative travel.

Alison Gardner on Alternative Senior Travel
Alison Gardner prepares for a horseback camping trip in British Columbia's 8,000 foot Chilcotin Mountains

Clay Hubbs: In the last issue (March/April) Rolf Potts discussed his new book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long-Term Travel, in which he draws on his own experience and that of earlier travelers like Thoreau and John Muir to demonstrate the greater rewards of long-term independent travel over short-term group trips: the longer you immerse yourself in one place the richer the experience. In contrast, your book, Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler, focuses primarily on short-term vacations with a group. What makes the “uncommon adventures” of your title special?

Alison Gardner: There is no doubt that adventurous travel has long been narrowly associated with blazing independent, unpredictable trails across countries, continents, and seas. Historically, this has been the arena of young, fit, fearless individuals, mostly of the male persuasion. How could an ordinary person possibly have such adventures, with all the physical and mental challenges that they imply, on a pre-planned itinerary with a group of people shepherded by a guide?

Along with the profile of today’s adventurous travelers, the definition of adventure travel itself has changed dramatically over the past few decades. As long as vacations were seen as self-focused rest and relaxation holidays, adventure was seldom part of the equation. But with the strong demand for alternative travel experiences—driven largely by the older traveler and, particularly by women travelers from about 35 to 80 years old—adventure travel has become a common term.

I address this seeming contradiction in the introduction to Travel Unlimited: “Adventure means different things to different people, whose age, ability, previous experiences, and personal tastes all shape their definition of a personal experience. Many 20-year-olds consider bungee jumping an adventure, while most people in their later years would define it as idiotic and dangerous. On the other hand, a great many older people are trying for the first time a moderately challenging level of whitewater rafting, hiking, cycling and ocean kayaking, and they are finding such holidays to be exhilarating.”

Most travelers today either cannot or do not wish to take extended periods away from their home base, but they still want memorable short-term experiences and adventures of one week to a month. Certainly, it is possible to plan and carry out independent alternative travel holidays with great success. But the two audiences who make up the vast majority of travelers today—older travelers and women—are far more inclined to research and select a carefully -planned small-group tour, a volunteer program, or an expeditionary cruise where the destinations, total expenses, and range of experiences are clearly defined. Since 9/11 the notion of not going it alone has become even more strategically prudent in their minds.

CH: The four types of alternative vacations you feature in your book (ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer) are familiar because they are represented in every issue of Transitions Abroad. But the heading for the fifth section, “Ship-Board Alternative Tourism,” made me pause. I now understand that there are many kinds of cruises that deserve to be called “alternative,” and you say the ones you’ve highlighted are just the tip of the iceberg. Are there other important trends in alternative travel?

AG: While ever-larger conventional cruise ships continue to roll off the production line, the phenomenal growth of small-scale eco-cruising and expedition cruising has been an answer to the prayers of those who would never consider a mainstream cruise or those who no longer find its predictability satisfying. Alternative cruising is much less formal. Except for meals, sleeping, and educational lectures, a great deal of the focus is on an in-depth understanding of the region visited, with opportunities to go ashore or explore by Zodiac or other small craft even in the most remote locations. Having your hotel travel along with you remains an attractive option: you unpack once, get used to the bed and the shipboard routine, and then put your energy into absorbing the adventure. There is no doubt that alternative cruising is here to stay.

Other trends in alternative travel? An extensive Harris Poll survey in the late 1990s revealed that the largest segment of travelers is labeled Life Enhancers. This group, which travels for enrichment and learning, was—even five years ago—twice as large as the next groups, the Sun Seekers (the beach crowd) and the Play-It-Safers (familiar places crowd). That trend has accelerated in the years since the survey—largely driven by the generation ahead of the baby boomers but sure to be reinforced by them in this and future decades—and demonstrates a movement toward travel that takes your mind as well as your body somewhere: to trips that transform.

Women are the great adventurers of our time, and they will continue to drive travel in new directions. Mature women presently make up about 60 percent of clients on nature-based and educational trips, 70 percent on cultural and volunteer service trips, and 80 percent on health and wellness trips.

The Internet has revolutionized personal travel research. Much more comfortable with computers than perception might dictate, mature travelers of both sexes love to research their own vacation themes, destinations, alternative accommodations, and tour operators. They may still book through a travel agent—which I usually recommend—but they want to have a lot more input into the eventual mix than in the far more predictable planning for a conventional, mainstream holiday.

Seniors control most of the discretionary income in western society, and spending on travel is a high priority. They are the best-educated generation in the history of the world and continue their quest for knowledge throughout their long lifetimes. They have time to plan and time to enjoy every aspect of the vacation experience. They want action and encounters that often require mental effort and physical preparedness, knowing that they can go back home for a rest when the adventure is over. They are generally in good to excellent health; when they do have health issues, they just search out travel companies ready to meet their needs. Having raised families and navigated careers, they are responsible risk takers who delight in new challenges and experiences. And lastly, they tend to be more sensitive to human impact on the world's environment and traditional cultures. They want to give something back to a world that has generally served them well.

CH: In your online travel magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, you introduce your readers to the latest alternative travel opportunities of the kind you feature in your book. What other resources do you recommend for information on alternative travel?

AG: To mention only a few broad-ranging resources I know to be readily available: I have long had great respect for your own Transitions Abroad magazine and its Alternative Travel Directory guidebook. Bill McMillon’s Volunteer Vacations is an excellent resource for short-term service holidays, and Ellen Lederman’s Vacations That Can Change Your Life presents a range of adventures, retreats, and workshops for the mind, body, and spirit. As far as I am aware, Travel Unlimited is the only global alternative travel resource addressing the needs and interests of the mature traveler. Sage advice on all aspects of successful independent travel around the world can be found in Edward Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad.

As far as travel web resources are concerned, I am a great fan of Planeta.com for exceptional articles and practical advice on grassroots, sustainable vacationing. ResponsibleTravel.com is a web site representing many small-scale tour operators “that give the world a break,” and again I must refer to my own monthly web publication, Travel with a Challenge, www.travelwithachallenge.com, which offers richly illustrated feature articles and fast-breaking news about alternative travel opportunities.

CH: As information on every form of travel becomes more readily available on the Web and as travel forums and blogs multiply, how do you see the role of guidebooks and other print publications relative to this new instantaneous medium of information transfer and communication?

AG: The Web has made possible the incredible blossoming of alternative travel today. How else could small-scale tours operating in obscure locations throughout the world successfully market their offerings in the face of the advertising budgets of Princess Cruises, Disney World, and the multi-national hotel chains? Amazingly, they really can compete with the giants, thanks to the Internet. Unfortunately, print resources lose their accuracy very quickly, while Web resources can be updated at will. However, Web resources are not easily portable. Most people value the tangibility of a travel book or an article to carry with them in their research and travel. I know I do.

Travel with a Challenge: The Site for Senior Travelers

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