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Senior Tourism

What is Senior Tourism?

Seniors tourism is predicted to be a major force in the 21st century as populations age. While seniors are as diverse as any other demographic sector, and many seniors do not have the resources to travel, the following generalisations can be made about senior travellers:

  • They are likely to be more experienced travellers.
  • They have more time to spend on travel and leisure.
  • Travel is often a lifestyle priority, and many are prepared to pay for travel on a regular basis.
  • They generally have more savings and assets and fewer financial commitments, especially in the early years of retirement.
  • They are more flexible with regards to travel times, often preferring to travel in off-peak seasons.
  • They are generally more discerning, and demand higher quality services.
  • They are less likely to be influenced by ‘frills’ and extra amenities.
  • Health issues may influence travel choices, especially amongst older tourists.

Self-drive holidays suit the younger end of the senior market, who seek freedom, adventure and independence. Some stay in motels and B&Bs, but many are ‘grey nomads’, retirees on extended camping/driving holidays. For the most part, however, older tourists are more likely to choose guided package tours than those in their 50s and 60s. Coach tours are especially popular, as they are relatively inexpensive and provide security and companionship for those travelling alone. Also, because of the numbers involved, tours are often discounted, especially in low season, and older travellers seem more willing to travel off-season to take advantage of the reduced costs.

Another reason that older tourists tend to prefer guided tours is health. Health concerns can stimulate travel in those who fear that they may not be well enough to travel later or who want to enjoy the experiences despite poor health. Old age can also motivate a person to travel to see places of interest ‘before I die’. On the other hand, poor health can be a deterrent, though the risk of being unable to get care is reduced when older tourists travel in organised groups.

Health may also become a factor that arises during the trip. Older people may be more affected by environmental changes and changes in diet, a factor that tourism providers should keep in mind when planning a tour. It is not uncommon for older travellers to eat conservatively from familiar foods rather than trying out local cuisine, to avoid possible effects from diet change or to control existing health problems. Other older travellers might just be set in their ways, like the elderly gentleman who becomes unsettled if he cannot find porridge in the morning. Let’s not resort to stereotypes, though, because older travellers, even when cautiously monitoring their diet, may be even more flexible and creative in meeting their needs than younger ones, and more careful to communicate those needs well in advance so that service providers can accommodate them.

The pace and scope of a tour for older travellers requires careful consideration, as well. Many travellers want to see as much as possible in their allotted time, but the pace required may not be suitable for older travellers. In a mixed-age group, different tolerances for long driving hours or long day trips and daily changes of accommodation may be addressed by organising a variety of activities.

For instance, destinations can be chosen that offer both active attractions that require a lot of walking and also, restful attractions such as good cafes, parks, pleasant views, or local museums and shops for those who wish to spend the day strolling or relaxing. Another way to allow for those differences is to arrange day trips to and from the same accommodation, so that guests have the option of ‘staying in’ or exploring the area around the hotel or inn.

This is not to say that older travellers will not keep up. They often do, and many are fit, enthusiastic and prepared to sleep early to feel refreshed for the next day’s activities. But older groups might prefer to take things more slowly, to have 2 night rather than one night stay-overs, and scheduled ‘free’ times when they can rest or take in attractions at their own pace. By including other entertainments, such as sing-alongs, games or informative talks on local bird life, tourist service providers can ensure that less active travellers do not feel in any way deprived.

One enterprising tour guide in New Zealand offered weary travellers an unexpected and delightful treat while other guests were away on an optional helicopter ride: she led them with small flashlights through a dark grove of trees on the hotel grounds to a nest of glow worms that someone had discovered (or placed) there. The whole thing took no more than an hour, required very little walking, some trust as those with flashlights guided others without, but it was a totally satisfying (and free) experience.

