Many group tour companies are trading their international itineraries for souped-up domestic trips aimed at nature-loving Americans.
For their honeymoon in 2019, Brian Sugrue and his wife took a cycling trip in Portugal with DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co., in which they’d been treated to farm lunches and dinner in the home of a winemaker. Last fall, unable to travel abroad during the pandemic, Mr. Sugrue, who lives in Boston, signed up for one of the company’s new American trips — in Vermont — with a group of friends.
“I’d never looked at paying to just do a trip in the United States in part because we’re in the United States and I’m only two hours from southern Vermont,” Mr. Sugrue said. The four-day, roughly $3,800-a-person experience, including lunch on a farm and a dedicated chef who cooked outdoors at their inn, exceeded his expectations. “I’d been there two to three dozen times, and we barely touched a road I’d been on before.”
Like a lot of tour operators, DuVine, best known for food-centric cycling itineraries in Europe, has had to narrow its focus during the pandemic, adding domestic trips in Maui, Aspen, Colo., and New York’s Hudson Valley, among other places.
Americans taking luxury group tours of America is not the norm; those are often designed for travelers going abroad. But with international tourism stalled by travel restrictions and border closures, some American operators are taking the opportunity to sell backyard travel to domestic travelers based on their expertise, secured access to popular things like national park lodges, and practical matters like flexible cancellation policies.
“Our value proposition as a tour operator is strengthened at a time like this,” said Terry Dale, the president and chief executive of the United States Tour Operators Association.
Based on where its members say they want to travel, the outdoor retailer REI is shifting all of its adventure trips to domestic destinations by June. Abercrombie & Kent, well known for its African safaris, will offer American safaris among its five new stateside itineraries. The globe-trotting operator G Adventures created a “United States of Adventure” collection of 15 domestic itineraries, including three new trips in the Western national parks and Hawaii. The luxury tour operator Classic Journeys has doubled the regions in the United States that it visits. And after Intrepid Travel sold out its early trips in Utah and Alaska, it added 29 new domestic departures.
With increasing rates of vaccination in the country and demand for travel rising, tour operators are anticipating a mostly American restart this summer, offering new slates of guided or custom-planned itineraries to see the national parks and states with wilderness to spare, such as Alaska.
Baby steps, flexibility and saving time
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to caution against discretionary travel for the unvaccinated, many Americans, encouraged by the vaccine rollout, are making summer plans. The latest tracking study of American travelers by the market research firm Longwoods International found 88 percent have travel plans in the next six months, the highest number in over a year.
Traveling in the United States means shorter transit times, easy access to health care and ready information on local rates of infection, according to Nicole LeBlanc, who owns Mon Voyage, a Dallas travel agency.
Americans also “will not generally face as many testing and quarantine requirements when traveling domestically,” Ms. LeBlanc added. “There are exceptions, of course, but they are few compared to the complex puzzle of international requirements at this time. The risk of being unexpectedly quarantined abroad is one they want to avoid.”
Operators say they are also catering to a general sense of apprehension on the part of travelers who mainly have been at home for a year.
“Some people are a bit nervous about traveling and not ready to make the big step to Asia or Africa,” said Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures. “Baby steps are first to start local.”
To encourage them, companies have eased their cancellation policies, subjects of the most frequently asked questions by travelers, according to U.S.T.O.A., the tour operators’ association. At Intrepid Travel, guests can transfer their trip deposits to another itinerary up to 21 days before departure. G Adventures allows rebooking up to 30 days predeparture on 2021 trips booked through June 30. VBT Bicycling Vacations offers refunds on trips canceled up to 91 days before departure.
While planning your own trip is a thrill for some, it’s a task for others, which is where tour operators step in, touting themselves as time savers and destination experts.
Caroline Turenne, 17, of Seekonk, Mass., booked a July hiking trip in Utah with G Adventures, based on the company’s knowledge of the area.
“When we were looking at Airbnb rates, we figured we’d be better off traveling with a guide that would know the area, the best things to do, and to walk us through it,” she said.
Health and safety protocols
Group departures will, of course, be different this year. As the pandemic continues, operators are cutting group sizes to allow for social distancing and ensuring their guides are at least tested for Covid-19, if not vaccinated.
“In a small group setting, we require all group guests wear masks indoors or outdoors when not able to socially distance,” said Stefanie Schmudde, the vice president of product development and operations at Abercrombie & Kent, where new seven-day itineraries include custom trips to national parks in the West (from $6,195) and a winter safari in Yellowstone (from $12,495). On small group departures, motor coaches are restricted to half capacity, trips are no larger than 18 people, and at meals each party has their own table.
