My first group tour was a four-city trip to China in 2001. We breezed by the highlights in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou, had abominable buffet food and got herded to lots of silk and jewelry stores.
Sometime during those nine days, I decided it was My. Last. Group. Tour. Ever.
That may have been a bit premature.
Thanks to the emphasis on authentic and cultural experiences, the group tour has experienced a rebirth, starting with its name. They're now called "escorted tours" or "guided vacations," thank you very much.
Look for the upgraded group — er, escorted tour, said Colleen Clark, managing editor of JetSetter.com, a travel website that offers curated selections of hotels and travel deals.
"People in my age group and thereabouts kind of rejected [groups] as being a little cheesy or too touristy or a little limiting," Clark said.
Enter the reinventors.
"Today's traveler craves deep cultural immersion and with the continued influence of new technologies, social media and the sharing economy, demand for experiential travel remains high," said Terry Dale, president and chief executive of U.S. Tour Operators Assn., whose active members sold 4 million tour packages in 2014.
"Over the last few years, USTOA members have developed and continue to enhance tours and itineraries that immerse travelers in local culture and customs, from learning the art of calligraphy from a celebrated Taiwanese calligrapher to sharing a meal with a local Colombian family in their home."
The list of what you can do is limited only by your imagination, Mark Anderson of Adventure Vacations in La Jolla said in an email.
"The list of tours is only limited by your imagination," Mark Anderson of Adventure Vacations in La Jolla said in an email. In the last year, he has put together a literary tour tracking the sites in an author's latest novel and a trip for art students interested in the Impressionists and who wanted a chance to paint where the masters painted.
"I've taken gay and lesbian groups camping on Catalina Island," he wrote, "and canoeing down the Colorado River [and] nudists white-water rafting on the American River."
Not exactly your grandfather's tour, although I'm pretty sure neither of mine was a nudist.
Anderson lists cattle drives, dude ranches and horse pack trips as part of his repertoire and has taken groups to more ethereal destinations such as Sedona, Ariz., the Holy Land and Lourdes, France.
Certainly sounds like a cure for tour triviality.
Clark cites El Camino Travel (www.elcaminotravel.com) as an interesting model. It offers a limited selection of destinations, and "they really encourage you to put your camera and cellphone away … and [be] engaged in the experience," she said.
Wait. How can you get bragging rights if you don't have visual confirmation? Each group has its own photographer that offers what Clark called "magazine-quality of photos" of you and yours. "You can, if you want, post to social media," she said.
Even the most mundane tours offer a couple of advantages over independent travel: Someone else takes care of the details of flights, hotels, sights and, often, meals, and costs often are lower than if you planned it yourself.
But that doesn't necessarily mean inexpensive. You'll pay for the pleasures, but maybe not as much as you would if you were your own coordinator.
To wit: Adventures by Disney, which don't involve the mouse but do involve experiences that reflect a country's culture. A trip to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, includes a cooking class, an opportunity to learn from a tai chi master and a visit to an organic rice farm.
Prices begin at about $5,600 for the 11-night trip. That trip is for kids 6 and older, but some trips are for adults only.
Some people credit millennials and the sharing economy for this trend toward authenticity, but for some companies, it's a recognition of the value of mile-wide and inch-deep as opposed to the other way around.
"Our guests want vacations where they can interact with locals and feel like they've truly experienced the destination," said Heather Killingbeck, director of program development and operations for Adventures by Disney. "While this kind of immersion is important to millennials, our ability to deliver it comes naturally from Disney's long-time focus on multigenerational families."
Whoever deserves the credit should also get credit for nudging me to erase that line in the sand I drew 15 years ago, which was hasty, shortsighted and limiting. I'm back to the drawing board because Black Tomato (www.blacktomato.com), one of the providers Clark also mentioned, has a trip to Guatemala and Belize that has my name all over it. Not inexpensive, but if I follow the advice of the More For Your Money column, just maybe....
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