Newsweek - Capturing The Niche
May 14, 2007

Travelers are seeking focused, meaningful trips - and tour operators are happy to comply.

Claire Hurren is not interested in spending her vacation lying on a beach, shopping or museum hopping. She doesn't even want to go on safari. The 32-year-old doctor from Nottinghamshire, England, hopes to do something more focused and meaningful with her time off. So this August she will head to Greece to count dolphins for a population census by Earthwatch Institute. "I want to be involved in conservation," says Hurren, who has taken 14 other Earthwatch trips, including spotlight surveys of caimans on the Amazon. "I mean, it's not that hard: you're out in a boat watching dolphins in the sunshine. And I know the money I spend on the trips is going to scientific research."

More than most, slow travelers vacation with a rigorous sense of purpose. They have the time, energy and attention spans to zero in on one thing, whether it's playing every golf course in Scotland, learning to paint like Michelangelo, saving the Siberian tiger or visiting their ancestral homelands, from Ireland to India. Many are driven by concerns about the environment; they understand the havoc mass-market tourism can wreak on the planet, and shun all-inclusive resorts that threaten local livelihoods and packaged tours that can trample the world's ancient and fragile monuments.

Recognizing the growing demand for specialized holidays, savvy tour operators are repositioning themselves to cover niche areas of the market, from Thai cooking holidays to volunteer aid programs in Africa. Companies that used to differentiate themselves on price or region are now segmenting the market even more finely, focusing on one aspect of travel. Ian Bradley, spokesperson for the Association of Independent Tour Operators, notes that as the industry has matured, so have travelers' tastes. "People are looking for something more exclusive, off the beaten track and adventurous," he says. "They want to say, 'I didn't just go to Amsterdam for the weekend but I went whale watching in Iceland or wine tasting in South Africa'."

Classic tours of culturally rich destinations are simply no longer enough. Heather Chan, general manager of the London-based tour operator CTS Horizons, says their traditional tours of Beijing and the Great Wall didn't seem to satisfy all their customers. "We were hearing feedback like, 'It's a pity we didn't have more time to talk to locals' and 'We want to feel what it's like to live in the country'." So last year the company introduced a new tour to Wuzhen, a historic cobbled town outside Shanghai, which included classes in Chinese painting and calligraphy, cooking lessons and sessions with a traditional Chinese doctor. "Tourists want to experience authentic local life—and to do it more leisurely," Chan says.

Creating an experience for travelers who share the same interests creates a sense of community—and that keeps customers coming back. Las och Res, a Swedish tour operator that specializes in rural vacations in non-Western countries, says that nearly two thirds of guests make a repeat booking. Las och Res uses home-stay accommodations in villages and prepares travelers with generous packets of literature in advance of their trips, so they can better relate to locals they meet. At roughly three weeks each, they're also longer than the average tour. "Travelers need time to have in-depth meetings with local people," says founder Christian Jutvik. "Second class on an Indian train is always going to be more interest-ing than an air-conditioned tourist coach." Anke Samulowitz, a 41-year-old health manager from Stockholm, has traveled with Las och Res five times, from Haiti to Indonesia. And she has made friends for life. "The people who go on these trips think similarly," Samulowitz says. "I met two girls on a trip to Equatorial Guinea and we kept in touch and decided to go to India together."

Some highly specialized tours grew out of other niches. Kenyan Chris Foot, 36, founded Footstep Safaris in Nairobi two years ago to provide bespoke tours around East Africa. He also offers spiritual and Christian-based safaris to his offerings, which have proved very popular. "I thought there was a niche for people with lots of cash who wanted top-end safaris but didn't feel like they had to leave their spiritual life behind," says Foot. "This is luxury within the context of faith." Guests can experience communion in the bush, visit local Christian communities and pause beneath an acacia tree for a moment of reflection during a morning game drive. "I'm bringing together Dom Perignon with prayers," says Foot. "They're not mutually exclusive." Foot is also planning to offer investment opportunities to guests in ethics and fair-trade enterprises, linking First World financing to local people in need. "Nowadays, people want to be doing something more than just go on holiday," he says.

That's an increasingly common refrain. CC Africa has been offering more than just vacations for over 10 years. With more than 40 high-end camps and lodges across Africa and India, it is a leading operator in sustainable ecotourism, organizing tourists to take walking safaris in the bush and visit local schools and villages. Ron Magill, a 47-year-old media director from the Miami zoo and a longtime champion of the company, is just back from spotting tigers at Mahua Kothi Lodge in Madhya Pradesh, India. "CC Africa is out there to save the environment. They believe if we give back to the local communities, those people will in turn look after the wildlife," he says. "That's the reason I choose them. They build their decks around trees; they don't cut down trees."

Don't discount the luxury, though, says Nicky Fitzgerald, marketing director at CC Africa's Johannesburg headquarters. "Of course, what attracts people to us in the first place is the bedrooms, the plunge pools, the 'best hotel in the world' by Condé Nast," she says. "But then we stand out from the rest by our community work. Our guests can visit clinics and see rows of HIV-positive mothers. More and more, they want to see their dollar making a difference." Often they return home with a new sense of commitment. Magill is currently raising money for a conservation project he witnessed on his India vacation: "I'm getting ready to send $5,000 to a sloth-bear rehabilitation project that I saw when I was out there," he says.

Earthwatch Institute takes interactive conservation even further: it recruits guests to join scientists in field research, like the trips that Hurren took. Such volunteer vacations are competitive with regular vacations; 13 days tracking koalas in Australia costs $2,470—including accommodations, food and activities. Earthwatch Europe has seen a 68 percent rise in volunteers in the last 10 years, and its global repeat rate for guests is 50 percent. Nigel Winser, Earthwatch Europe's executive director, says more people than ever are interested in using their vacation time in other ways. "It's an opportunity to get away, learn about the environment and give something back," he says.

Some tourists prefer to leave the environmental activism to the resorts they choose. Six Senses, which owns nine luxury properties across Asia, is known as one of the top innovators in adopting environmental initiatives. "Every property has its own resident environmentalist, and we're constantly trying out new technology to become more sustainable," says Sonu Shivdasani, who founded the company 12 years ago with his wife, Eva. "We're cultivating dragonflies to kill mosquitoes and cooling villas by pumping cold seawater through fan units. Next year we're opening a luxury ecosuite at Soneva Kiri in Thailand, which will be carbon zero. It will have natural ventilation, solar-powered air conditioning and a small windmill for electricity. That's what we believe 21st-century travelers really want." And if that's what they want, there are plenty of businesses that will be only too happy to give it to them.