ExpeditionTrips in the News

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Events spur expedition travel
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

by D. Parvaz


War, terrorism, anti-American sentiment, SARS… it seems there’s nowhere for travelers to go.

Airlines are feeling the bite, with almost all major domestic carriers posting nine-figure losses and cutting salaries and staff, shares of publicly held hotel companies are dropping, and future travel trends look uncertain.

Helen Berger, a Sacramento lawyer, was planning a trip to China with her husband, Craig Caldwell. “But with the outbreak of SARS, it didn’t seem like the wisest move to go to China,” she says. “It seemed like a smarter move to explore other options.”

And she did – to the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian group of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Charles Darwin studied the wildlife on the islands in 1835 and used what he learned in his treatise on evolution, “The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection.” Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1978, the Galapagos have been protected and are among the most pristine destinations in the world.

For those who aren’t feeling the pinch of the recession, there’s also the Arctic and Antarctica, and, boy, is business picking up for those who take tourists to those far-off locales.

“We saw a 150 percent growth last year, and we’re on track to grow by 100 percent this year,” says Ashton Palmer, 30, who, along with his wife, Kristy Royce, 34, own ExpeditionTrips.com. The small, Seattle-based company books trips for travelers onto expedition ships – small, no frills vessels – for both chilly and tropical adventures. The Pacific Northwest, by the way, is a major hub for expedition cruises.

ExpeditionTrips.com isn’t a travel agency, however, as it employs guides and other travel experts to not only help book the trips, but also accompany travelers on their journeys.

Palmer and Royce, who met while traveling through Australia about 11 years ago, started ExpeditionTrips.com four years ago and, unlike other segments of the travel industry, have so far weathered the Sept. 11 attacks, the flailing economy, war and SARS. In fact, it seems their business has thrived because of those global disasters.

“At least once a day, we hear people say ‘I was going to go to China,’ or wherever, or ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but this has always been a dream of mine, and I want to do it now,’” says Royce.

World events are weighing heavily on the minds of travelers, agrees Denise Landau, executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, a self-governing group that deals only with expedition ships that follow very strict environmental standards (for details, go to www.iaato.org). She says locations like Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands grow in popularity because “they are such awesome places to visit. Antarctica, the Arctic and the Galapagos and other destinations where our ships travel to are relatively safe from the world troubles,” says Landau. At the same time, the locales are also “adventurous, exciting with unparalleled natural history experiences.” According to the European Travel Commission, the number of Americans visiting Europe dropped by almost 300,000 in May 2002 compared to May 2001. Research done by the Travel Industry Association of America indicates almost half of Americans who aren’t going overseas this summer blame war and the economic recession. Overseas travel spending by Americans dropped by $10.4 billion (13 percent) between 2000 and 2001 (figures for 2002 are not yet available).

The expedition travel business is going strong. According to IAATO, the number of passengers has increased by more than 70 percent during the past 10 years over the Antarctic summer season, despite its relatively hefty price tag – anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 – and no-frills style of accommodations.

Palmer and Royce insist that no-frills doesn’t mean uncomfortable, it’s just more “casual.” The ships have to be comfortable, because with the exception of mini-excursions, passengers stay on them the whole time. There aren’t any hotels at the South Pole. Not yet anyway.

Those who choose to go to places like Antarctica tend to go there for the natural, pristine beauty.

“It’s a place that can make you incredibly humble,” says Royce when describing the wildlife, the clear air and multihued icebergs, which travelers will see lots of because Zodiac boat excursions are a popular feature of the trips.

Unlike most vacation cruises, the expedition trips almost always have experts (naturalists, travel guides, etc.) on board, so they’re largely educational. They’re also small, with most ships carrying less than 100 passengers, and as few as 40 in some cases.

“It’s the non-group group trip,” laughs Palmer.