Ten years ago an enterprising young man walked into a big New York travel agency and said he was interested in going after some bass. "What," asked the agent "is a bass?"
To Travel Editor Ennis L. (Buck) Rogers this was as clear a knock on the door as opportunity was ever likely to give him. He put his typewriter in cold storage and opened a travel agency of his own called Outdoors, Inc. Its aim was the development of what may best be described as active or adventuresome travel, going places in order to do things rather than just to see things.
Active travel is not entirely new in the travel agency racket. In fact it was a trip with a purpose that put the first travel agent, Thomas Cook, in business. He provided the flatcar that carried a crowd of English do-gooders from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting 120 years ago. But it was sightseeing—the 20 cities in 40 days kind of sightseeing—that made Cook and other agents wealthy. Only recently, with the success of Rogers' and similar agencies, has it become as plain as the hotel labels on your steamer trunk that many tourists are tiring of the do-nothing, see-every-thing philosophy.
The best-known form of active travel is the African safari. According to American Express, it is still popular, though the trend now is to photographing rather than killing the animals. But a safari is still a luxury item, for people with time, money and the, special taste for it. One agency offers enough safari to upset the balance of nature as well as most vacation bankrolls: 69 days for $5,375. More in keeping with the newer concept—and within the framework of most budgets—are tours wrapped around everyday sports like skiing and fishing.
Skiing tours within and without the U.S. dominate this area, and their success has been an important bellwether for the active travel idea. Characteristically young and gregarious, skiers have learned to take advantage of off-season rates to Europe. Lately resorts in sub-equatorial Chile have also begun to attract snow-hungry North Americans to the slopes of the Andes, where it is winter in July. (The cost is around $1,000 for 17 days.)
The success of ski tours fostered the belief that golf tours might thrive on the same formula. Oddly, they have not. Dozens of golf tours all over the world are proposed by travel agents every year (one 17-day, 10-course swing through Scotland and Ireland sells for $535, including air fare) but cancellations have been common because of a customer shortage. "Somehow the golfer simply doesn't share that outgoing, we're-all-in-this-together attitude you find in skiers," says one travel agent. "To sell him, you sometimes have to sell the rest of the foursome he normally plays with."
Fishermen customarily shun the crowd, too, but for those willing to sacrifice seclusion for economy (group travel is naturally cheaper than individual travel), there are assorted fishing packages available. A trip into the Canadian wilderness, for example, costs about $270 a person for five days with an optional "fly-out" trip to Labrador for an extra $130. Salmon fishing in Norway can be had for about $300 for seven days, air fare excluded. For those who would combine fishing with camping, a San Diego travel agent will send you to Europe and rent you a car, a tent, a skillet and a road map for $800 for a month. The opposite of this free-spirited approach is a trip sold by a rival concern in Beverly Hills called Roll-O-Tours. On this, 38 people see Europe by day on a bus and sleep Europe by night in three tight levels of a "hotel-trailer" hitched behind.
In Holland, Rent-A-Boat puts you in the skipper's seat on a sailboat for $40 a week and in a motor cruiser for $100 a week. You take it from there down that country's 2,000 miles of canals, or all the way through Belgium and France to the Mediterranean. In France, Les Cavaliers Arvernes has horseback tours of the Auvergne; your luggage comes behind by car. If one can consider setting f stops and shutter speeds a form of activity, several agencies—but notably North Hollywood's Thru the Lens Tours—will send you picture-taking with subjects ranging from Africa's big game to Norway's apple-cheeked milkmaids.
Every endeavor attracts an oddball element, and active travel is no exception. There are flower-arranging cruises to the South Seas, Vermont vacations that feature sing-alongs with the Trapp Family, whale hunting and lessons in the Eskimo version of the twist in Alaska and teenage summer school sessions in Hawaii ($898 from Texas, all expenses). "Extra fun tours" for good grades, it is said, keep everybody's mind on his books.
"Watching other American tourists parading in and out of their motor coaches like so many sheep," says young Morton Meyer, president of St. Louis' Open Road Tours, "convinced me they'd go for something better—like a chance to travel on their own program at their own pace and indulge their own impulses."
Last year Open Road sent 500 clients tootling around Europe on their own. This year by June 1 they had already passed that figure. Open Road arranges for cars, supplies maps, reservations and out-of-the-ordinary itineraries that include instructions for finding that tiny restaurant hidden behind the crumbling walls of the ancient priory. One of Meyer's favorite stops, for example, is a small hotel at the end of an inconspicuous alley in southern France. Lying beneath the guest rooms is a beautifully manicured red clay tennis court—complete with its own professional teacher. "I'll bet you can count on one hand the tourists that know it's there," says Meyer. Moreover, the simple good fortune likely to befall the tourist smart enough to travel on his own, Meyer says, is enough to outweigh the occasional wrong turn he'll make or the fact that his luggage is not handled by a baggage boy. "One morning my wife and I were swimming near Marseilles," he says, by way of example, "when we heard about a little Van Gogh exhibit in Aries where the artist once lived. The paintings we saw when we got there looked exactly like the countryside we'd driven through on the way. This is the sort of travel people hope for, but it's not what they get when they're trapped on a bus or train."
How are things in Manitoba?
If active travel means more fun for the traveler, however, it means many more headaches for the travel agent, which is one good reason why travel has fallen into such ho-hum patterns over the years. Hunting and fishing trips pose the most problems, with skiing and its fluctuating snow conditions pressing right behind.
"The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal just sit there waiting for the sightseers to come," says Buck Rogers,' 'but it's another matter when you're dealing with fish and game. How do you guarantee the fish will be biting or the game will be plentiful when your customer shows up at the place you've sent him?" Thus, Rogers and his staff are not only required to keep themselves informed on road conditions and the continuing quality of restaurants and hotels, but must keep tabs also on such exotic matters as migration patterns, game laws and nesting conditions in the marshes of Manitoba. "With us a tour can become obsolete a month after we devise it."
But when the timing is right the results are very good indeed. "Some nights," said one recently returned active traveler, "we'd stop at a place and wonder why on earth the agency had sent us there. Then we'd find out. The answer was that handsome little trout stream just over the hill. It was the best touring I've ever done."