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traveling alone, in groups

After Sheila Katz’s husband died of a degenerative nervous system disorder in April, she knew she had to walk away. But her husband was her travel companion, and without him, she hesitated to travel alone. The ever-changing travel rules of the pandemic were also intimidating. So Ms. Katz, 45, did something she’s never done before: She joined a group tour.

“I didn’t want to be completely alone, but I wanted to be able to do my own thing when I wanted to,” she said. So in July, she joined a group of 17 fully vaccinated travelers to Belize. EF Go Ahead Tours, making friends while snorkeling, visiting Maya ruins and taking chocolate- and tortilla-making classes.

Tour organizers say solo travelers like Ms Katz are joining guided tours at unprecedented rates, with some companies reporting up to 300 percent booking singles compared to couples, families or groups of friends. Most of these solo travelers have never done a group trip before. After years of planning his own trips and traveling alone or with a partner, the pandemic – along with his months of isolation and Byzantine travel rules for testing, masks and vaccinations – prompted him to change his ways Is.

Katz, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston, had just endured the tenure-review process as she navigated her grief. She was exhausted, and had no interest in parsing border rules or stressing about the potential exposure to the coronavirus. For her trip to Belize, everyone in the group had to be vaccinated, which took a cosmic load off her shoulders.

“If it weren’t a pandemic, I would probably lie down on a Caribbean beach for seven days,” she said.

The National Tour Association, a professional organization for tour operators, said the group travel industry is yet to recover from the pandemic’s shock to its business. “Half of our tour operators do not expect their company to outperform 2019 metrics by 2023,” said Bob Rouse, NTA’s vice president of communications.

But even before the pandemic, group travel was finding a foothold between two major demographics: women and millennials. Travel companies catering exclusively to women have grown by 230 percent over the past six years, while a flurry of new travel start-ups have occurred, including before living And Trips by the Culture Trip, have grown by marketing to people born after 1980.

Perhaps most notable is the women’s interest in group travel. Catalina Mayorga, Chief Executive Officer El Camino Tour, which offers small group tours for women, says sales in the fourth quarter of 2021 are up 200 percent compared to the same period in 2019, and 65 percent of them are doing so as solo travelers . Contiki60 percent of U.S. customers skew women. Alison Scola, Founder Experience Sicily, says that single women now make up 66 percent of the guests on their tours, while Indus Travels80 percent of customers who book spots on tours for solo travelers are now women. This year 90% of Indus customers are booking for the first time.

“Even solo travelers sometimes want to travel with people, especially people with whom they have something in common,” said Amanda Black, founder of solo female passenger network, where women can book individual tickets for group trips around the world. Ms Black, 35, resumed her tours in May after being shut down at the start of the pandemic and said bookings continued to grow.

It seems that after months of separation, many women miss out on socializing.

“I live alone, so, it’s been a very lonely time,” said Jess Maxfield, 34, a customer service manager in Boston. FTLO travel in August. The group consisted of eight women and one man, and the second day the man broke his leg and had to fly home. By the end of the journey, a brotherhood had emerged. “It was really nice to meet so many like-minded, like-minded women and share a beautiful place with them,” she said.

The idea of ​​safety in numbers also plays a part. “Walking alone in the woods isn’t the safest thing to do,” said New Yorker Emily Cardona, 36. out there, a New York City-based tour company. From the stress of her two jobs as a senior care manager and mental health therapist, she said, the trips were a refuge.

“It’s almost as if the difficulties of traveling during a pandemic have helped millennials overcome the idea that group tours don’t cool down,” said Tara Capel, founder and CEO FTLO travel, where bookings for 2022 are 225 percent higher than for 2019. FTLO caters to 20- and 30-somethings, and first-time customers—many of them joining singles—now comprise 82 percent of those bookings; 75% of the passengers booking for 2022 are women.

In many respects, the shift to millennial-focused marketing is redefining the idea of ​​what it means to travel on an organized tour in the first place.

“It was really intimate, and we just seemed like some friends who were touring,” said Autumn Lewis, a lawyer in Los Angeles who took her first group tour, which was a trip to Greece. trisha, In July. “It’s not like you’re having an experience where you follow a guy with an umbrella.”

The single travel trend of the pandemic is not limited to tour groups only. Solo air bookings have increased overall Orbitz Reporting that single round-trip tickets climbed 200 percent over the past Labor Day weekend compared to the previous year. In previous years, it was difficult to analyze whether those tickets pointed to solo leisure travelers or those flying alone on business, but business travel is still sluggish, with 2021 being an exception, said Mel Dohmann, senior brand manager at Orbitz. said.

And while there’s no surefire way to track how many of those solo travelers join up with groups at their destinations, tour operators are reporting big increases in their overseas destinations.

Feather Devur Tours, which runs culinary walking tours across Europe, this summer had 22 percent of bookings for just one person, which is more than double during the same period in 2019.

Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which offers small group tours for travelers aged 50 and above, has seen a 7 percent increase in the percentage of single bookings since the start of the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of their solo passengers are women.

“If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that the value of tour operators has increased tenfold,” said Terry Dale, president and chief executive officer. United States Tour Operators Association.

Like travel agents, who are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, much of that value comes when a traveler can hand over the mental weight of the pandemic: which vaccine card is valid? When should I get my PCR test done?

But after months of separation, the group’s strongest draw may be its most obvious: It comes with an underlying community.

“Women who are booking tours with us are definitely doing so because they want someone who can navigate the Covid restrictions. But there are many other inspirations as well,” said Meg Gerard, co-founder of solo female passenger, which runs small group tours for women. Safety is a major concern, she said, and “the stigma of being single is another major motivator.”

Ms. Katz, a Texas widow, had hoped that for some food on her tour, people would go out and do their jobs. She was wrong.

“Our tour guide had to go out of our way because we all wanted to have all our meals together,” she said. “I think we were all so grateful that we weren’t in our living rooms, staring at the wall.”

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