Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.
I like to think of my partner and I as intrepid travellers. We rent motorbikes to navigate labyrinthine metropolises. We hike solo through remote mountain ranges and hit yawning stretches of road in foreign countries where we don’t see another soul. While we normally relish this independence, the pandemic has lessened its appeal and viability.
People are itching to travel, however, and news of the European Union reopening to vaccinated travellers this summer means it may be a reality for some very soon. Close to one-third of respondents said they would take a trip within three months of being vaccinated, according to a study conducted this year by tour company G Adventures, and other tour operators are seeing milestone booking rates this year.
But even once we’re fully vaccinated and our opportunity to roam widens, it’s likely that restrictions and shifting pandemic protocols will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The days of spontaneous misadventures may not reappear for a long time.
Booking a small group tour, or at least consulting with an expert when navigating trip logistics, is more attractive now than ever. So, when planning our Patagonia honeymoon for early 2022, we worked with a travel adviser at Chile Nativo to get on-the-ground intel that would make our independent trip a more seamless experience.
We’re not alone in this new-found desire to have someone else take care of the finer details of a holiday. “We’ve never, in 10 years of offering women-only group running and wellness retreats, been able to launch and sell out new trips this fast,” says Elinor Fish, founder of Colorado-based Run Wild Retreats, which operates across North America and Europe. “We’re now almost sold out for 2021, and that was after we increased our trip capacity by 88 per cent over pre-pandemic levels.”
A recent report by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada shows that Canadians’ perceptions of the value of travel advisers is rising. The G Adventures study also indicated that 56 per cent of Canadians will take a small group tour as their next international trip, and a recent study by Destination Canada found that 47 per cent of Canadians are likely to use a travel agent for their next out-of-province trip.
“Trying to plan a trip independently during current times requires even more dedication and attention to detail,” says Alicia Caton, marketing manager for Chile Nativo. “There are so many things to consider, such as specific country travel protocols, and travellers don’t always know where to find this information, or maybe it’s not available in their language.”
This may be the silver lining of the pandemic slump for tour operators. As every country differs drastically in terms of vaccine rollout rates and economic recovery, using a travel adviser or booking a group tour takes care of worrying about the ever-changing logistics that come with pandemic travel. It makes navigating cancellation policies and country-specific entry and exit requirements easier, and also means travellers are likely to feel safer wherever they’re going.
For instance, in 2020, Intrepid Travel launched Safe Travels, a World Travel and Tourism Counsel-endorsed policy that includes high standards of COVID-19 travel protocols from start to finish on a trip. This goes further than extra sanitization, distancing and mandatory masks.
“Our local guides are always looking out for your safety first, but they’re also looking out for anybody who may not be following this protocol so you can relax, take in the sights and sounds, and not be on your guard,” says Matt Berna, Intrepid’s managing director for North America.
“Trust is the currency we’re all dealing in right now,” says Jennifer Haddow, founder of Newfoundland-based Wild Women Expeditions. “I think that the mood we’re all in is we want someone to have our back – and that’s what group travel is really about.”
Beyond the additional sense of ease and security guided trips provide, most of us are coming out of the pandemic with a new-found appreciation for travel and the desire to make our trips count.
“Overwhelmingly, the majority of women that are booking with us are going for those big bucket-list trips,” Haddow says. Her tour company recently joined forces with Adventure Canada to launch a series of polar expeditions to Antarctica and the Canadian Arctic, which have been among the most popular bookings this year. Destinations like the polar regions would be extremely difficult to navigate independently, and the growing demand for these once-in-a-lifetime journeys in nature-based destinations also makes consulting a tour operator more attractive right now.
Myriad studies across the industry show an increased interest in remote, outdoors-focused trips. “If you want to avoid the crowds of mass tourism at most national parks, you have to think specialty tours that require specialty guides,” says Josh Cohen, director of Wild Planet Adventures in California. “The more specialized, the more exclusive and the less travellers. Wildlife tourism requires top guides and small groups, and isn’t easily done on your own.”
The environmental impact of travel was also brought into sharp focus throughout the pandemic and using a sustainable tour operator that works with vetted eco-friendly partners on the ground also ensures visitors are leaving a light footprint in these wild places.
“There’s this sensitivity and empathy that we are experiencing with our clients,” Haddow says. “They’re saying, I really want to make sure more than ever that the people that we’re visiting are truly welcoming us and we are creating a positive impact on their lives.”
The shift from travellers only looking at where they can currently go to where they should go is part of the ever-changing repertoire of knowledge tour operators can provide right now. Part of this heightened consciousness is the growing demand for slower, more meaningful trips that a private guide can help facilitate. Our lives at home have slowed down throughout the pandemic, and this more intentional approach to life is spilling over into how people travel.
“People have been explicitly asking about the local guide on the ground,” says Michael Bennett, co-founder of Seattle-based Explorer X. “[They’re saying], ‘I want to really get to know this place, these people, this culture, this food,’ and a great way to do that is to find someone who’s like my local best friend.”
Intrepid also launched their Retreats throughout the pandemic, trips that emphasize slow travel that benefits the local community by basing a small group in a more remote area where they’re able to connect with residents and do day trips.
“People are coming out of this pandemic and they’re thinking, ‘I need to live differently,’” Bennett says. “We’re seeing the two of those – live better and travel better – dovetail.