For global travelers accustomed to exploring the planet in high style, 2020 has presented unprecedented barriers. International travel has ground to a halt, various countries have completely shut off to visitors, and entire tourism sectors have been forced to go dark.
The world’s most in-demand luxury tour operators haven’t been spared from the complications caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, yet many are reporting a surge in bookings for bucket list-style trips into late 2021 and 2022.
Commonly cited reasons include customers having a pent-up desire; extra funds to spend, in light of not being able to travel; and the desire to leave a buffer of time for the development of a vaccine. Various tour providers have also noted a change in the mindset of their clients, comparing the pandemic to major events (such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) that caused people to reflect on what really matters to them, with safaris in particular appealing to families looking to spend quality time and bond via a shared experience that appeals to all ages.
According to recent data provided by the Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, bucket list travel was one of the most frequently canceled trip types in 2020, yet it’s the top trip type for intended international travel in 2021.
“The reality nobody wants to hear about is that 2021 is pretty full already, and space is hard to find,” reports Kent Redding , president of Africa Adventure Consultants (AAC), a luxury African safari tour operator that arranges highly-curated, personalized trips in the continent’s top destinations.
In fact, 90% of AAC’s clients scheduled to be on safari from April to December of this year have postponed to 2021 and 2022, leaving little room for new bookings. Over the past three months, 77% of future inquiries were for 2021, while 23% were for 2022.
“There is a set of customers who are focused on getting the trip of a lifetime they’ve been dreaming of,” Redding explains.
Now in its 25th year, luxury travel company Classic Journeys is seeing the most interest and reservations for 2021 and 2022 generated by combining bucket list experiences.
“The pent-up demand from our guests is manifesting itself in two ways, both related to bucket lists,” explains founder Edward Piegza . “Some tell us they have arrived at the realization that life might be shorter than they thought pre-Covid, so they are looking for us to pair multiple bucket list destinations for them, such as Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.”
As one of the world’s most respected names in luxury safaris, Micato’s offerings run the gamut from shorter jaunts lasting just a few days to month-long, six-figure itineraries. The company, which was founded 55 years ago by second-generation Kenyans, recently created a six-week, custom African safari for a family opting to wait until the summer of 2023.
“The privacy and vastness of safari have always lent themselves to putting distance between our travelers and the rest of the world, so we are optimistic about Micato guests past and future discovering—and rediscovering—the magic of safari,” says Dennis Pinto , Micato’s managing director.
Micato reports that revenues in 2021 are projected to exceed those of 2019, which was its best year in its history. (Tours for summer 2021 are virtually sold out.) Company data shows other changes clearly being caused by the pandemic. The average safari trip length in 2019 was 13 days, while for 2021 it’s 16 days; in 2019, 42% of safari trips involved private charter flights (as opposed to scheduled flights) within the destinations, while in 2021, private charters will be used on 68% of Micato’s safaris.
The company has experienced its highest-ever demand for family trips in 2021-22, citing how families have followed health guidelines while postponing or canceling weddings, graduations, summer vacations, and the upcoming winter holidays. Many clients are opting for Micato’s “exclusive use” options, in which clients take over an entire safari camp of six-to-eight tents or a grand safari villa or private estate, with some focusing on truly unique experiences to spectacular, but remote, areas. One example: A helicopter excursion to Lake Bogoria, in the Great Rift Valley, to witness a million flamingoes from the air—something that few people ever get to see.
Intrepid Travel, the largest small group adventure travel company in the world, reports that its Antarctica trips are some of its most-booked for 2021. In 2019, the certified B-Corp offered more than 2,700 trips to more than 130 countries and on all seven continents.
“In the past four months, we’ve noticed an increased number of customers booking remote trips in adventure-filled countries. From July to September, Intrepid Travel’s Antarctica trips—far from the crowds, what is widely considered the ultimate bucket list adventure—were our top-sold trips for North Americans,” says Matt Berna , Intrepid Travel’s managing director in North America. “On these bucket list adventures, our customers are increasingly interested in upscaling and customizing the tours.”
Company data from October showed that the Galápagos Islands took the top spot for sales growth, followed by Antarctica, Tanzania, and Madagascar. (Average booking lead-time in North America was 328 days.)
Lindblad Expeditions, which has joined forces with National Geographic for more than 15 years, reports that the majority of its customers who didn’t get to travel in 2020 have rebooked the same trip for 2021 or 2022. Both of the company’s 35-day “Epic Antarctica” expeditions for 2021 and 2022 are sold out with a waitlist, and pre-bookings for 2023 have already begun. Other bucket list destinations such as Alaska, the Galápagos Islands, and Iceland remain in high demand.
“2020 has turned into the year of staycations and domestic exploration. However, mid-2021 and beyond is shaping up to look very differently,” says Gina Gabbard , Lindblad’s chief sales officer.
The international luxury travel company Red Savannah reports an increased demand in recent weeks for longer haul travel for the second half of 2021 and beyond, as clients are prepared to wait, and upgrade, to make up for the loss of a 2020 vacation.
“We expect the market chaos and uncertainty of 2020, to be replaced by a steady return to normality from April 2021 onwards,” says Red Savannah CEO George Morgan-Grenville . “People are no longer so keen to travel at rapid speed, gathering Instagram trophy shots as they go. Instead, we are seeing a more contemplative approach.”
These trends have been reflected across various segments of the luxury travel industry, as evidenced by Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which late last month achieved the largest booking day in the luxury cruise line’s 28-year history with the launch of its 2022-2023 Voyage Collection. First day sales for its 2023 world cruise— Beyond the Horizon will cruise from Miami to Barcelona over 143 nights—shattered its previous opening day benchmark, with reservations doubling the record set by the 2022 world cruise.
“Luxury travelers simply cannot wait to get back on the oceans to see the world again,” says Jason Montague , Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ president and CEO. “Our loyal guests wasted no time in securing their perfect itinerary. The totals from last year’s Voyage Collection launch day were completely eclipsed after only 90 minutes of being on sale.”
Wild Women Expeditions (WWE), a global leader in women's adventure travel, is an example of a specialty operator Covid-19 has affected in unimagined ways.
“We’ve been running trips for 30 years, starting with affordable canoe trips in Canada, and even as we expanded globally, our product stayed quite humble,” says Jennifer Haddow , WWE owner and director. “We never really saw enough of a demand to offer those high-end, five-figure itineraries. Until this year. We’ve had an enormous amount of interest flooding in from our community of women-only travelers, women who are saying, ‘Once I can travel again, I'm not holding back.’”
The sudden rise in demand for bucket list tours prompted the provider to develop a new relationship with Adventure Canada for their Arctic and Antarctic trips in 2022-2023.
“For our clients to be trusting us with their bucket list adventures—and their travel funds—it shows how anything is possible for even small travel brands as we navigate and try to recover from Covid-19,” Haddow says. “I'm still trying to reconcile with the idea that I'm selling $20,000 trips. I had no idea what to expect from this year, and I had to make some difficult choices. But now, I'm looking forward, and it’s hard to see anything but opportunity."