A handful of operators require guests to be vaccinated, including two small United States-based cruise lines, American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines. The tour company Globus and its affiliates Cosmos and Monograms require proof of vaccination, a negative Covid-19 test before departure or proof of recovery from the virus.
With the growing numbers of vaccinated Americans, some companies are counting on immunized travelers. Collette, where the average traveler is 65, plans to resume operations in April with eight domestic trips to places like San Antonio, Texas, the national parks of Utah and a music-focused tour to Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
Seniors “were higher risk last year and now first in line this year,” said Jeff Roy, the executive vice president of Collette. While vaccination won’t be a requirement to travel, he is confident a majority will be and is encouraging them to bring their vaccination certificates. Unvaccinated travelers must show a negative Covid-19 test result or proof of recovery from the virus within three months of the date the tour ends.
Touring national parks, hard-to-book lodges included
Competition for the best accommodations or even a campsite in a national park may also sway travelers to tour companies. At Yellowstone National Park, for example, visitation in 2020 outpaced 2019 every month from July through December.
“Last year was more spontaneous, but this year I’m seeing a return to preplanning,” said Aaron Bailey, who offers his guiding services in the Yellowstone region through ToursByLocals, including a three-day trip for up to four people priced at $4,200. “They’re going for a guide because they want a good experience and don’t want to be caught up in the race.”
While there’s a perennial summer rush on national park accommodations, the difference this year, “is that campgrounds and cabins are going first versus hotel rooms,” said Betsy O’Rourke, the chief marketing officer for the Xanterra Travel Collection, which manages several national park accommodations, including El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon National Park. Many lodges are already sold out for much of the summer.
At Aramark, which manages lodges in and near several national parks, including Yosemite, Mesa Verde and Crater Lake, availability is further challenged by capacity limits in some areas and the need to house staff in some rooms to satisfy social distancing requirements, according to Mary Johnson, the director of marketing for Aramark Leisure Division.
“We have more tours booked than in 2019, but for fewer room nights and fewer people per tour in part due to social distancing on buses,” wrote Glen White, the corporate communications director for Delaware North, which operates lodges in and near 10 national parks, including Tenaya Lodge near Yosemite, in an email.
One way to get a room in a park is to book with a tour operator (though quickly, as many dates this summer are sold out). National Geographic Expeditions, for example, has eight-day trips that visit Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion National Parks from May into October and include coveted stays in two of the three parks (from $4,995 a person).
Tauck’s eight-day itineraries in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks include park lodging (from $4,390). From the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton, travelers set out to raft the Snake River. A stay at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone gives guests unlimited access to the namesake geyser. The trip works its way north with a night at the park’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel before spending a day riding horses at a Wyoming ranch and continuing east to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.
Alaska, the next frontier
For all the interest in wide-open spaces, one of the widest-open states, Alaska, does not expect a return to prepandemic activity, given that large ship cruises are unlikely to resume sailing this year (small ship tours with companies like Lindblad, where ships carry no more than 100 passengers, will continue).
In 2019, before the pandemic, cruising accounted for 60 percent of summer visitors to Alaska. “We are open even without large cruise travel,” said Sarah Leonard, the president and chief executive of Alaska Travel Industry Association, noting that some travel businesses are now pursuing small group tours and independent travelers.
The tour company Trafalgar reported a more than 50 percent jump in Alaska bookings this summer. Responding to demand, Backroads recently increased its departures there, including a six-day, multisport tour in and around Kenai Fjords National Park, with hiking, cycling and kayaking excursions (from $3,949 a person).
Prepandemic land tours to Alaska were already booming at Off the Beaten Path, a small-group and custom tour operator that specializes in active and national park travel, and have grown since. Its 12-day “True Alaska” tour starts in Katmai National Park looking for bears digging for razor clams and fishing for salmon, and ends in the vast Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve for flight-seeing and glacier hikes, with overnights in wilderness lodges (from $9,300 a person).
“Before the pandemic, Alaska was seen as remote, clean, wide-open spaces, so naturally that was one of the first blips to come back to the radar screen,” said Cory Lawrence, president and chief executive of Off the Beaten Path.
With the lack of big-ship cruises, John Hall’s Alaska Cruises & Tours, which specializes in land itineraries in the state, added a seven-day catamaran trip that uses Juneau and Sitka as lodging bases, with day trips aboard a 24-passenger boat to visit Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, watch glaciers calving in Tracy Arm Fjord and look for whales, bears and other wildlife (from $2,455 a person).
“It will never replace cruise ships in Alaska, but at least we’re trying to operate and send some traffic to local mom-and-pop businesses,” said Elizabeth Hall, the company’s chief operating officer.