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Whale watching in Baja, California; ballooning across the chateaux country of France; riding a wagon train through the Bad Lands of South Dakota; climbing the Himalayas; or camping in a Mongolian yurt these are no longer wild fantasies. Nor are the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Incan city of Machu Picchu, the North Pole, or even outer space beyond the reach of ordinary people. The dream makers who turn these fantasies into realities are tour operators—a small, highly specialized segment of the $350 billion travel and tourism industry.

Typically, tour operators are people who have been smitten by the travel bug themselves. Possessed by an insatiable desire to see and experience new places, new cultures, and new ideas, they bring their entrepreneurial talents, creativity, "gamesmanship," and love of travel together in the business of designing, producing, and marketing trips for other people.

Tour operators put together all the elements of a trip transportation, accommodations, meals, sightseeing, and the like. They work with other segments of the industry hotel companies, air lines, car rental firms, bus companies, cruise lines, local ground operators, and government tourist offices. They negotiate rates and block space, coordinating all the intricate details of an itinerary so that every moment of time can be accounted for. Then they "package" the product (the tour) in a brochure for sale through retail travel agents to the public. Tour operators (who create as well as market the package) or wholesalers (who do not operate the program but rather distribute it) then market the product, generating awareness and brand name identification among retail agents and the public.



Foreign and Domestic Tours

Much more common in Europe, tours have never gained truly wide acceptance in the United States. According to the U.S. Travel Data Center, packaged tours account for about 22 percent of all person trips of five nights or more duration and foreign tour packages account for 20 percent of all U.S. foreign travel.

The industry is still evolving. Tour companies developed in an era of the Grand Tour of Europe, and there has always been a core of deluxe tour companies. But the packaged tour business really took off in the jet age. Operators devised the GIT (group inclusive tour) as a device to obtain a low fare, and the mass travel business was born. Sometimes, the land package was only an excuse to qualify for the low fare-a "throwaway" and the accommodations provided might have been at some isolated inn for ten nights. When the airlines introduced low fares that did not require a tour package, the price oriented operators had to come up with packages that people really wanted to use.

The idea of a package tour evokes a mental picture of a group of geriatric dodderers in rimless glasses and cast iron permanents getting on and off a tour bus," quipped one tour operator. Another popular image arose when a trip to Europe was considered a once in a lifetime event and travelers sought to cram as much into a single trip as possible. Tour goers were treated to what seemed to be seven countries in eight days, giving rise to the expression, "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium."

But tour products have changed considerably since then. Tour operators don't do 'packages' anymore," asserted Raymond M. Cortell, who grew up in his father's tour company and who now heads R.M. Cortell & Associates, New York. "Seventy five percent of the products are independent and only 25 percent are escorted. The American mentality is antagonistic to groups."

Most people who take escorted tour packages want the security and convenience of having everything done for them transportation, accommodations, meal arrangements. Other people look to a different sort of package, one that offers economy. Still others take tours because they provide access to places and sights not easily visited by individuals (China and the Soviet Union are examples). New style programs cater to a traveler's sophistication and desire for independence and adventure.

The market for the tours is growing along with the expansion of the product offerings. There are tours for every budget, taste, interest, age group, and lifestyle. Examples are a journey by covered wagon (Wagons Ho, Phoenix); a mystery tour by bus where the destination is a surprise (Bixler Tours, Hiram, OH); a "Flight Through Fantasia" in the American Southwest (Special Expeditions, New York); ballooning in France (Bombard Society); an archaeological expedition (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, CO; Dinamation International, San Juan Capistrano, CA); bicycling (Backroads Bicycle Touring, San Leandro, CA); an agricultural tour (Farm Tours, Etc., Tulare, CA); travel for women only (Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, El Cerrito, CA); travel for the disabled (Flying Wheels, Owatonna, MN); health and fitness enthusiasts, (Global Fitness Adventures, Aspen CO); and tours for the young (Contiki Holidays, Anaheim, CA) and the old (American Express's program for the American Association of Retired People).

There are religious tours (Western World Tours, Santa Barbara, CA); professional tours; ethnic tours; reunions for veterans; and tours for musicians (Performing Arts Abroad, Richland, MI). There are also tours for artists, runners, students (Voices of the Future, New York), gardeners, nudists, and people who collect doll houses, study caves, or want to go dog sledding. There are companies that specialize in the more exotic, adventurous, and cultural programs (Special Expeditions, New York; Society Expeditions, Seattle; Abercrombie & Kent, Oak Brook, IL; Mountain Travel & Sobek, El Cerrito, CA, two famous adventure companies that merged).

The new trend among tour companies is to focus on ecotourism (so called green travel). These tours are oriented around and in turn are concerned about protecting the environment (Biological Journeys, McKinleyvile, CA; Geostar Travel, Rohnert Park, CA).

Indeed, noted guidebook author Arthur Frommer has targeted a "second revolution in travel" (the first, mass travel to Europe, launched with his book Europe On $5 a Day). The new revolution is oriented around "cerebral" and experiential travel travel for ideas, learning, people. This kind of travel "shakes you up, introduces you to lifestyles, philosophical viewpoints." In his book The New World of Travel, he lists 1,200 companies offering programs to places like personal growth centers, utopian villages, and centers for alternative teaching (one company with this focus is Shelter International, Boulder, CO).

Literally thousands of companies operate packaged tours, but only about 350 operate on a nationwide basis and sell their product chiefly through travel agents. Fewer than 50 of the companies handle as many as 20,000 passengers a year and only about 10 to 15 handle more than 100,000 passengers a year. This is in marked contrast to Europe, where massive travel organizations move hundreds of thousands of tourists a year; some handle one or two million packaged trips a year.
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