A new reason to travel

From ecotourism to voluntourism, “traveling with purpose” is becoming the mindful way to roam.

By Jimmy Magahern

When Art Huseonica travels — which he does at least three or four times per year — he does so with three purposes in mind.

“I like to challenge my body, my mind and my soul,” says the Sun City resident, 66, who recently returned from a 4,200 mile group expedition along the Amazon River and its tributaries from Ecuador to the east coast of Brazil. “If it’s not difficult, there’s no challenge or motivation in it. I like to explore new areas, experience different cultures and learn new things.”

Huseonica, a retired Navy man who has taken trips to Japan, South America, Greenland, the Caribbean and Iceland in addition to all 50 United States, is perhaps an extreme example of the new wave of travelers age 55 or better who are venturing beyond simple sightseeing to “traveling with purpose.” Whether to challenge ourselves physically, expand our appreciation of global cultures or trace our own ancestry, mature travelers are embracing forms of travel previously associated with younger globetrotters — things like ecotourism (low-impact educational visits to fragile and natural areas where the mantra is to leave it as you found it), immersion trips to learn language and culture, culinary cruises to learn about the cooking authentic to faraway lands and even mission trips or “voluntourism,” one of the fastest growing trends in travel, according to travel professionals.

“The market for what we call ‘service-based travel’ — which includes everything from learning a skill for personal development to helping a community, getting involved — is over $2 billion a year,” says Paula Stege, owner of A Time To Go Travel in Chandler. “And it’s growing.”

On his Amazon trip, led by U.K.-based explorer Jacki Hill-Murphy, Huseonica says that in addition to studying the changes that have taken place on the river since its discovery by the early 18th-century explorers — along with retracing the tragic journey of Isabela Godin, the first known woman to attempt to travel the length of the river — he also got to learn about shamanism from a practicing indigenous healer who accompanied the team for a leg of the journey.

“I learned about how they use the plants in the jungle to make their own medicines, which they administer along with a ritual,” he says. Huseonica admits he had his doubts about shamans, which the Western world often dismisses as “witch doctors,” but he says this particular medicine man did cure a nasty rash he had contracted along the treacherous trip with the juice of what he called a dragon’s blood tree. “I’m sure there’s some psychosomatic explanation for it,” Huseonica says. “But by the end of the day, it was better!”

Betsy Donley, travel adviser at Camelback Odyssey Travel in Phoenix, acknowledges that much of the trend toward purpose-based travel owes to a growing desire among health-conscious travelers for tours that spend less time on the cruise ships and more time on the ground.

“We particularly do a lot of ‘active trips’ — hiking, biking, walking — basically all over the world,” she says. “Travelers now that are over 50 are wanting to combine activity and wellness. But they also want to get an educational view of wherever they’re going.” Donley says tours that substitute bikes and good walking shoes for tour buses and cruise ships give travelers a more direct relationship with the lands they’re visiting.

“You’re immersing yourself more in a culture,” Donley says. “If you’re on a bike or walking through a village, you’re much more a part of the party than you are if you’re in a car with a driver. If you go out of your inn or lodge in Tuscany in the morning and get on a bike, and bike to lunch in a village, you’re really part of the culture, immersed in the local community. Which is what everybody wants. Everybody wants authentic, they want unique experiences, they want to feel that they’re getting in touch with the location in which they’re traveling. I think the older you are, the more you want to be immersed in the culture of the place you’re visiting. You don’t want to be going back to the ship at 5 o’clock. You want to be out on the boardwalk or the sidewalk café, where the color and pageantry of the evening is starting.”

Stege says even the major cruise lines are taking notice of the changing preferences of older travelers.

“In my own business, I have many people that want to trek to Machu Picchu in Peru, they want to go to the Galápagos Islands, they want to visit a lot of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage sites,” Stege says. “And when a tour or cruise provider can include those types of activities, we’re seeing a higher growth in markets where people can really get up close and personal with the land they’re visiting. Princess and Carnival and Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, they all are focused on this now. The key thing they’re marketing in response to demand are intimate, up-close, personal adventures for their clients. It used to be all about the ship. But now they’re doing more and more on the land portion.”

Altruism or false

David and Carol Porter run a travel agency out of their Scottsdale home that caters to mature travelers, and the couple does a lot of traveling themselves. David Porter counters the perception that vacationers over 50 are flocking to book trips centered on a higher purpose than mere recreation.

“We’re finding that Boomers and seniors are not looking for altruistic travel as much as the media likes to think,” he says. “Sure, a certain segment of the Boomer travel world does these types of trips, but we find that these trips are generally booked through a specific group. For example, we attend a large church with 12,000 members. Hundreds and hundreds are taking missionary trips, but they are booked through the church by travel agencies that focus solely on that type of travel. So, this travel does exist, but we don’t see it.

