Back to nature, with money -- boomers favor ecotourism, significant vacations

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2001

CHICAGO (AP) -- Ah, summer vacation. A resort hotel, lazy days at a beach or pool, maybe an amusement park.

Dream trip? Not for many baby boomers, who are redefining the tourism industry with a frenzied quest for vacations of significance, from ecotourism to heritage tours to educational and language-learning trips.

Barbara Deeming, 51, looks back disapprovingly on the pampered but monotonous family trips she went on as a child to a hotel in Palm Beach, Calif. ''I can't imagine doing that kind of vacation,'' she said.

She and her husband would rather wear themselves out on a sea kayaking or cycling trip, go hosteling in New Zealand or soak up local offerings in Mexico.

''We like to experience where we are and learn a little about the history of the place,'' said the retired forester from Bend, Ore. ''Whether it's a mountain or a beautiful lake, we want to experience it rather than a hotel room.''

Countless businesses have sprung up in recent years to fulfill the desires primarily of baby boomers -- those born from 1946-64 -- for meaningful, active vacations.

''They want to involve their mind, body and soul as opposed to just taking a trip,'' said Doug Lehrman, principal at Greenwich, Conn.-based North Castle Partners and a boomer himself at age 45. His company invests in healthy living and aging enterprises and founded a business, Grand Expeditions, to take advantage of the growing market for ecological and high-end travel destinations.

''Purposeful travel will explode,'' Lehrman predicted.

Blessed with greater financial wherewithal than any generation before, boomers can afford to splurge on getaways.

What's known as environmental tourism, or ecotourism, is particularly intriguing to boomers seeking purposeful vacations.

This fast-growing form of specialty travel is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as ''responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.'' And the typical ecotourist is a baby boomer with a college degree; at one thriving ecotravel agency, Oregon's Wanderlust Tours, boomers comprise 70 percent of the 2,000 customers a year.

Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp., calls ecotourism and purposeful vacations a perfect fit for boomers because of four generational traits: they're environmentally friendly, like hands-on involvement, love learning and are interested in their own culture.

''One of the things that makes ecotourism so popular with boomers is it gives them a chance to interact with the environment, which is something they love, as well as to have control over their itineraries,'' she said.

The trend appears to be surviving the economy's wobbling. Audrey Patterson, co-owner of a Washington, Conn.-based ecotourism firm called Tread Lightly, said the slowdown simply means boomers might spend one week on an ecotour to Costa Rica instead of two.

Michael Weaver, 40, of Redmond, Wash., is a New York City native who now seeks out natural habitat tours on his family's vacations -- a volcano in Maui, guided wilderness trips in Oregon and the like.

''The last generation, you had a specific route you took, a route you knew,'' said Weaver, the co-founder and CEO of an online legal support firm. ''Now we tend to explore a lot more. People are looking to expand their horizons through nature vacations and ecotourism.''

Randi Alfasso, 44, a financial analyst from West Hills, Calif., is trying to make sure her generation's ''green'' leanings get passed along to her raised-in-Los-Angeles children. Her family vacations in places that are out of the way or out of season -- a moonlight canoe trip in central Oregon, river rafting in Idaho and trips that are educational for the boys.

''We don't like lying-around vacations,'' she said.

''There was such a push when we were growing up to be conscious of the environment, and we don't want our kids to lose track of it. We know the effects of global warming and pollution, and it's just something that we can't afford not to teach our children.''

Competitive bunch that they are, boomers are capable of carrying the purposeful vacations trend to extremes.

Jeff Degner, 52, of Barrington, Ill., and his wife Marci like to immerse themselves in the environment and different cultures on trips to Central America and elsewhere. But he is amused by the conversations he sometimes overhears as a gate employee at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

''One will say they saw X number of animals on their vacation, and the other will say they saw more,'' he said. ''It can turn into a competition over whose vacation was more significant.''

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On the Net:

The International Ecotourism Society at http://www.ecotourism.org

Tread Lightly at www.treadlightly.com

Wanderlust Tours at www.wanderlusttours.com



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