Adrenaline-Pumping Tours

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Calling all thrill-seekers: want to get your adrenaline pumping on your next trip?

From swimming with sharks in Australia, dog mushing in Manitoba, and mountaineering in Antarctica to white water rafting in the Grand Canyon, kayaking the Alaska Fjords and rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, USTOA tour operator members offer a wide variety of adventurous experiences across the globe. Here are a few extraordinary expeditions to satisfy your wanderlust:

Swimming with whale sharks (credit: Down Under Answers)

Swimming with whale sharks (credit: Down Under Answers)

Swimming with whale sharks – which average 40 feet in length – on Down Under Answers’ “West Coast and Whale Sharks” itinerary will get any traveler’s blood pumping. Luckily for humans, whale sharks are filter feeders and completely harmless. Available May 1 through June 10, the time period each year when whale sharks visit the Ningaloo Reef in the north west coastal region of Western Australia for coral spawning, prices for this extraordinary 11-day adventure start at $3,499 per person based on double occupancy. www.duatravel.com

Guests on Grand American Adventures’ “Grand Canyon Rafting” itinerary will raft the entire length of the Grand Canyon, enjoying the thrill of up to class IV white water rapids. Other highlights include exploring gigantic caverns, emerald pools and waterfalls, camping on the banks of the Colorado River, hiking in side canyons and spotting soaring birdlife. It’s the ultimate outdoor adventure. This exhilarating eight-day journey is available April through September 2016 and 2017 from $3,079. www.grandamericanadventures.com

Camping in Antarctica (credit: QuarkExpeditions.com)

Camping in Antarctica (credit: QuarkExpeditions.com)

Inspiring explorers on Quark Expeditions’ 11- or 12-day “Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent” journey starts in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, and then navigates through the wilderness of the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula. Adventure seekers can add an extra rush of adrenaline to their expedition with optional adventure activities such as camping, cross-country skiing, kayaking, mountaineering and stand-up paddleboarding. Available select dates November 2016 through March 2017, prices start at $5,995 per person. www.QuarkExpeditions.com

Kayaking the Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska (credit Ralph Lee Hopkins with Lindblad Expeditions)

Kayaking the Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska (credit Ralph Lee Hopkins with Lindblad Expeditions)

On “Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness,” an eight-day journey from Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, guests will kayak amidst coves, fjords, tidewater glaciers and majestic mountains. With six veteran naturalists, including a Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructor and an undersea specialist, the journey will also introduce guests to an abundance of wildlife including humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, bald eagles, mountain goats, bears and more. Available over a variety of dates May through August 2016, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is priced from $6,490 per person based on double occupancy. www.expeditions.com/alaska

Visit www.ustoa.tripwing.com to find your ideal vacation in the destination of your dreams.

Got a Balanced Marketing Mix? Have you Considered the Sleeping Giant Market Segment?

By Jim Smith, CTIE, Senior Consultant – Travel Industry Distribution 

Perhaps one of the most commonly overlooked business opportunities that is off the radar of many marketers is a segment that represents 20% of the US population. It is, by all accounts, the fastest growing global demographic. Surprisingly, it is not the millennial market although they do, indeed, hold rich potential.

Over 63 million Americans live each day with some form of chronic disability. Additional tens of millions, while not disabled, have special needs; some acute, others chronic.

In a Fortune Magazine survey, over 24 million Americans with disabilities indicated that they would travel or travel more frequently if only their needs were met. The market holds tremendous potential for forward-thinking travel providers.

Their market spend on travel exceeds 12 billion dollars, with over 32 million vacations taken annually. Not surprisingly, 85% are taken with others.

Disability impacts 1 in 5 American households, providing no household member has yet attained the age of 65. When one household member turns 65, the incidence of household disability jumps to 1 in 4.

For travel to be memorable for all the right reasons it needs to be comfortable, enjoyable and accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, was enacted to protect the civil rights of Americans with Disabilities.

