As we head into 2016, we’re going to continue to see a demand for tour operators to create increasingly meaningful experiences for their clients, a trend that has been building for several years. But for 2016 we’re likely to see even more of those meaningful experiences translating into philanthropic endeavors.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) backed a study conducted by Tourism Cares titled “Good Travels: The Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler,” which found that more than half of U.S. travelers have supported communities after or while visiting them during the past two years. And 72% said that travel-related giving was important to them.

Along those lines, this past fall, Canadian tour operator G Adventures launched a campaign to integrate 50 new philanthropic social-enterprise projects into its trips over the next five years, for a total of 75 itineraries, or 90% of its trips, that will offer philanthropic engagement by 2020.

G Adventures has committed itself to finding ways to integrate the travelers’ experience with opportunities for local communities to earn money.

For example, the organization is working with a Masai group in Tanzania on a cook-stove project, helping to install pipes in the villagers’ homes to remove exhaust smoke that can cause death and disease among children. G Adventures takes groups to the Masai village to experience firsthand how bad the smoke is in homes that haven’t installed the pipes and how improved the homes are after the installation. Money for the next stove to be installed in the village is built into the cost of the trip.

In Delhi, India, the operator is partnering with a charity called Women on Wheels, which trains marginalized women as drivers. All G Adventures travelers who book a transfer service in Delhi are picked up by the Women on Wheels drivers. If and when travelers want to engage further, they can donate to the various projects they witness on their trips.

Philanthropy isn’t a new phenomenon for tour operators; many have well-established philanthropic and charitable arms. But what has become more evident, especially with this new research, is just how important philanthropy and giving back has become to travelers and the opportunity that represents for operators and tourism destinations alike.

Focus on Cuba, national parks

In 2015, we saw a surge in tour operators and packagers adding Cuba to their portfolios as the industry raced to fill the insatiable demand for the formerly closed-off destination.

Tour operators including Abercrombie & Kent, Y’alla Tours, Island Destinations, Central Holidays, Cox & Kings, Myths and Mountains, Grand Circle, Apple Vacations and Insight Cuba all either launched Cuba tours or increased their itineraries for 2016.

We can expect to see more of the same for 2016 because Cuba ranked as the top destination and travel trend for 2016 in the USTOA’s annual survey of members.

Next year also is looking to be a strong year for domestic travel. There has already been a lot of excitement and marketing building up around the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016. Combine that with uncertainty about international travel in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, and domestic travel could have an even stronger year than was initially thought.

Global security threats aside, tour operators had already been beefing up their domestic portfolios in advance of the centennial as far back as 2014. Go Ahead Tours has doubled its North America offerings for 2016, and five of the 10 new North America itineraries the company created feature visits to national parks.

Additionally, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Globus is introducing a 103-day tour called Centennial Celebration: 100 Days of GoParks, which will take travelers to 35 national parks, with highlights including Glacier National Park in Montana; Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska; Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona; Custer State Park in South Dakota; the Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards, Yosemite and Death Valley in California; Acadia National Park in Maine; and the Dobbin House Tavern in Pennsylvania.

The tour, which begins on July 7 in Honolulu and ends on Oct. 17 in Las Vegas, is priced from $27,000 per person.
Tourism Cares, too, has expanded its annual giveback program to five projects in various national parks for the 2015/2016 season in celebration of the National Parks Service centennial.

No turning back on tech

Tour operators are typically not techies, but they’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that there are some unavoidable realities and developments in the tech world that are worth (and arguably necessary for) adopting. For example, many tour operators are beginning to develop their own travel apps, such as Trafalgar, which launched its own app this fall, and that is something that we will likely see a growing number of tour operators do in 2016.

The tour operator sector also is trying to get more savvy with online reviews, a space it mostly missed, with no obvious online destination for tour reviews (to date, there is still no real TripAdvisor or Yelp for tours).

The USTOA announced at its December meeting that it will begin hosting consumer reviews of tour products on its website, a step in the review-driven direction.

Senior editor Michelle Baran covers the tour and river cruise industries for Travel Weekly.

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