Suppliers take steps to meet growing demand for walking tours

Walking tours aren’t new, but until relatively recently they took a backseat to more mainstream, and less strenuous, forms of European travel. But a recent surge in guided walks is moving the needle from niche to mainstream.

Butterfield & Robinson (B&R), for example, has seen a whopping 153% increase in bookings on walking trips since 2010, with an average increase of 13% per year during that period.

Correspondingly, the company’s walking portfolio has grown from 28 trips to 112 published and private trips in the last eight years.

And in case you’re thinking of attributing the trend to millennials: not so fast, said Norman Howe, B&R chief executive and president.

“[Historically] the travelers who used to take these trips were committed walkers and hikers, and the size of that community was relatively small,” Howe said.

But boomers, who are known for approaching their golden years on their own terms, “have embraced the notion of wellness and staying active as a means to hold on to their youth and live longer,” he said. “As a result, the size of the community of people interested in walking while exploring the world has increased substantially.”

What has also changed is the definition of what a walking tour is. B&R trips offer programs suitable for a range of fitness levels, and some itineraries are accessible to “anyone who can put one foot in front of another,” Howe said, unlike, say, biking, which is at least perceived as requiring more skills. Trips are graded by level of activity, from “Recreational” to “Avid,” and entry level trips offer new and older travelers an easy starting point.

Howe is quick to point out that not all B&R walkers are seniors, despite the fact that the majority skew slightly older.

“We are also seeing growth in younger travelers who choose our self-guided walking trips, since they offer more flexibility and independence as well as a lower price point,” he said, adding: “We are also seeing growth in families, but only where the kids are older [20s and up].”

Popular destinations include Italy’s Puglia region, Sardinia and one of B&R’s newest destinations, Romania, Howe said.

County Walkers, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019, is also in full expansion mode with new European tours in Scandinavia and Portugal’s Costa Vicentina as well as in Botswana.

Inviting walkers to explore the world “one step at a time,” the company’s Sweden and Finland tour showcases not only Stockholm and Helsinki but also the surrounding countryside.

Highlights include Sigtuna and Nuuksio National Park in Finland and the Unesco World Heritage sites Drottningholm and Suomenlinna in Sweden. In Portugal, the company has added Sintra, Obidos and the Alentejo region’s Costa Vicentina.

Meanwhile, niche walking tours are popping up in interesting locations. The Blue Walk, for example, which offers small-group walking vacations in less touristed destinations in France, Italy, Greece and England, debuted Art Walk Italy walking vacations in the Cinque Terre, Portofino and Lake Como this fall with onsite sketching and watercolor classes and daily coastal walks and tours.

The programs, which have been selling out quickly, were designed to appeal to older women travelers, especially those traveling alone, who find safety in the company of fellow artists, including novices. The emphasis on shoulder season departures offers a less crowded experience.

Hotels are also getting in on the action. The Hotel Husafell in western Iceland debuted free guided eco-walking tours this year, highlighting the unique surroundings that earned the property a place among the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World and its hiking trails in the Husafell Nature Reserve.

Eurail has jumped on the trend with a new partnership with Sandemans, a purveyor of walking tours in 17 European cities. Eurail Pass holders are eligible for a 20% discount on the company’s specialty tours (all other Sandemans walking tours are free).

“Over the 15 years we have been operating in Europe, we have seen a large number of Eurail guests on our tours,” said Stephanie Taylor-Carrillo, partner relations and communications director for Sandemans’ New Europe division, adding that the partnership was a natural.

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