In the past quarter-century we have seen physical modifications to facilitate access vis-a-vis ramps to public buildings. Curb cutouts enable wheelchairs, scooters, etc. to accomplish tasks as simple as crossing a street. Grab bars are now resplendent from public restrooms to hotel accommodations. Accessible parking spaces, poolside/motor coach lifts and braille embedded signage are a direct result of this milestone initiative.

For almost a decade, Special Needs Group has been committed to “Delivering an Accessible World.” As the leading global provider of mobility, oxygen (and much more), 2015 saw SNG serve over 200 cities in 35 countries, worldwide.

Knowledge is Power. On Veterans Day, 2011, SNG introduced its “Certified Accessible Travel Advocate®” online training initiative. This 3-module, 65-minute program includes a brief test at the conclusion of each module. Successful completion of the series is required to earn the designation.

Over 2,500 travel professionals earned this designation in 4 years. We would like to extend an invitation to USTOA members to avail their organizations access to the program and are delighted to conduct “Certification Jump-Start” webinars for all USTOA members.

Founded as “Special Needs at Sea,” serving the cruise segment, a rebranding to communicate our expanded global footprint and ability to serve land-based vacationers was undertaken in 2011. From Las Vegas to Orlando, Spain to Greece, the Yucatan to the Dominican Republic (and many destinations in between), we are poised to assist USTOA members and their stakeholders at every turn.

Special Needs Group is located at 302 NW 3rd Ave, Dania Beach, FL 33004, USA Toll Free 1-800-513-4515. USTOA members, please contact Tensi Westreicher, Director, Sales and Marketing at extension 1014 to schedule Certification Jump-Start Webinars or for additional information. 

*Note: unless otherwise noted, all statistics were extracted from the 2005 US Census.

Explore America’s National Parks

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

This August marks 100 years since Woodrow Wilson signed the United States National Park Service into existence and festivities are already underway in many of the parks to honor this momentous milestone.  USTOA tour operator members have long treasured these conserved areas of natural beauty and history and to help celebrate are featuring new National Parks-focused itineraries, special offers, insider access and more.

Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Austin Adventures)

Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Austin Adventures)

From kayaking in Grand Teton National Park and stargazing in Yosemite to Navajo cookouts at the Grand Canyon and traditional carriage rides along historic roads in Acadia National Park, USTOA members provide travelers access, activities, adventures, culinary exploration and more throughout the National Park Service’s 84 million acres of protected area.

Following is a sample of itineraries from USTOA member tour operators to explore its pristine landscapes celebrate throughout the centennial of the National Park Service:

  • For the first time, Globus, an official partner of the National Park Foundation, is offering an unparalleled 103-day tour that takes travelers to 35 National Parks from Hawaii to Maine. Travelers on the “Centennial Celebration: 100 Days of GoParks!” journey will engage in local experiences such as a buffalo safari near Custer State Park, wine tasting in Washington’s wine country and time with a naturalist in Denali National Park and Preserve. The tour begins July 7, 2016 in Honolulu and ends on October 17, 2016 in Las Vegas. It is priced from $30,405. For travelers who can’t commit so much time, Globus offers 24 other GoParks! Tours and a percentage of revenue from each is donated to the National Park Foundation.
  • With horseback riding, fly fishing, ziplining, stargazing and other outdoor adventures on a dude ranch in Big Sky, the new seven-day “Montana: Big Sky & Yellowstone National Park” from Adventures by Disney will fulfill every cowboy’s dreams. Guests will also “glamp” at Yellowstone National Park, hike to the Norris Geyser Basin and visit Old Faithful.  Available over select dates in summer 2016, prices start at $3,919 per adult.
Yellowstone National Park (Credit: Adventures by Disney)

Yellowstone National Park (Credit: Adventures by Disney)