Tourism providers must find ways to address potential or existing health problems in senior groups. This will include obtaining information about participants’ health prior to the trip, advising of potential health risks that may be associated with any planned activity such as a fairly long steep walk, and identifying health care services along the planned program. While one does not want to interfere with participants’ right to enjoy activities, it is advisable to watch out for indicators that an individual is under stress, even if he or she claims to feel fit. Sometimes, the person’s partner might need to be discreetly consulted.

Because older people are often free of work and family responsibilities, they have greater flexibility in choosing travel times, and older travellers can help fill the gap between seasons when resources are being under utilised. Weather and climate can be important factors in determining the degree to which off-season travel is attractive to older person, especially since they are often more susceptible to inclement weather, heat and cold.

Tour, travel and accommodation services that can cater to the off-season needs of the older traveller might have the edge over service providers that are less flexible. For instance, one lodge in a well-known national park in the U.S. offers its winter guests gracious accommodations, short daily bus tours, environmental and historical lectures, breathtaking scenery just outside, excellent food and a great roaring fire each night around which are held a variety of entertainments.  It is not surprising that the lodge is filled with older guests at that time of year, after the summer and autumn business have diminished.

This raises other points about older travellers. They are curious; they love to learn; and they appreciate life for what it is. This does not mean that they all want to listen to educational lectures, but typically, they take pleasure in knowing about things, in confirming their existing knowledge, and in learning something new to add to their existing wealth of knowledge. Older travellers often have a much more developed sense of history and tradition than younger travellers, and are attracted architecture, museums, and cultural events.

Unlike younger travellers, who may have little knowledge of history and geography, senior tourists may be more informed and therefore, more interested in learning new things about what they already know. For example, older visitors to Italy have probably read or heard about the burial of Pompeii, Italy, when Mt. Vesuvius violently erupted in 79 AD, or about the more recent explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, U.S.A. in 1975, and may bring to these sites a deeper appreciation of their history (and perhaps, of volcanos in general) than younger visitors. Where younger visitors might be satisfied with more basic information about these sites, older visitors may want to expand on their knowledge with interesting details, or to share their knowledge with others. Like a teacher, a tour guide who can find ways to recognise this knowledge and build on it will provide a more stimulating and rewarding experience.

Younger travellers generally travel to seek more excitement, novelty and escape. Older travellers often travel to experience life more fully. They enjoy interacting with others, forming friendships, enjoying scenery, good food, relaxed walks, laughter and other simple pleasures. 

Many older travellers have passed beyond the self-consciousness of youth, and are usually more willing to initiate conversations, offer opinions, and ask questions, and to happily participate in social events or to make suggestions (and to otherwise be an embarrassment to younger family members).

In general, as we age, we learn to appreciate the need for cooperation and tolerance for smooth social functioning, so older travellers are usually mannerly, respectful and demand respect in return, (though they may have different ideas about what is and is not good manners). A tour guide who takes the parental approach of lecturing older travellers about keeping the bus clean, the level of noise, or staying in line, or who dismisses the concerns of one or two members, may not be showing an appropriate level of respect.

The tolerance of older visitors for disrespect (perceive or real) may be even less among visitors from non-western cultural backgrounds, where age bestows greater personal authority. It may be wise to explain some procedures and rules, and the reasoning behind them, beforehand to encourage visitors to choose to cooperate and therefore maintain their sense of personal autonomy. In this way, also, groups can be encouraged to self-monitor: to exert their own influence on wayward group members.

Older tourists are often comfortable travelling alone, and it is not uncommon to find older women travelling without partners, especially since women typically live longer than men. This can present a quandary, as many facilities do not cater to single tourists, and they might end up having to pay much more per person for accommodation. In some popular destinations, it can be difficult to find single room accommodations, and those that can be found cost the same as a double room. Sometimes, accommodations can be shared, though this can be unsatisfactory if no one else in a tour group wants to share a room, or if the roommates are total strangers. Dormitory accommodations are widely available in large European cities, but many cater only to younger travellers, and where older travellers are accepted, they may be reluctant to risk rooming with young and possibly noisy guests.

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