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The anti-beach vacation
Try dancing with the Maasai in Kenya or horseback riding with descendants of Genghis Khan.
December 9, 2004: 11:00 AM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - We can't all be Margaret Meads -- but more travelers seem to want to channel her when they vacation.

Increasingly, travelers want to experience different especially traditional lifestyles first hand.

"People want more meaningful travel experiences and they are finding them in interactions with people from different cultures," says Kurt Kutay, founder of Wildland Adventures in Seattle. "More than half of our clients come to us for cultural travel."

Kutay says when Wildland Adventures began in 1986, it didn't need to put together specific opportunities for travelers to interact with local people. Merely setting up an itinerary in a remote place virtually guaranteed interactions with local people if only because vehicles would break down or get stuck.

As conditions improved, however, these encounters got rarer. Today, Kutay has to strive to avoid artificial experiences.

He cites the Yagua Indian tribe in Amazonian Peru. Kutay says that he has witnessed instances in which villagers spotted a tour group and rushed back into their huts to change from their Levis into traditional grass skirts.

Kutay says he advised the Yagua to be more open about how they live -- they can act out traditional behaviors, but they should explain that they are showing visitors their culture as it once was.

Cost of connecting

The price tags to achieve authentic interactions can be stiff. The president of Geographic Expeditions, Jim Sano, says most of his offerings cost a minimum of $4,000, not including airfare, per person.

Individuals can save by booking their own travel, but they usually benefit from the services of an expert guide.

Sano says his company "takes people to places that are too challenging to go on their own." There are physical and bureaucratic barriers roads can be nonexistent and permission to visit difficult to obtain.

"It may be impossible to even read a map in a place like Bhutan," says Sano.

Geographic Expeditions offers three types of travel plans:

1) Scheduled departures in which small groups (eight to 12 people) follow set itineraries planned around some kind of event.

2) Custom trips. Private tours can be arranged for those disinclined to travel in a group. These can be designed around a specific objective, such as observing a dance festival in Bali or a wrestling tournament in Mongolia.

3) Affinity trips, which the company arranges for organizations like Tibet House in New York, which has specific interests, such as weaving or pottery making.

Tours vary with the abilities and interests of the individuals. One group might have a particular interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Sano will arrange for them to go into different monasteries and towns to meet local lamas and villagers.

Another might have more interest in wildlife, or politics. "We've arranged interviews in Bhutan with local newspaper editors for insights into the political situation," he says.

Benefits for local people

Last year, the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC) and Wildland Adventures embarked on a project to reform East African tourism by, in part, creating a new kind of safari that would bring travelers in direct contact with the Maasai, the cattle raising tribe of Kenya and Tanzania.

The traditional tourist industry marginalized the Maasai, even though many premier safari lands lie in Maasai territory.

"By planning our itinerary through MERC's grassroots network, our Maasai hosts receive us into their villages, schools, and homes," Kutay says. "They share their lives, teach us how they co-exist in harmony with nature, and describe the hardships they face."

The goal is to develop a cross-cultural exchange whereby the Maasai receive direct benefits from the visits and guests enjoy an intimate and honest experience of tribal life.

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Sano says some travelers develop such strong bonds that they invite local people to visit the United States. He also says individual clients have donated thousands of dollars to local causes.

Kutay points out that many baby-boomer clients want to give their children similar experiences to what they had back-packing the Inca or Dharma Trails back in the sixties. But aging hippies don't want to sleep in a goat pen like they did at 19, and they want security too.

A Maasai village with a first class hotel is a contradiction. "Some only have a dung hut to stay in," says Kutay. So the company sets up a comfortable camp complete with beds, hot showers, and a latrine tent near the Maasai village, and takes the group in for daily visits.

It seems to work. Sano says 72 percent of his sales are repeats or referrals.  Top of page




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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.