“We find travelers very interested in culinary, wine, and certainly learning and visiting other cultures,” he adds. “But we see very little that might be considered eco, endangered, global warming or any of those other popular topics in the press. If you asked the bulk of our clients why they travel, they would answer, ‘To broaden our understanding of the world, see sights that we’ve always dreamed of, and as a reward for our decades of hard work.’ We’ve never had one person call and say that they want to plan a trip for primarily altruistic reasons. The closest we see to that is, ‘I want to go to Cuba before McDonald’s gets there.’”

“I would say older clients will tend to stick more to the educational, self-enrichment type of tours,” echoes Stege. “They’re trending toward smaller, more intimate learning experiences, as opposed to being on a ship with 5,000 people.”

Bonnie Bouma of Phoenix is a prime example of someone who travels for education and enrichment, not only for herself but for her sizable family.

“We have 21 in our family; our oldest grandchild is now 25,” says Bouma, 80. “And we’ve done Prague, Austria, Germany, Holland, Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Switzerland and a few other places together. But the best trip we’ve had together was the one we took last June to Israel.”

Bouma, who categorizes her throng as a “very religious Christian family,” says she wanted them all to have the “ultimate experience, to walk the Bible.” The trip, which the 21 family members took on one bus, brought them through Jerusalem and Bethlehem up the Gaza strip to neighboring Syria.

“We kayaked the Jordan River, and the whole family was baptized there,” she says. “Then we were on a ship on the Sea of Galilee that was built to replicate the one Jesus and his disciples used for fishing. The grandkids went swimming in the Dead Sea, which was fun. And when we finished the trip, one of my granddaughters told me, ‘Grandma, everything I read in the Bible is now alive to me.’”

Bouma admits the itinerary was met with some resistance from some extended family members, who were less enthralled about their kin retracing the paths of ancient Bible texts than concerned about them navigating present-day Israeli–Palestinian tensions.

“My daughter-in-law’s mother was saying, ‘You’re gonna get my grandchildren killed traveling through Israel now!’” she says. “So I was pretty happy when we got them all home safely. To me, it was proof that you can travel to other countries regardless of what the newspapers and television tell us about how dangerous it is to venture outside of our borders.”

Stretching boundaries

Susan Pace of Green Valley, a small senior community located about 20 miles south of Tucson, runs an informal travel club comprised of about 265 members called Wander Lust Travelers that enjoys frequent trips to Mexico. Pace often books tours through S&S Tours in Sierra Vista, which specializes in travel down to Copper Canyon in Sierra Madre where its clients, mostly retirees, often volunteer to help at the Tarahumara boarding school for girls.

“For me, I travel to learn about other cultures and other people,” Pace says. “And I’ve also always wanted to learn Spanish. So recently I took an immersion trip to La Antigua Guatemala, and I stayed for two weeks in the home of a family there.”

While taking language classes at a local church, Pace got involved helping in the church’s mission, which involves riding around Guatemala in an old school bus that members have converted to a bookmobile.

“A lot of places in Guatemala are very small and don’t have schools for the kids, so they drive up in the mountains and lend the kids books and read them stories,” she says. “And I got to go along and help with that, which was wonderful. The bus is painted very colorfully, and they carry chickens in crates on the top. And La Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes, and while I was there I was lucky enough to see the orange lava being released from one of them. The area itself is beautiful, just dense with vegetation — all kinds of mangos and bananas. It’s like a paradise.”

What impressed Pace more, however, were the people.

“It was marvelous to see the children in these little villages who were so excited about us bringing them books,” she says. “The people are so warm and wonderful there. Most of them don’t have washing machines or dryers, they don’t have dishwashers, or air conditioning — which really makes you appreciate the conveniences that we have. But they still find ways to be happy.”

Meeting other world travelers can also be enlightening.

“I stayed at the home of this Mexican family — grandmother, mother, a daughter and son — who rent their home out to travelers who come to La Antigua for Spanish classes,” Pace says, noting the popularity of Guatemala’s Spanish language schools, favored by many American businesses for their low cost and quality programs. “When I arrived, there was a Canadian woman also staying in the house, who was taking salsa lessons. A little later a woman from South Korea came, and my second week, a man from Paris came. So in this one house we had all these different nationalities.”

Pace found in the rich mix of cultures her greatest learning experience.

“If I could say anything that’s important about traveling, it’s that you realize that people are fundamentally the same everywhere,” she says. “There are good and bad, nice and not nice everywhere. But we can’t isolate ourselves, and think that we’re the only ones in the world that are smart and caring people. You have to look at the world positively and try to make friends everywhere you go, so they don’t think we’re all ‘Ugly Americans.’ We can’t be separatists and isolationists and expect to live in a world that’s going to have peace. We have to take care of our own people, but we also have to recognize that people in the rest of the world are working toward good, too.

“Travel lets you see that,” she adds, “if you’re open enough to see it.”