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How Group Tour Operators are Restarting Travel

SmarterTravel

With tourism slowly restarting in some destinations around the world, many travelers are looking to get back out there—but with the convenience of someone else handling all the arrangements and logistics. After more than a year of being out of commission, group tours are ready to make a comeback. Here’s what to expect if you’re booking one this year. 

Group Tours Are Selling out Fast

Group of tourists looking at the skyline of Lisbon
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Planning a trip for the end of summer or fall? Book now to secure your spot or risk missing out. Group tour operator Trafalgar has seen bookings for September double compared to the early summer months. Their New England Autumn Colors tour saw a nearly 450 percent year over year increase in demand, and is already sold out for 2021. 

For Contiki group tours, July is by far the busiest month. Adam Armstrong, CEO of Contiki, says “The demand is definitely there—travelers are booking trips even with the uncertainty of the future just to have a reservation on the books and something to look forward to.” 

With many tour companies offering flexible booking policies that allow rescheduling without penalty, travelers are willing to make a reservation for a trip that feels lower risk than booking on their own. 

Millennial group tour company FTLO Travel saw their monthly bookings in April 2021 surpass pre-pandemic numbers. Founder Tara Cappel believes, “People are craving connection after the past year and they’re excited to meet other travelers. I also think they feel more comfortable going with a company that knows the country, has local contacts, and provides a trained guide. It adds a certain amount of reassurance that if something were to go wrong, we have their back.”

Domestic trips are becoming increasingly popular for 2021, with the national parks and Alaska at the top of many travelers’ lists. The trend for this year leans towards outdoor-focused trips to beaches, mountains, or parks. Always wanted to visit Alaska? This year is a unique time to go—since cruise ships are still grounded, the usual summer crowds will be greatly reduced.

Melissa Dasilva, president of Trafalgar, tells us, “Many of our guests are looking to stay a bit closer to home as our world adjusts and rebuilds. There are twice as many people planning to travel domestically with us this year than any other destination, and all of our national parks itineraries (as well as Alaska) are trending in our top 15 most popular trips.”

For international trips, Europe remains the number most-wished for group travel destination. 

According to a Trafalger poll, 65 percent of travelers are hoping to book a European trip as soon as possible, with the U.K., Italy, Ireland, and Germany ranking as the most popular destinations.  

For international trips, travelers are looking for destinations with relaxed entry requirements for American tourists. Both Trafalger and Contiki have seen an increased interest in Greece and Egypt for 2021, thanks to their willingness to allow in American tourists. 

Most people are just eager to get out of the house and see somewhere new—a Contiki survey found that the top priority for travelers in 2021 was to visit a destination that they haven’t been to before.

What Safety Measures Are Group Tour Operators Taking?

Group wearing face masks exits train
Mirko Vitali | Adobe Stock

Most tour operators are implementing smaller group sizes, enhanced cleaning protocols and physical distancing measures. Others, like Trafalgar, are going as far as to bring a dedicated Wellbeing Director on each trip to oversee health and safety. 

Reduced group sizes will contribute to tours selling out sooner than normal, so keep that in mind as you plan your trip. 

Expect to see tour operators pivot to outdoor activities and dining when possible, as well as a more intense focus on hygiene measures (think: handwashing stations, mask/sanitizer handouts, etc.).

Will Group Tours Require Vaccinations? 

Both Contiki and Trafalgar will require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure, in addition to any destination-specific requirements. 

Other companies, like FTLO Travel, are making decisions on a case-by-case basis. “Right now, we do not have a blanket vaccine requirement,” says Cappel. “Certain trips, like our new Italian Wellness Trip that takes place on a small island, will require a vaccine.”

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