On the one hand, meeting a Maasai tribe in Kenya sounds unforgettable. On the other hand, an unfamiliar African country that may or may not have American amenities might be less tempting.
When tours find a balance between sought-after experiences and upscale amenities, they often appeal to a wider audience. Instead of tours that speak only to luxury lovers or that focus on culturally enriching programs, group travel planners should seek itineraries that embrace both.
Many American travelers are shocked when they are immersed in an exotic culture. To combat this issue, travel planners should find ways to balance the unfamiliar and the comfortable.
All About Amenities
Wandering through the streets of India with nothing but a backpack will immerse visitors in a destination, but that is an experience that would attract fewer people than a tour that retained some Western amenities. For example, because the traditional Indian bathroom looks terrifying to most Americans, an upscale tour operator might make sure that all pit stops offer Western-style toilets.
Many locally minded tour operators, such as Go Ahead Tours, strive to attract groups by weaving upscale experiences into the tour.
“Balancing the authentic experiences with the amenities our travelers are used to is always on our minds,” said Brandi Longtin-Saade, the company’s head of business development and partnerships. “Basically, the rule of thumb is to make sure people have a comfortable and quality home base, especially when they are somewhere really exotic.”
Go Ahead Tours blends local and luxury in tours to destinations like Peru, where groups stay in eco-friendly lodges in the Amazon with close access to wildlife and the cozy feel of an upscale hotel.
For some destinations, planners might book a cruise to ensure guests enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep in a foreign land. MSC Cruises specializes in sophisticated cruises that introduce passengers to foreign cultures.
“I think cruising is a unique way to handle exotic locations, because you are in a different country every day, while the cruise ship is your home,” said Ken Muskat, executive vice president of sales, public relations and guest services for MSC Cruises. “You’ve got all the luxurious amenities the ship offers alongside the authentic shore excursions.”
While amenities may bring peace of mind, travelers often book one trip over another because of the promised local encounters. A cheese-making class in Switzerland or a coffee plantation tour in Costa Rica attract curious group members who seek a memorable experience.
“We never want people to see the destination from the outside,” said Longtin-Saade. “Staying true to the destination is part of who we are. We offer cooking classes with local chefs, volunteer work, art workshops or other opportunities to get up close with the culture.”
Tour operators like Go Ahead Tours craft experiences that entertain as they teach participants about the destination. The company’s smaller tours also help ensure a more authentic feel than is sometimes possible on an unwieldy motorcoach packed full of people.
MSC Cruises similarly offers experiential excursions, such as camel rides, visits to artist studios and local concerts. The cruise line also tries to bring authentic experiences on the ship through local cuisine, entertainment and retail options.
“We will make sure there are a few culinary options that represent the local area on our menu,” said Muskat. “We also provide other dishes familiar to the passengers. If we have North Americans on board, we serve typical North American food so they have that option.”
Supplying information beforehand can aid visitors’ interactions with a disparate culture. Many groups want to wander through a foreign land unguided, which can lead to real interactions but also to problems for unprepared visitors.
Travel planners should provide plenty of information on local customs and safety tips for their travelers. MSC Cruises offers shopping lectures at each port for those wishing to wander on their own.
“It educates people on what to look for,” said Muskat. “We want to make sure they aren’t being ripped off. We tell them the best places to shop, what items the area is known for and a fair price for those items.”
Other destinations like Cuba benefit from a lot of upfront information, since tour operators cannot control some of the amenities the country still lacks.
“We stay in the best hotels Cuba has to offer, but even the nicest hotels in Cuba don’t always have all the amenities we are used to in America,” said Longtin-Saade. “It’s really all about setting proper expectations for our travelers. So we make sure they understand there may not always be Wi-Fi or hot water even in the nicest hotels. As long as people know what to expect, they love what Cuba has to offer.”
Cuba’s popularity proves groups will brave a little discomfort for exciting cultural experiences.