Sun, Apr 19, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Recession helps boost guilt-free tourism industry

By Michelle Higgins  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sure, you’d like to take a vacation. But with layoffs hitting your best friends and your own company hinting at pay cuts, how can you justify it?

Consider the guilt-free vacation. To counter customers’ reluctance about jetting off for conspicuous consumption during a recession, travel companies are pushing trips that emphasize service, values and personal fulfillment. The message: If there is more involved than frivolous pleasure, you don’t have to feel bad about dropping all that cash on a splashy vacation.

Abercrombie & Kent, a high-end tour operator perhaps best known for its elite safaris, is offering Philanthropic Journeys, a collection of luxury tours that include elements of volunteering or giving back to the visited community.

On sale now is a two-week trip, Fighting Climate Change in Antarctica, from US$5,697 a person if booked by June 30. Travelers see penguin colonies, visit a working scientific station and help deliver equipment designed to measure the impact of global warming in the region.

Taking a slightly different tack, Virtuoso, a network of upscale travel agents, uses the slogan “Return on Life” to promote trips.

“It’s about spending time on what matters most to you,” says the pitch on its Web site. “Maybe it’s a personal journey to your favorite destination. Perhaps it’s creating wonderful vacation memories with family, friends or your significant other. It may be that you want to get back to nature.”

The destinations include 10-night family trips to Vietnam and Cambodia from US$3,605 a person or seven-day Alaskan cruises for US$3,295 a person.

“Even people who have money to spend are feeling somewhat a sense of guilt in spending money when reading and hearing of difficult times for so many other people,” said Edward Piegza, president of Classic Journeys, a tour operator based in La Jolla, California.

‘FEEL-GOOD’ SAFARI

In January, Jill Stanley, a retired personal assistant from Washington, took a 12-day Conservation Safari, operated by Abercrombie & Kent as part of its Philanthropic Journeys program. The trip demonstrated joint charity work the company has done with Friends of Conservation (FOC), an environmental organization that works with locals to develop sustainable ways of living in harmony with nature.

“We did the safari thing, but they also took you around to see what A&K and the FOC had done to help the area,” she said.

On the trip, which cost about US$10,800 a person, Stanley visited an orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS, spent time with a Masai village and learned about reforestation efforts in the region.

“It made me feel good that we were able to plant trees or give in our name for somebody in the Masai Mara,” she said. “It’s much more rewarding than going and sitting on the beach.”

Companies offering more affordable volunteer vacations report that bookings for do-good trips haven’t dropped as much this year as those for more traditional vacation packages.

Sierra Club Outings, which offers a series of “service” trips in which volunteers can help eradicate invasive plants in Channel Islands National Park in California (US$695) or maintain trails in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky (US$375), said its domestic trips were down by 16 percent for the first three months of the year overall, compared with the same period last year. But service-trip bookings were down just 9 percent.

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