  • National Parks have always been at the core of Austin Adventures’ offerings and to mark this year’s centennial anniversary, the company has expanded its roster of trips and departures. Additionally, as an advocate of the Every Kid in the Park initiative from the National Park Foundation and the White House, Austin Adventures is waiving trip fees for all fourth graders traveling on any National Park adventure in 2016. Finally, as a participant in the NPS Centennial Tour Operator Program, the company will donate two dollars from each guest booked on one of its National Park trips in 2016 to Tourism Cares, Inc. to aid restoration projects at five National Parks. Guests can choose the six-day “Oregon – Crater Lake National Park” itinerary from $2,798 and the new six-day “Glacier National Park” itinerary from $2,898, among others.
  • Student groups can explore nature’s playground on Explorica Educational Travel’s six-day “Grand Canyon, Bryce & Zion National Parks” itinerary with optional Colorado River rafting extension. Highlights of this action-packed trip include a hike through the red rock spires in Bryce Canyon and a guided tour of Hoover Dam. Available year-round, rates start at $845 (bus) or $1335 (flight) and group leaders travel free with 10 paying participants. In honor of the centennial, receive $50 off per participant on any new booking with offer code GBZ50 through March 31, 2016.
  • In Freedom’s Footsteps: Philadelphia to Washington, DC” from Tauck, a new itinerary crafted in collaboration with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, traces the roots and legacies of freedom with visits to 10 National Park Service sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Washington, DC. During this 11-day journey, travelers will have early morning admission to view America’s founding documents at the National Archives, learn about the Civil War from historian and author Mark Howell, and visit Shenandoah National Park, among other activities. Available over select dates in 2016, prices start at $4,790 per person, double occupancy plus airfare.
Gettysburg National Military Park (Credit: Tauck)

Gettysburg National Military Park (Credit: Tauck)

  • Go Ahead offers nine tours that visit U.S. National Parks – five of which are new – and is offering $200 off all when reserved by March 31, 2016 with the promo code 16USTOA. On the 11-day “National Parks: Canadian Rockies, Glacier & Yellowstone” journey for instance, guests marvel at cascading waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park, drive along the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and explore the Grand Tetons, where human history dates back 10,000 years. Price for this tour starts at $2,249 with discount code: www.goaheadtours.com/ustoa-national-parks.
  • Photographers will delight in the “14 Day Ultimate National Parks” itinerary from Gate 1 Travel. Visits to Scottsdale, Sedona, Montezuma Castle, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Salt Lake City Tabernacle and Temple Square, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial offer captivating views and abundant wildlife. Available over numerous departures dates May through September 2016, prices for this spectacular journey start at 2,449 per person, land only. Save $400 per person with promo code UST400.
  • Mayflower Tours is offering 20 National Parks air holidays in 2016 and will be donating $5 per person for each National Park visited to Tourism Cares to aid restoration projects. A highlight is the “National Parks of the Southwest” journey, departing September 28, 2016, which features the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and six National Parks (Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest). Guests will watch the evening sky fill with a kaleidoscope of brilliant color as the burners of nearly 500 balloons are ignited at once followed by a mass ascension of over 600 specially shaped balloons as they lift off at sunrise the next day. Prices start at $3,099 per person, twin.
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta (Credit: Mayflower Tours)

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta (Credit: Mayflower Tours)

  • Abercrombie & Kent announced two new National Parks-focused Luxury Small Group Journeys (limited to no more than 18 guests) for 2016, including the 10-day “Family Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons” itinerary. Kids and adults alike will enjoy a roping demonstration at a dude ranch, a hike to a waterfall, horseback riding and whitewater rafting down Snake River, among other local experiences. Available over select dates in summer 2016, prices start at $7,995 per person, based on double occupancy (children save $800).
  • Insight Vacations’ 15-day “Great Western American Adventure” offers guests an in-depth look at the diverse composition of the American West with visits to Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, along with the iconic cities of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Scottsdale and Las Vegas. Highlights include an exclusive wine tasting in Napa Valley, a customized food tour in Carmel and a night inside Grand Canyon National Park without the daytime crowds. Available over various dates in 2016, this spectacular journey begins at $4,916 per person, twin.
  • Trafalgar offers nine National Parks itineraries, including the 15-day “Scenic Parks Explorer” with visits to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Jackson, Denver, Monument Valley and Las Vegas. The adventure includes off-the-beaten path experiences including an exclusive behind-the-scenes talk at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a complex of five western museums in Wyoming, and an unequalled view of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. With 45 departure dates from May to October, prices start at $3,895 per person, land only.
Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Trafalgar)

Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Trafalgar)

  • Cox & Kings’ eight-day “Southwestern Spa and Healing Immersion” private journey is the perfect respite for travelers wanting to disconnect from daily cares, reconnect with nature and rejuvenate at renowned spas. In addition to marveling at the Grand Canyon and hiking in Petrified Forest National Park, guests will receive a privately guided tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Taos from a Native American healer, take part in a hands-on cooking experience with a Native American chef and scholar, and relax at the natural hot springs of Ojo Caliente. Available throughout 2016, prices start at $8,950 per person. Save $250 per person based on double occupancy for travel by Labor Day weekend.
  • The Colorado Rockies,” a nine-day journey from Collette, visits Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Mesa Verde National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Guests will climb aboard a 1881 steam train for a journey through the San Juan Mountains, scale Pike’s Peak on the world’s largest cog railroad and take a private tour at a family-owned vineyard, all while taking in the spectacular views. Available over many departure dates May through September, 2016 and 2017, prices start at $2,299 per person, land only, based on double occupancy.
Bryce Canyon National Park (Credit: Collette)

Bryce Canyon National Park (Credit: Collette)

Discover the World’s Most Romantic Destinations

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

It’s February, and so of course our thoughts are on Valentine’s Day. Beyond the more commercial aspects of chocolates and roses, the day is a reminder to spend time with the people you love. And, what better place is there to do that than in one of the most romantic destinations in the world?

Venice (credit: Avanti Destinations)

Venice, Italy (credit: Avanti Destinations)

As the presidents of our tour operator members are seasoned travelers – and romantics at heart – we tapped a few of them to ask for their advice on the most romantic destinations across the globe. So, in their words, here are a few places you’ll definitely want to keep in your back pocket for when you’re planning your next romantic getaway…

Dan Austin, President, Austin Adventures: “After 30-plus years of traveling the planet with my lovely wife Carol, it is impossible to call just one destination “the most romantic.” To me it usually comes down to two things…one, the company you keep (got that covered), and two, the accommodations and how they enhance the destination.  We have had some amazing adventures complemented by some incredible accommodations. A few of our favorites include a beach side cabana on a private island off the coast of Belize, a Casita in the Sacred Valley of Peru (on the way to Machu Picchu), a riverside cabin in Montana and frankly too many others to list.  Perhaps my absolute favorite was a small, first-class river boat in the Peruvian Amazon, waking each day to a beautiful sunrise and settling in with a good glass of wine on deck for a different sunset every night. Pretty hard to not find that (or any of these) romantic!”

Harry Dalgaard, Founder and President, Avanti Destinations: “There are so many possibilities for romantic travel, each as different as the two people who share the experience. You have the classic romantic travel experiences: a gondola ride in Venice, a stroll along the Seine in Paris, snuggling up by a cozy fire in a chalet after a day of skiing in the Alps, learning to tango in Buenos Aires, or staying in a thatched-roof cottage by a beach somewhere in the tropics. Today, many couples – young and old – who book with Avanti’s travel agent partners are looking for a romantic experience that is more unusual, adventurous, exotic:  hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, whitewater rafting or ziplining in Costa Rica, exploring the ruins at Angkor Wat, being mesmerized by the amazing landscape of Guilin in China. One thing is certain: FIT is the only truly romantic way to travel.  It has to be just the two of you.”

