Walk This Way: An Adventure-Travel Niche

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NEW YORK -- Agents looking for an active vacation to recommend to clients may want to explore walking vacations, a fast-growing niche in the adventure travel arena.

According to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, walking-hiking is the nation's leading outdoor activity. The number of people who walk for fitness has grown by 40% since 1987, up to 32.5 million, according to American Sports Data.

Walking near DingleCountry Walkers, an international operator based in Waterbury, Vt., expects to handle 2,800 passengers this year, more than double the number in 1997, a year when business was up 100% compared with the previous year.

Butterfield & Robinson, the Toronto-based operator of high-end walking tours, anticipates that it will accommodate 15% to 20% more travelers on its walking programs in 1998 compared with last year.

What is the appeal of a walking vacation? "It's really fun," said Bob Maynard, who owns Country Walkers with his wife, Cindy Maynard. "You're with 14 or 15 people who come from the same mold demographically, who have the common interest of getting a little exercise, eating great food and learning a little bit," he said.

One key benefit of walking tours is that they give travelers a more intimate experience of an area. Paloma Martinez, operations director for Progressive Travels in Seattle, which offers walking tours in Europe, said that the tours give travelers the chance to experience the "back side" of a destination.

"While walking, you see more of the countryside," Martinez said. "We go on roads that only farmers use with their trucks, secondary roads used by the people who live in the area. Our guides know the people there, so when we're walking and see the farmers and say "Hello," they stop and talk to us."

Martinez said that her firm's clientele for walking vacations consists of well-educated and well-traveled people who typically have been to Europe many times and are eager for a different, less touristy experience there. "They are people in their 50s, on average, who are in good shape and who have a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Walking vacations are "really doable by anybody," said Country Walkers' Bob Maynard. "If you can walk from three to five miles and feel comfortable, or play tennis and do some aerobic activities," you can take a walking vacation, he said.

The following is a sampling of walking and trekking tours (prices are per person, based on double occupancy):

  • Country Walkers prides itself on programs for travelers who are "interested in learning while they walk," according to Maynard, who said that is especially true of the firm's seven-night Ireland trip. Trip highlights include walks in western Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula, around Bantry Bay, through the Gap of Dunloe and Gougane Barra Forest; a boat trip to three lakes in Killarney and Inishfallen Island, and visits to local pubs for traditional Irish music.
  • The price is $2,250, including breakfast and all but one dinner. Available departures are June 21; July 5 and 19; Aug. 2 and 16, and Sept. 6. Commission is 10% to 20%.

    Country Walkers, Phone: (800) 464-9355

  • Butterfield & Robinson has been operating bicycling trips in France's Burgundy region since 1966 and now offers a walking trip there called Burgundy: Walking the Classic Wine Route of France. This year, the operator added a two-night stay at the 13th century Chateau de Bagnols. "It's probably the nicest chateau in France," said Cari Gray, director of travel agent marketing.
  • Trip highlights include walks in Burgundy's Cote de Nuits past world-famous vineyards such as La Tache and Romanee-Conti; wine tastings; dinner at Les Millesimes, a restaurant boasting one of the most extensive wine lists in Burgundy, and a tour of Beaune, a town surrounded by medieval ramparts. Other highlights are vineyard walks in Puligny, an area that produces what some consider one of the world's best dry white wines, and walks in Beaujolais, a region which, sometimes is compared to Italy's Tuscany. The trip begins in Dijon and ends at the Lyon Train Station.

    The price is $3,750, including six nights' accommodations, all breakfasts, two lunches and five dinners. Available departures are July 6, Aug. 21 and Sept. 10. Commission is 10%. Butterfield & Robinson, Phone: (800) 678-1147

  • Walking tours to Italy, especially to Tuscany, are strong sellers this year, and Progressive Travels offers a six-night program visiting the Cinque Terre on Italy's Ligurian Coast. "This is an area where you find several little fishing villages that 40 or 50 years ago could only be reached by boat or hiking. This is a very unspoiled area," said Martinez, who cautions that the walks include numerous staircases built into the coastal cliffs, making it quite challenging.
  • Tour highlights include walks through the five villages of the Cinque Terre, following ancient trade routes through olive groves and pine forests; visits to San Fruttuoso, a 12th century abbey, and Cornigilia, perched more than 300 feet above the sea, and a boat crossing to the resort town of Lerici.

    The price is $1,895, including two or three meals daily. Available departures are Sept. 9 and 30 and Oct. 21. Commission is 10%. Progressive Travels, Phone: (800) 245-2229

  • For clients who are seeking a real "high" with their trekking, Above the Clouds Trekking in Worcester, Mass., offers a 23-day High Solu trip in Nepal, featuring 15 days of moderate trekking at elevations extending more than 16,000 feet above sea level. "This has become our most popular trip. We spend most days seeing no other trekkers and little or no sign of the outside world," said Steve Conlon, the firm's director.
  • Trip highlights include ascents to Jantre La at 9,990 feet, along the Lamje Dande ridge to Pike at 13,333 feet and to Milk Lake at 16,500 feet; views of Mount Everest; visits to the Thupten Choling monastery; the village of Taksindu, whose monastery is a classic of Sherpa architecture, and to Chiwong Gompa, perched atop a 1,000-foot sheer cliff. Accommodations are in tents with very basic toilet facilities and at a hotel on the last night. Prices run from $2,250, depending on group size.

    Available departures are Oct. 31 and April 10, 1999. Commission is 10%. Above the Clouds Trekking, Phone: (800) 233-4499

    Walking, Hiking, Trekking

    Ask 10 experts what the difference is between walking, hiking and trekking and you probably will get 10 different answers, according to Steve Conlon, director of Above the Clouds Trekking, Worcester, Mass.

    Here is Conlon's answer, based on his 17 years' experience as a provider of trekking vacations in the Himalayas: "The simplest explanation [of the terms] is the degree of difficulty. Walking tends to be the easiest and involves flat or hilly terrain. Hiking usually implies the use of different footwear, which means you're on more rugged trails in the mountains. Trekking is the most easily differentiated. By definition, it means an extended hike from point to point to point, usually fully supported by guides, cooks and porters."

    Conlon calls "mental flexibility or toughness" the single most important element that will determine someone's capacity to enjoy a trek. "Many people think the essence of a trekking trip is the physical level of exertion required. That's not the case," he said.

    "Depending on the trek, it can be fairly easy or quite arduous. The single thread is the unexpected. How you deal with the unexpected is probably as important to your overall enjoyment or satisfaction as anything else."

    For clients considering their first overseas trekking vacation, Conlon suggested that agents recommend a test-walk first.

    "Even a three-day weekend in the Rockies would be a great way to find out how you hold up physically and mentally under those conditions," he said.

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