Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

After reporting a recent cover story about the epidemic of overcrowding at the world's most popular tourism sites, it occurred to me that tour operators have a very real opportunity to help alleviate the problem.

Sure, they can be seen as part of the problem as well, guiding large groups of travelers straight into the heart of the overcrowded storm (though many of them would interject here that they often have VIP access to popular attractions allowing their clients to bypass the long lines). Although we often associate tour operators with a form of checklist travel that lends itself to bringing people to only the most well-known sights in any given destination, the industry actually has strong roots in guiding passengers to the lesser known regions of the world.

Take for example Alexander + Roberts, the tour operator formerly known as General Tours World Traveler that was founded by the late Alexander Harris. In 1954, after requesting special permission from the U.S. State Department and the Eisenhower administration, Harris was granted the authority to operate the first scheduled tours to the Soviet Union for American travelers.

In the years and decades that followed, General Tours continued to pave new paths to destinations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

I was recently on the National Geographic Explorer with Lindblad Expeditions' CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad, whose father Lars-Eric Lindblad was among the first, if not the first, to bring citizen explorers to Antarctica in 1966, establishing a spirit of enlightened expedition travel still carried out by the company to this day.

That tradition of exploration and scouting new and ever more remote destinations to bring travelers to hasn't gone away. Today, tour operators continue to look for lesser-known locales to bring their groups to.

For instance, Trafalgar last year launched a new product line called Hidden Journeys, designed to take smaller groups deeper into destinations such as Italy, France, Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Japan and China.

Tour operators have the keys to draw back the curtain and introduce travelers to the new and unknown.

"Tour operators are looking for exclusive things that they can do that are away from the crowds," Arthur Tauck, Jr., chairman of Tauck, said in a recent interview.

So while there are plenty of people who will continue to take tours straight into the throngs of tourists (and plenty of tour operators willing to take them there), for those looking to be surprised by an uncharted part of a foreign (or even their own) country that they maybe never even knew was there, minus the crowds, tour operators might be just the ones to guide them on the path less traveled.

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