Jack E. Richards, President and CEO, Pleasant Holidays: “My entire career has been spent in the travel industry and during that tenure my bride of 35 years and I have been fortunate to travel the world together. We’ve enjoyed alpine ski vacations in snowy chalets; dined on beaches at sunset in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean; and celebrated our most-recent wedding anniversary on a river cruise in France. But for the ultimate romance vacation experience, there’s nothing that can match an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. This tiny heart-shaped island in French Polynesia is tropical, it’s tranquil, and its beauty is beyond description. It’s simply romantic perfection.”

Jerre Fuqua, CTC, President, TRAVCOA and YMT Vacations: “Travel allows us to connect not only with our new surroundings…the tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, the beautiful landscape of Patagonia, the elephant families in South Africa…but also with our loved ones accompanying us on our global exploration. Travcoa has been fortunate enough to arrange some amazing experiences of celebration including a private cruise on the Grand Canal of Malta with a scuba diver surprising a couple with a bottle of champagne as the sun begins to kiss the ocean; a re-commitment ceremony from a Quechuan Shaman at Machu Picchu in Peru; and a romantic evening dinner on the plains of the Serengeti showcasing just how many stars there are in the universe. Of course, one cannot ignore the beauty and exclusivity of the many romantic islands around the world like Necker Island in the Caribbean or North Island in the Seychelles, both of which we can arrange with personalized and unique experiences.”

Paris, France (credit: Avanti Destinations)

Paris, France (credit: Avanti Destinations)

As for me… when I think about the quintessential romantic destination, my mind always lands on Paris. Coined the “City of Love” for valid reasons, it is simply the most beautiful city to experience on foot.  There is a picturesque scene around every corner…from quaint cafes to linger over coffee or a glass of wine, to stunning architecture, both ancient and modern, broad boulevards and majestic public parks for strolling, and of course, the emblematic Eiffel Tower.  Paris will always hold a special place in my heart.

Understanding State Department Travel Alerts and Warnings

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Safety has always been the top priority for USTOA members so we’re particularly sensitive to State Department travel alerts and warnings, which can cause more confusion and uncertainty among travelers than guidance. We’re constantly monitoring these alerts and found Everett Potter’s overview of what they mean in USA Today this week particularly helpful and informative, so wanted to share it with both travelers and our travel agent partners as a resource:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/advice/2016/01/18/state-department-travel-alert-warning/78637736/

In addition to monitoring State Department travel alerts and warnings, our members are uniquely positioned to monitor situations around the world. With eyes and ears on the ground in destinations, our tour operator members have access to real-time information that allows them to act in the best interest of both guests and employees.

We are hopeful that the U.S. traveler continues to be resilient and keeps exploring new cultures…it’s the best antidote to the misunderstanding that plagues world events today.

A Look Ahead: USTOA Tour Operator Members are Confident about 2016

By Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

Happy New Year! And welcome to 2016… it’s going to be a great year to travel the world.

USTOA conducts an annual travel trend and forecast survey of the association’s active tour operator members, monitoring business trends, top travel destinations, and more. The most recent results were revealed at the Annual Conference & Marketplace held December 3-5 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago in Chicago, IL.

The punch line for 2016? Our members affirm a positive outlook for the year.

Headline news: member operators are confident about business in 2016

Overall, the tour operator members of USTOA are showing strong growth for this year, with more than a third (39%) attributing growth to an improved economy and higher consumer confidence… a positive sign for the travel industry as a whole.

Nine in 10 tour operator members anticipate a growth in sales in 2016 with more than half of members (57%) “optimistic” and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from seven to 10% or higher.

In 2015, three quarters of members responding to the survey reported an increase in sales over 2014, forty percent of which cited an increase of 10% or higher. More than two thirds (70%) of members also saw an increase in passengers in 2015; 60% saw numbers grow between four and nine percent, while 36% of indicated growth of 10% or higher.

