New and improved is the message broadcast by longtime tour operators hoping to catch the eye of travelers who have long overlooked or avoided them.
Improved in what way?, ask pessimists. Less regimentation, more opportunity for personal "ah-ha" experiences, more mixed tour groups.
"There's more sight-doing and less sightseeing," said Robert E. Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.
As a consequence, group travel is booming. It was an $8 billion business in 1999, carrying 10 million passengers.
So if there's more of so many things, what's there less of?
There's less of the if-it's-Tuesday-it-must- be-Belgium pace that had slack-jawed, blurry-eyed Americans shuffling through 12 countries in 12 days.
These days, group-tour travelers get rushed around more slowly.
"People want more hands-on experience. They want to learn more. They want to be part of it," said Marc Kazlauskas, director of worldwide sales for Tauck Tours of Westport, a 75-year-old company at the tippy top of the group-tour food chain.
That means getting off the bus and the usual routes. "They want to be off the beaten track, (but) they want it done for them. They want to be treated like individuals, even though they are in a group," Kazlauskas said.
Meeting those challenges has meant the creation of more tours that offer expected comforts without being commonplace and excursions that are fascinating without being frightening.
These tours allow travelers to come home with stories and photos of "that wonderful little village bistro in Umbria" and that "charming pension we stayed at a few nights in Provençe" instead of the stock Big Ben-Eiffel Tower-Berlin Wall stuff.
However, because group touring has broadened to embrace groups as small as six and as large as 50, and destinations ranging from London to Laos, shopping for the right trip is more important than ever.
"Not all Italy trips are the same," said Janice Sentivany, who coordinates travel and custom departures at the American Automobile Association in West Hartford. "Will you be driving by (Rome's) Spanish Steps, or getting out and seeing the Spanish Steps, or are you going to have a guide there telling you about the history of the Spanish Steps?"
Sentivany said AAA was offering 60 to 100 tours when she started there about three years ago, but that number has dropped to 15 to 30 annually. "Instead, we're doing much more customizing," she said, noting that travelers want itineraries created for their own interests.
Luckily, the public is keeping up with the nuances that distinguish one type of tour from another, says William Levy. He has been coordinating and leading tours from Manchester Community College since 1975 and has seen a world of change.
"I think the sophistication of the traveler has changed. They know there is a world outside the United States. They look at the (college tour) catalog, call their travel agent, look at the Internet, and then they come back to us," Levy said.
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