The pioneers – how luxury brands put new destinations on the map
Jun 09, 2017 12:02PM

From North Korea and Iran to Zimbabwe and Myanmar, invariably It’s the luxury end of the industry that pioneers travel to emerging destinations. Joanna booth discovers what’s involved.

I’m not going to tell you that luxury travel isn’t just about gold taps. If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard that sentence so many times it makes you want to run far, far away from anyone else who could possibly say it to you again.

We all know that luxury is really about exclusivity, which for some may manifest itself in the shape of a gold tap. For others, and there are increasing numbers of these discerning souls, it’s more about running far, far away.

Finding somewhere far away enough gets progressively more difficult. Where once clients could be confident that a trip to Chile or Cambodia would be a one-off among their social circle, there’s now a real danger they could bump into a neighbour at Angkor Wat or cross paths with a colleague in Torres del Paine.

So the luxury travel market has had to plunge further and further from the beaten track. And operating in unusual destinations brings diverse challenges – most more complicated and exciting than sourcing shiny taps.

RISING PRICES

One of the roaring success stories of recent years is Myanmar. Since 2010, when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and invited tourists to return, visitor numbers have boomed, and operators have rushed to feature the destination.

It was not ever thus. In 2009, the only Asian country with fewer British visitors than Myanmar was North Korea (of which more later). So for Abercrombie & Kent, who had kept a small office with three staff open in the country since 1997, there were plenty of lean years before the rains came.

“We could see the huge potential for growth, but for a long time there was little business,” says Asia product manager Ross Pakes. “We had to keep the faith.”

Some operators were boycotting the country because of the controlling military junta, but A&K believed it was up to their clients to choose whether to travel or not. “It was very shut off,” says Pakes, “but the people I met wanted to learn about the rest of the world. And the fact we had an office there allowed us to help – when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, we were able to get money and relief to the affected areas.”

In 2010, the small trickle of visitors became a flood. Hotels that had been almost empty were full, and there was little infrastructure in place. “We were lucky we had persevered with the office,” Ross says. Staff levels rose from three to 15 very quickly, and the relationships the company had built up with the best tour guides and hotels meant they could deal with demand.

However, prices rocketed. “A simple three-star hotel was charging the same as the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, and quotes would rise over the course of half an hour,” Pakes remembers. “We had to be very clear to clients that they were travelling for the culture, not the hotel standard, and that the only way to be sure of getting a room at certain hotels was to be flexible with dates.” It’s only in the past year that prices and demand have stabilised, and A&K offers its 12-day Classic Myanmar itinerary from £2,995, including flights.

Challenges weren’t simply operational, but lay in marketing too, Pakes explains. “We really had to focus on our knowledge and experience, and show that we could do things differently. Our contacts can open doors – we offer the chance to meet Aung San Suu Kyi’s former personal assistant. As the country has grown in popularity, the task now is to stay at the forefront of what’s going on, and explore the new areas of the country that are opening up.”

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Creating a point of difference with other operators is a necessity, even in the most unlikely of destinations. Regent Holidays was launched with the aim of offering unconventional trips – its first tours in 1971 were to the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania – but one might expect the playing field to be fairly flat when it comes to North Korea.

However, Regent has spent years building a network of contacts that enable its clients to visit areas of the country not usually open to visitors. Its Pioneering North Korea itinerary uses a chartered train and a private aircraft to get travellers to remote areas including a city on the border with China that’s newly opened to tourists, and the Paekdu Secret Camps, where Kim Il-sung’s headquarters were in the 1930s and 1940s. The 19-day tour starts from £3,400, excluding flights to Beijing.

Even starting to operate in this closed-door communist dictatorship was challenging. When Regent began negotiations in 1983 – tours didn’t run until 1985 – all communications had to be made by telex, and with limited electricity supplies, it could take a fortnight to get a message through. Replies could take six weeks. Even now, Regent says that one of the biggest challenges it faces is managing clients’ expectations of how quickly it
can respond to queries. Before travelling, all clients are given comprehensive notes covering local customs, electricity, internet and the use of mobile phones.

The destination is rarely far from the headlines, and client safety is always Regent’s priority, so they stay in constant contact with their partners and monitor Foreign Office (FCO) advice at all times.

FCO advice plays a large part in whether operators travel to a destination or not. Cox & Kings launched tours in Iran in 1998, but had to take it off sale in 2011 when FCO advice changed. When the guidance was relaxed in October 2015, trips began again. Since then, the operator’s Iran: Treasures of Persia itinerary has become one of its top 10 best-selling group tours. With nine departures this year of the 10- day, £2,495 tour, numbers in quarter one are already up 10% on 2016.

“Getting allocations in the hotels we want is probably one of the trickiest challenges, which is why it’s hard to put on additional departures,” says Cox & Kings’ Katie Cosstick. “Demand is growing and if it continues at this rate, we expect it to become harder to secure good quality English-speaking guides too.”

Despite the fact there is no tourist board to work with in the UK, a sense that security could be an issue, and visa hassles – clients have to come to London to get their Iranian visa in person, and once it’s in their passport, they can’t get an Esta and must apply for visas to travel to the US – it hasn’t put travellers off.

Some travellers understandably struggle with moral questions of whether or not to travel to politically troubled regions. There are undoubtedly valid arguments on both sides, but operators are keen to highlight how the travel industry can be a force for good. In Zimbabwe, from 2000, Wilderness Safaris stuck out a decade of political unrest, social upheaval, hyperinflation and virtual economic collapse. Zimbabwe managing director Ron Goatley says: “Visitors to the country dwindled to a trickle and tourism businesses all around us cut and ran, unable to justify the losses they were making. We refused to give in, and kept up our investment into day-to-day operations such as game water provision, firebreak maintenance, anti- poaching and community engagement.”

It paid off – not only do we own five of the most luxurious camps in Zimbabwe, in areas with the best wildlife, but we also employ more than 100 members of the local community and have seen poaching figures drop. With the opening of Victoria Falls airport last year, access is becoming increasingly easy, and growth is steady.

THE FUTURE

So, where next, for clients looking for off-the-beaten-track bragging rights? This year, Cox & Kings launched trips to Sudan and Wilderness is expanding into Rwanda, opening Bisate Lodge to offer mountain gorilla viewing. Regent is going into Palestine, Lebanon, and the Philippines. And A&K’s Pakes earmarks the lesser- known area of Loikaw in Myanmar as the best place to avoid the destination’s new- found crowds. It seems keeping moving is the only way to stay ahead of the pack.

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