Take This Profile – Please!

I’m over 55 and I’m willing to pay good money to sleep on the floor of a villager’s hut. I want the adventure travel industry to take note of this.

The reason behind this outburst is the growing realization that, as I’ve matured, so to speak, I’ve slowly dropped out of the target demographic for the travel I love – soft adventures in the developing world. Soft adventure trips are typically understood as those that require a willingness to sacrifice some creature comforts in pursuit of a purportedly more authentic experience. They contrast with what I suppose would be hard, or physical, adventures, such as high altitude trekking or mountain climbing. In practice they involve staying in accommodations not generally understood to be acceptable to the American traveling public, accepting iffy sanitation arrangements, communicating by hand signals with your hosts at a home stay, and the like. This is the travel I love, and this is the travel I’ve been pursuing since I was first able to afford it.

I’ve always been vaguely aware of statements lurking in the fine print of catalogs and consumer publications about typical travelers being in the, usually, 18-55 range. Only in the last few years have I realized with a shock that these statements could have something to do with me.

Certainly not all the companies whose brochures I regularly peruse contain this qualification, and indeed the prices of many almost insure that their trips will appeal mostly to affluent retirees. I don’t believe any of the companies in question would deny me a place on their trip rosters– business is business, after all – but I chafe at the implication that I would be the grand old lady of the group, and should start acting my age.

As someone who attends every travel fair, and adds her name to any mailing list with an outside possibility of producing an interesting tour, I probably receive more travel related material in a period of months than most people do in a lifetime. Somewhere there is a giant travel database where, along with my preferences (Asia, ethnic encounters), sits my age. About the time I turned 50 I noticed a subtle shift in the character of the materials I received. Brochures for cruise lines started to arrive, where I could admire images of elegant, silver-haired couples gazing reflectively out to sea. The second wave seemed to be composed of golfing holidays at upscale resorts, although I have never played more than the odd game of mini-golf. Clearly the travel industry had decided that it was time for me to move beyond my youthful fascination with initiation ceremonies and open-air plumbing, and embrace serious adult travel.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s important to understand the age profile of a particular trip. I don’t want to end up with a group of tie-dyed twenty year olds traveling in a converted truck any more than I would have wanted to when I was their age. I was once stuck behind just such a group at the Bulgarian-Romanian border, and spent several hours thanking my lucky stars for the modest discernment that allowed me to avoid such pitfalls.

It’s equally true that tour operators have a legitimate interest in assuring that clients are physically up to the rigors of a particular trip, and usually have no more than the client’s own statement to go on. Serious mismatches do occur – a fellow member of an active tour of Central Asia showed up in Almaty with a walker (she was kindly, but firmly, sent home the next day). Suggested age ceilings are a way of obliging older travelers to seriously contemplate their limitations, but they are very one-size-fits-all.

In the meantime, I plan to continue traveling in the style to which I’ve become accustomed as long as I can make it up the hill or over the suspension bridge. I’m sure I’m not alone. We baby boomers are the spiritual heirs of the hippie trail to Kabul and Kathmandu even if we didn’t personally make the trip. We’re predicted to change the face of retirement, the health care system and the economy itself. I’m hoping that we’ll change the pre-conceptions of the travel industry as well.

Note: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in The Christian Science Monitor under the title “A Note to the travel industry: Who are you calling over the hill?” and can be viewed at http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1120/p18s02-hfes.html

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