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Aging boomers poised to redefine travel industry

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Aging baby boomers are on the cusp of reshaping the tourism industry, from fuelling a demand for educational travel to turning up their noses at the early-bird buffets popular with their parents.

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Aging baby boomers are on the cusp of reshaping the tourism industry, from fuelling a demand for educational travel to turning up their noses at the early-bird buffets popular with their parents.

Over the next two decades, the ranks of seniors will swell with a vast generation that’s healthier, more active and more discerning about travel than any before them, experts say.

“They want new experiences, they don’t want the beaten track,” says David Cravit, vice-president of ZoomerMedia, which handles communications for CARP, the Canadian association for the 45-plus. “Obviously, there’s an age at which I can’t hang-glide anymore, and that age might be 40 or it might be 80. Eventually, the physical constraints rule, but that doesn’t mean the experiential component has to vanish.”

Canadians travelling within their own borders account for 77 per cent of tourism revenues in Canada, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission, and they’re aging rapidly. One in seven Canadians is over age 65, the latest census figures show, and driven by the boomers and falling birth rates, the fastest-growing segment of the population is 55- to 64-year-olds.

A report from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism predicts that by 2026, population aging will lessen demand for strenuous — and quintessentially Canadian — activities like skiing, canoeing and fishing, particularly in the winter months. Ski resorts and wilderness lodges will feel the pinch, the report warns, as will family friendly activities like children’s museums, theme parks and zoos when the bulk of the population ages into adult-only households.

On the other hand, “low energy activities” like museum visits, live theatre, wine or culinary experiences and historical sites are expected to get a boost.

Boomers were the first generation with the money and technology to travel widely, says Petra Glover, a lecturer at Australia’s University of Queensland and author of a new study on the effects of population aging on tourism.

“Baby boomers are much keener on travelling overseas and more confident in doing so than the previous generations,” she said in an e-mail.

Most — but not all — have more money than their parents, she adds, but their higher expectations apply at both the budget and luxury ends of the spectrum.

By the time they reach their senior years, many boomers will have had their fill of packaged vacations and typical destinations, Cravit says, noting a National Tour Association survey in the U.S. shows that packaged tours are overwhelmingly viewed as boring and ordinary by this group.

Instead, there’s a big appetite for more specialized educational and experiential travel, including hobby vacations, cargo ship cruises, “voluntourism” and literary-themed travel.

“They don’t want to go up the lake, sit in that Adirondack chair all afternoon and then go in for the early-bird buffet at 5:30,” Cravit says.

Resorts and lodges close to home can capitalize on the economic downturn by adding enriching experiences such as lectures, yoga classes or guided birdwatching hikes to draw in aging boomers, Cravit says. But “anything that smacks of the old familiar” will turn them off. Further afield, they’ll want insider perks like dining with locals or shopping at a bazaar with an expert who can help them unearth treasures instead of overpriced tourist tchotchkes, he says.

Boston-based Elderhostel offers 8,000 educational travel programs in 90 countries for 160,000 travellers aged 55 and older each year.

“It’s fascinating how much later in life people continue to be active both intellectually and physically than they have in any other time in our history,” says president Jim Moses.

One of its most popular programs is Criminal Forensics, which allows CSI-inspired travellers to visit a morgue and learn about blood spatter and determining time of death, he says. The Behind the Velvet Curtain program, meanwhile, allows groups in London or New York to see a theatre production, go backstage to meet the cast and crew and even sit in on auditions.

“A lot of people delay those trips of a lifetime until they have the time to do them, and that’s a great kind of customer to have,” says Greg Klassen, senior vice-president of marketing for the Canadian Tourism Commission.

The CTC targets travellers by social values more than age, he says, but the “authentic experiencers” who are most likely to seek out a Canadian adventure tend to be older, and there’s about to be a lot more of them.

“Travel is much more important to them than the average traveller, meaning in tough economic times when people are thinking, ‘Should I replace my refrigerator or should I go on a trip?’ the trip’s more likely to win out,” Klassen says.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.