Now Tourists Can Get Their Kicks and an Education at the Same Time : Trends: More people are choosing vacations that emphasize learning. Choices include excavating a sunken town in Grenada and studying Amazon rain forests.


Consider this travel joke: A couple has just returned from their vacation when a friend asks about their trip. “Where did you folks go for your holiday?” he wants to know. “Aruba,” says the wife. “Oh,” the friend says. “Where’s that?” “I don’t know,” the husband replies with a shrug. “We flew.” Thankfully, the days of the ignorant tourist are disappearing.

In fact, more and more tourists are choosing their destinations after thoroughly researching them and, in many cases, after making a conscious choice to learn from their travel experiences. Welcome to the growing world of educational travel.

The most recent study done on the subject, a 1988 survey conducted for the National Tour Assn., the largest group travel industry organization in North America, found that 93% of those queried believed that education and the opportunity to learn while traveling was an important consideration in their travel choices.


“Travel is educational, no matter where you go or what you do,” said NTA President Tom Frankel, “but today there is an emphasis on traveling to learn.”

There are dozens of museum-sponsored tours and even more specialized educational trips--i.e., instead of those ubiquitous large tour groups, these are small working expeditions of about 14 people or less, where the participants receive individual attention from instructors or tour guides.

Travelers can go to France, where a painting instructor teaches Monet’s techniques; to Alaska, where an expert photographer leads working seminars on outdoor photo techniques, or to the Brazilian Amazon, where a team of biologists and geologists explain the impact of rain-forest destruction.

Not all educational travel trips can be considered part of the recent boom in eco-tourism (the Monet trip, for example), though eco-tourism definitely qualifies as educational travel.

Judy Spinelli, 40, an accounting technician in Las Vegas, is an education travel advocate. “I’ve had lots of vacations where I just hung out on the beach,” she says. “But now, when I travel I want to explore, I want to learn. For the last 16 years, Spinelli has been doing just that. In 1975, she studied Indian artifacts in Mexico. In 1979, Spinelli traveled to Canada on a Greenpeace-sponsored trip aboard a research vessel to monitor the movement and size of the Orca whale migration. And last year, she joined a working expedition led by the Foundation for Field Research to the rain forest of Liberia.

During the four-week trip, Spinelli studied, among other things, the use of tools by chimpanzees. “I didn’t go because I was formally pursuing a degree in higher education,” she says. “I took the trip because I just wanted to know about these things. And it was fascinating.”


“If you want to take a two-day raft trip on the Colorado River as an adventure, an adrenalin rush, that’s one thing,” said Ron Barness, director of adventure travel for Morris Travel Service in Salt Lake City, Utah, “but for our 10-day and two-week trips, our clients want to know what they will learn from it. Our guides always knew about the history and the geology and the culture of the place, but now they make it a very big part of the experience.”

In Kenya and Tanzania, Barness’ guides are all naturalists. “They understand their terrain intimately and can teach the information,” he says.

The nonprofit, Alpine, Calif.-based Foundation for Field Research, founded in 1982, is one of the leaders in the educational travel business.

“It was a way to fund our own archeological projects,” says founder Tom Banks, whose organization works in conjunction with about 30 universities.

In the past, FFR trips have ranged from studying prehistoric textiles in Peru to helping a wildlife biologist count the population of the sacred antelope of Rajasthan, in India.

This year, FFR is traveling to Grenada to investigate (and excavate) a sunken town. Another upcoming FFR trip: an Orca research journey in Canada.


As for costs, many educational travel excursions are comparable to regular tours (or, in some cases, less). Some of the more expensive trips (to Antarctica, for example) average about $300 per day and up. The FFR’s aforementioned trip to observe chimpanzees in the Liberian rain forest was for 15 days and cost $1,285, not including air fare.

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, based in Austin, Tex., operates more than 150 tours worldwide each year. This month alone, the company is leading nature expeditions to locations ranging from Namibia and Botswana to Monterey and Carmel, Calif. A six-day bird-watching trip to central Texas, including a lodge stay at a privately owned ranch, costs $895 per person, exclusive of air fare.

“More and more people want to learn about the wildlife of an area,” says executive director Ted Siff, “as well as the experience of being with those who share the same interests. We supply the experts.” “We want people to be changed by what they experience,” says Marcia Gordon, vice president of New York City-based Park East Tours, which operates dozens of special educational tours. Last year, Park East arranged a special tour for 39 doctors in Michigan--they flew to Nairobi and toured the hospitals of Kenya.

Not every educational travel trip involves a trek.

For the past two years, Nichka International, in El Toro, Calif., has organized special educational tours of Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. Its most recent tour, “In the Footsteps of Mozart,” was a special educational tour to Vienna designed to coincide with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The tour itinerary included lectures, concerts and special museum visits. Nichka’s tour is one of dozens offered each year in association with museums, theaters and zoo associations.

“Museum tours have grown tremendously,” reports Anne Waigand, publisher of The Educated Traveler newsletter. “Our directory lists over 275 museum tours domestically and internationally. The museum tours work because the individual museum curators have the personal contacts to open the doors to experience special aspects of a country.”


Waigand’s newsletter is published 10 times a year out of Chantilly, Va., and reports on dozens of educational trips, ranging from ecotours of the Caribbean to a photo safari of the Sinai Desert and farm visits to the Soviet Union.