Progressive Builds Niche With Country Walking, Cycling Tours By Felicity Long / April 10, 1997 Share 1 -- Reed Travel Features SEATTLE, Wash. -- Italy is a destination that has inspired artists and food lovers for centuries.But is the land of chianti and risotto also a fit destination for health nuts and fitness aficionados?Increasingly it is, judging by the boom in cycling and walking tours of the countryside -- and what better way to walk off those calories?Progressive Travels Inc., based here, has made a name for itself focusing its products on Tuscany and the lesser-known Cinque Terre, according to Dominique Parisot, vice president of the company.Progressive offers commissions on its packages ranging from 10% to 13%, depending on volume, Parisot said."We chose these regions because they are small, typical of the area and conducive to walking and cycling," Parisot said."We also will arrange customized FITs for private groups from six to 18 people to the Veneto region," he said.Although Tuscany is known for its gently rolling hills, quaint villages and vineyards, the Cinque Terra offers a more rugged experience, both in terms of the terrain and the accommodations, according to Parisot.Laws restricting new hotel construction have helped retain the area's charm but limit what is available in terms of luxury, he said."Our Cinque Terre itineraries are just for walking, because there are no roads.""Also, the walking is a bit more difficult because the cliff trails are steeper," he said.For cyclists, Parisot said that anyone reasonably fit could enjoy the programs."We rate the Tuscany bike trip as the most difficult, but even there we offer flexibility," he said.A van accompanies the cyclists, he said, and anyone who wants to take a break or be transported back to the hotel at any point during the day is welcome to do so, according to Parisot.The company also offers more and less difficult routes for group members so that people can split up according to their abilities."This is a popular option for couples if one is more fit than the other," he said."They then get together for a great dinner and talk about their adventures."Participants who want to go off on their own are able to do so, "but we still check on them periodically.""We are extremely vigilant about security. We have one guide in the van and another on the road."Parisot said that keeping the groups small is a priority, for the sake of atmosphere and safety."Our walking groups are between eight to 14 at the most, and the biking is between 12 and 18.""We reserve eight to 10 rooms at our hotels for these trips, and when the rooms are filled, we stop accepting reservations."The trips, while offering plenty of exercise, also work in plenty of fun along the way, he said.Groups depart around 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning, walk or ride only four or five hours a day and stop for leisurely lunches, sightseeing and wine tastings.The Tuscany walking trip averages between six to 10 miles; the Cinque Terre itineraries are approximately six miles, because of the more complex terrain.The cycling trips average 25 to 50 miles a day."If there is a small, interesting church en route, for example, we will arrange a tour with a special guide," Parisot said."These trips can be wonderful for travel agents because we tend to attract repeat clients," he said."Also, they are not inexpensive trips to begin with, particularly the luxury packages."Although exact figures are not available, Parisot said that retailers are becoming an increasingly important distribution arm for the company."Travel agents are becoming more educated about this market," he said."They are realizing that there are more kinds of travel to sell than just cruises."