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Exotic travel: the new family vacation Add to ...

Eight-year-old Julian Elia stands in front of the Taj Mahal and assesses the magnitude of the white marble wonder towering above him.

"It's bigger than the things I've built with Lego," he says.

The Indian mausoleum is one of eight destinations he has visited as the co-star of the Canadian show Are We There Yet?, in which a brother and sister travel to exotic locales no plastic block can recreate.

But Julian is not the only youngster getting a first-hand view of the wonders of the world, places previous generations of children would have seen only in picture books.

Even preschoolers are accompanying Mom and Dad on Nepalese treks and deep-sea dives, African safaris and European art tours - trips once considered appropriate adventures for midlife, not March Break.

"In the last two years, we're definitely seeing more of a trend towards taking kids on more exotic trips," says Allison Eaton of Flight Centre North America. "[Parents] see it as a great opportunity to kind of open up the world for their children."

But do junior jet setters really have something to gain from trading Wiis for wanderlust? Or are they simply being dragged along by a new wave of affluent, affected parents who wouldn't be caught dead at Disneyland? (Sure, the neighbours take an annual trip to Hawaii, but my family summers in Ulan Bator.)

All of which prompts the question: Is it time to leave the kids at home?

"I just don't understand it," Arthur Frommer says of travelling with children. Yes, that Frommer, the founder of the famous guidebooks. "How does the child benefit and how does the parent benefit?"

He believes that taking children, and even young teens, overseas interferes with adults' ability to enjoy the trip and bores kids themselves, who would rather be at home with their friends.

According to the Kids Say Vacation Survey, conducted by travel industry experts YPB&R, the majority of kids aged 6 to 17 just want to go to theme parks, the beach or on a cruise - suggesting that more exotic trips hold little appeal.

That's why Frommer has for years discouraged parents from taking their families abroad, writing "NO!" in big black letters in his replies to readers asking whether it's appropriate to pack kids' bags.

GAP YEAR GIFTS NO MORE

But parents aren't heeding his advice. Travel agents are noticing that trips to Europe are no longer saved until after university, but given as bar mitzvah gifts or high-school graduation presents. A 2007 American Express survey found that 68 per cent of children had travelled internationally before the age of 17.

And a whole new travel industry is evolving around far-flung family vacations, with products, custom tours and even guidebooks designed for little eyes taking in the big world.

In January, The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children appeared on shelves, offering advice on when to take time off school, how best to breastfeed in foreign locales and why kids will love Russian dumplings called pelmeni.

Online, travel cots and portable bed rails are marketed to parents who want to bring the toddler along to that Thai guest house.

Family blogs chronicle round-the-world journeys, with snapshots of eight-year-olds beaming on the beaches of Mozambique and sampling the fare in Santiago, Chile.

"I was quite calm when I found myself checking in for a 10-hour flight to Kyrgyzstan with a three-month-old baby," writes Saffia Farr, a British blogger living in Egypt. "Children are more adaptable and capable than we give them credit for."

In fact, exotic adventures are now the stuff family vacations are made of, travel experts say, as parents look for unique experiences to share with their kids.

And forget booking the family into a safe chain hotel. Eaton says many families are now looking for rental homes in Europe, South America and Asia. They're also signing the whole family up for cooking classes, language lessons and even foreign volunteer gigs.

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