As travel to Europe, especially Britain, continues to boom from Australia, some significant trends are occurring, according to Hotelplan UK, a family of five specialist tour operators, including Explore. In an interview with Karryon, Hotelplan UK CEO Joe Ponte says the first is immersive travel.
“Number one… and it’s not a new thing, but it’s just completely continued to grow and grow… is really experiential travel,” Ponte says, as customers look to “get under the skin of a destination” in Europe.
The second, linked to immersion, is a growing desire to opt for lesser-known destinations over well-frequented ones.
“Now the reality in Europe is that certain areas have a real challenge with over-tourism. Dubrovnik is one of my favourite cities in the world, but at the wrong time of year, you just feel like you’re not experiencing Dubrovnik because there are so many people there.
“It’s a real challenge as an industry we need to be thinking about. So I think, partly driven by that, we’re seeing a real drive to further afield destinations.”
And in Europe, despite its popularity, there’s always something new to explore, Ponte says.
“The reality is Europe is big enough, with enough restaurants, enough cities, enough views, enough ruin sites and artefacts… all the things to absorb all the tourism that’s coming its way.”
“But it’s going to continue to grow, and we’re seeing particularly in western tourists out of the UK and indeed Australia, that people want to get a bit further afield and have a real experience with their destination – both with the community and the environment that they’re in.”
So look beyond Venice and the usual drawcards Ponte recommends.
“I flew to Florence but went to a town 40 minutes from Florence, and yes, it didn’t have the statue of David, but I felt like I had a much closer interaction and experience with that destination. That’s the difference between observing a destination and being part of it.”
And is there a better way to immerse oneself in a destination than by lacing up a pair of sturdy boots or lightweight runners and simply walking? Not according to Ponte, whose company is witnessing a “continued rise and rise of walking as a style of travel”.
“We’re really seeing [that] across all three of our brands operating walking holidays, and they are absolutely booming,” he says.
“Europe was kind of built for walking holidays. I joke that in the UK if you walk for five hours, people have a different accent. And it’s the same across Europe, right? It doesn’t really work as much in Australia.
“When you go hiking in the Alps, it’s always the most amazing vistas. And you’re sitting at little family-run pubs having a schnitzel and a stein-style lunch. And then in walking [tours], you can do great town to town holidays.
“There’s just so much to see, and I’ve become a bit of a convert to walking holidays – since the pandemic, I’ve done three.”
Ponte says the breadth of walking holidays is also improving.
“The hardcore hiking [is there], which is great. But… if I want to go walking and come across a great restaurant and want to drink wine all afternoon, I can do that.”
“So the variety of walking holidays, I think, is going to really continue to boom… and again for Explore, we’re seeing a huge number of the sales out of Australia.”
Slower is better
The growth of walking tours has occurred in tandem with a fast rise in slow tourism. And both foster more sustainable travel.
Ponte points to HotelPlan UK’s Inntravel brand as a leader in slow tourism – and, hence, travel with a gentler footprint.
“If you look at Inntravel’s website, they currently talk about slow travel, and they’ve kind of been the proponent of that since they were started by a husband and wife team in around 1980,” Ponte says.
“Slow travel has been around for a long time, and I think it’s linked to really experiencing a destination. There’s no better way to do that either than in a well-crafted small group trip where you’re with a local guy who really understands the destination or when you’re on foot.”
After launching its Explore brand with a local office Down Under just over a year ago, HotelPlan UK says it will soon start mulling over which of its other brands it will bring to the Australian market.
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