Senior editor Norie Quintos, who edits the annual Tours of a Lifetime special issue currently out on newsstands, talks to Jim Sano, president of San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, one of the oldest and most trusted guided tour operators in the country (NOTE: not associated with National Geographic Expeditions), about where the industry is headed and the role travel plays in making the world a better place.
How are current economic conditions changing guided travel?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can say we have weathered many storms.
This one may be more significant than 9/11, SARS, and the Gulf War because it is so global and pervasive up and down the economic ladder, affecting the highest end travelers as well as value travelers.
Are you making changes in your programs?
We’re moving towards shorter and shorter holidays. This has actually been a trend over last few years, but for many people in the current climate, the degree of comfort to which they feel they can be away from home, as well as finding the time, has been foreshortened.
Where are people traveling?
We’ve seen our South American offerings, including the Galapagos, go up from last year.
I know you are planning programs several years out. What are the new destinations of the future?
Cuba is one of the countries on our radar screen. We have done educational trips to Cuba in the past, but there is a pent-up demand and we’re doing legwork on that now and will be ready when conditions change.
We’re also looking at the west coast of Africa as an area yet to be explored; it is very rich culturally.
Your company’s roots are in long adventure treks in Asia. But I’ve noticed your catalog has diversified and is offering fewer hard-core treks.
Whereas before 80 percent of what we offered in the ’70s and ’80s was trekking, now it’s just under 20 percent. That’s true for many other companies that started at the same time. The degree to which people want to do the harder treks has lessened dramatically. The people who used to trek now want to do something softer. They may want to hike during the day, but then they want a hot shower and glass of wine. We’ve adapted by offering both.
There’s an upcoming trip we’re doing with Peter Hillary (son of Everest climber Edmund Hillary), going to South Georgia Island to retrace Shackleton’s trek across the island. Part of group will be crossing with Peter; it’s difficult glacier travel. But a majority of the group will stay on the vessel. Of the 80 to 100 passengers, we may get 20 who want to do the crossing. But the others still want the opportunity to rub shoulders and learn from Peter Hillary and top-notch mountaineers.
Over the years, Bhutan, India, the Himalayas, and Tibet have been enduringly popular. More recently we’re seeing interest in the Galapagos and Patagonia. The common threads are that these places have been historically difficult to get to or people feel uncomfortable doing on their own. There can be medical concerns, such as in high-altitude areas, or logistical difficulties, or security concerns. Some places are practically impossible to do on your own, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
I visited Iran during the Clinton era, when there was a slight defrosting of relations, which seem to have frozen up again. Are travelers going to Iran now?
Paradoxically, our Iran bookings have increased more than any other destination. Our 2009 bookings are up five times more then they were in 2008. I wouldn’t ever have predicted it but that’s what happened. We’ve been taking travelers to Iran since 1991, after fall of the shah. I think the recent presidential election has made Americans more interested in the region.
Yes, absolutely. The perspective that travelers gain is of value to both the traveler and the resident. This is the essence of people-to-people diplomacy. We’ve been taking travelers to Burma (Myannmar) for years. In the beginning, Amnesty International tried to dissuade us trom taking travelers there, saying you’re just supporting a repressive/despotic government. Our position was that we try to hire as many locals as possible to provide meaningful income. Moreover, it provides travelers with a perspective of what happens on the ground versus what is provided by the state-run media. And travelers can provide real information to the residents about what goes on outside. Over the years, we’ve taken travelers to North Korea, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union. Overall, it is a big net plus in terms of widening people’s perspective on both sides. And what one finds when average citizens talk to each other is that while our governments may have different views, often there is a lot of commonality in the basic core values between people.
So can travel solve global warming and protect our natural and cultural resources, too?
I think travel has an important role to play in that. I’ve seen it on the travel philanthropy side. We introduced the actor Edward Norton to a Maasai-run ecolodge in Kenya, Campi ya Kanzi, and he ended up putting down his work and volunteering for a whole summer; now it’s his passion. I’ve seen the difference travel can make in my own children, now 15 and 17; we were also in Kenya recently and they got so sit in at 7th and 8th grade classrooms at schools our company supports. Some kids have to walk two miles to school; one concern is animal predators getting to them. Showing our children what is reality in the rest of the world is a tremendous gift. Many travelers are motivated to give back, whether through one of our programs or on their own.
Photo: Courtesy Geographic Expeditions, by David Robinson and Urs Hofmann