Skip to main content
the boomer shift

E-biking in Switzerland: boomers have an ‘insatiable desire’ for travel.Glyn Manwaring-Jones

This is part of the Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next 15 years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

For more, visit and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers.

Nina Leemhuis says she's an "experiential traveller."

The city manager for West Vancouver has done the Inca Trail, Arctic Circle, Amazon, Red Sea and Egypt. She has been to India with a girlfriend, took her father back to their roots in Norway, and rented a car for a solo drive of the Netherlands. When her partner turned 65, they toured Florence and took a week of cooking courses in Tuscany.

"I'm not the Holiday Inn kind of traveller any more," the 54-year-old explains. "The world is bigger than I will ever have time to explore."

Leemhuis started a travel wish list long ago. While her 67-year-old partner likes warm, relaxed travel, she prefers being active: "exploring, learning about the history of a city, learning about the art … [and] visiting heritage sites."

Like many of her baby-boomer contemporaries, Leemhuis likes adventure. And as she prepares to retire, her wish list is growing. She plans to get out there – and she's not alone. Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965, according to Statistics Canada) are travellers who experts predict will take over this sector of the economy.

It is a perfect storm of time and money – and just as boomers made backpacking through Europe a rite of passage, so, too, will they shake up the rules of retirement and the travel economy.

"It is about freedom," Paul Marshman, a retired Toronto newspaperman who began his blog the Travelling Boomer in 2013, says. "For once in your life you have the opportunity to travel; suddenly you don't have to be back to work on Monday morning. It's like being let out of school."

Baby boomers make up 27 per cent of the Canadian population. The Canadian Tourism Research Institute (CTRI), an arm of the non-profit Conference Board of Canada, predicts that this group will be the main pleasure-travel market over the next 10 years, spending more than $35-billion annually. It anticipates those 55 and older will be going on 2.3 million trips between now and 2021.

Marshman adds the movement is a result of people making up for lost time, while also realizing there is only so much time left. "You never know how long you're going to be fit and healthy."

Boomers "have this insatiable desire to keep learning, travelling, seeing new things and meeting people," says Lina Ko, branding specialist and author of "They want to keep moving."

But is the travel industry ready for them?

By and large, the boomer set is booking non-traditional, "bucket list" destinations – moving away from the typical sun-soaked getaways. High-end custom travel companies in particular – such as Blaycation, an online luxury-focused travel agency, Butterfield & Robinson and Abercrombie & Kent – are changing to meet the need.

Boomers are Butterfield & Robinson's No. 1 market, Katie Marshall, manager of media relations for the Canadian tour agency, says. The company has already begun modifying trips, such as introducing "easier travel, flatter biking routes and regions," for active older travellers.

Another small but significant change was introducing a fleet of electric bikes. The battery-operated rides assist cyclists on hillier routes and regions. "The main thing is how we're going to keep these kinds of active trips accessible," Marshall says.

The demand for cycling tours in general is increasing, becoming more popular than golf, according to a Euromonitor International report.

Voluntourism, a hybrid of volunteering and tourism, is also on the rise. Hobby, travel and personal engagement are aligned, explains Sherry Petrasko, a senior travel consultant with Travel Professionals International, who adds her company has experienced an uptick in boomer business. "[Boomers are] not being passive about their travel experiences. They aren't afraid to take chances to travel and see what interests them."

Cruising is another area that many believe will see an increase in boomer action in the coming decade. Cruise lines are already repositioning, using fitter-looking silver-haired models in their brochures. "It's low impact," Marshman says. "Basically you get to see a lot of places and not beating yourself to death to do it. They cater to your every whim."

Increasingly, one part of the market to chase will be solo travellers, those exploring on their own because of a later-life divorce or death, or simply because a partner does not want to venture so far afield. According to Visa's Global Travel Intentions Study 2015, the number of affluent adults who vacation on their own has more than doubled to 32 per cent, up from 14 per cent in 2013.

Many operators, including Abercrombie & Kent, have lowered single supplements on several tours (the extra fee solo travellers pay not to share a room), while some cruise lines, such as Norwegian, are adding single cabins at lower prices. This past June, Transat introduced a new Solo Collection option at 19 resorts that includes free room service, no single supplement and an optional communal table to share meals.

Airlines, too, are beginning to recognize the importance of this generation, offering more direct flights on long-haul destinations, Jennifer Hendry, a senior research associate the Canadian Tourism Research Institute, says. Air Canada, for example, introduced a 787 Dreamliner flight to Delhi starting in November, and started new flights to Asia from Vancouver. (The airline declined to comment on its marketing or operational plans.) In February, Emirates begins a 17-plus-hour run direct between Dubai and Panama. American launched Dallas-to-Hong Kong last year and Quantas started its nearly 16-hour Dallas-to-Sydney run a few years ago.

Even health-insurance companies may also have to rethink their policies and be a little less stringent with medical denials, Hendry adds. "The older traveller is going to drive outbound travel, but they are risk-averse."

Christiane Germain, co-president of Montreal-based Groupe Germain Hotels, says that while there are many challenges ahead for the industry, this generation of travellers is forging ahead.

"I call them the Now Generation," Germain says with a laugh. "If they want to do something, they're not waiting any more. They're doing it."