Destination forecast: where are travelers going?

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

Kelley Ferro in Cuba, the top “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Brandon Widener)

When asked which “emerging” destinations will gain popularity in 2016, members (not surprisingly) cited Cuba. About thirty four percent of USTOA members currently offer programs to Cuba, and of that number, more than half plan to increase offerings within the next few years. Cuba was followed by Myanmar, Iceland, Colombia, and Ethiopia and Japan (tied for fifth).

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Colombia was named the fourth “emerging” destination that will gain popularity in 2016 (credit: Justin Weiler)

Italy, for the fourth consecutive year in a row, topped the list as most popular international destination for travelers in 2016, followed by the United Kingdom; China, France and South Africa (tied for third); Peru and India.  On the home front, USTOA members forecast New York and California (tied for first), Arizona and Hawaii (tied for second), Nevada, Florida and Washington DC (tied for fourth) and Alaska as the most popular U.S. destinations for clients in 2016.

Participating tour operator members also named art and culture, honeymoon and romance, and family as the most popular travel categories for passengers.

Who’s traveling?

When asked who’s traveling, members responded that a little more than half (55%) of their customer base are baby boomers at 51 years of age and older. The next largest age group was 35 to 50 years old, representing about a quarter (23%) of customers. Roughly half (53%) of members saw a growth in the number of solo passengers in 2015.

Potential threats: what could hinder US traveler confidence in 2016?

While USTOA members view 2016 with optimism, they cited terrorism as the biggest threat to US traveler confidence in 2016. The second potential threat named was global financial instability, followed by political instability.

Of note, the survey was completed prior to the tragic events in Paris, yet there is little surprise that it jumped to the top of list given world events. Aware that the impact of such horrific events can be global in scope, our members are hopeful that the U.S. traveler continues to be resilient and keep exploring new cultures…it’s the best antidote to the misunderstanding that plagues world events today.

Based on the results, all roads lead to more travel. So, what are you waiting for? Visit our Travel Together page with videos and information on thirteen different destinations, including Cuba, for more inspiration. And visit our Dream Vacation Itinerary Finder – with those destinations and more – and discover the trip of a lifetime.

Discover China

The ancient treasures and modern wonders of China span 5,000 years of culture and history. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert and video journalist, as she journey’s through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing with USTOA tour operator member Wendy Wu Tours.

Catch a Glimpse of Ancient China

As one of the oldest ancient civilizations, China boasts a rich and long-established history and culture. Wendy Wu Tours gives Kelley Ferro a glimpse into the ancient culture of China from a visit to the Forbidden City and Shanghai Old Town, to an one-on-one lesson with a Tai Chi master.

Explore Modern Day China

China is a mix of old world tradition and new world sophistication. While traveling with Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro got an insider look at modern day China from meeting locals to exploring up-and-coming neighborhoods featuring hip cafes and bars.

Bucket List China

With sought-after experiences like climbing the Great Wall and walking amongst the Terracotta Warriors, China is a destination that appears on many traveler’s bucket lists. With the help of Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro gained unparalleled access to these legendary sights.

Experience China’s Vibrant Food Scene

From dumpling making lessons to exploring exotic street foods, Wendy Wu Tours itineraries provide travelers insider access to China’s vibrant food scene. Join travel expert Kelley Ferro as she eats her way through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing.

Traveling Through Old China a New Way

By Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

The older generation square dancing outside the Xi’an Old Wall

The older generation square dancing outside the Xi’an Old Wall

The single burnt out speaker crackles and pops as a high-pitched voice fills the thick night air in Xi’an. Mandarin sung is just as confusing as listening to it spoken, and now it’s blaring out of a single speaker that should have been retired about 15 years ago. However, it’s appropriate that a group of retirees are lined up in front of the old speaker square dancing on the new side of the city. At the same time, on the other side of Xian’s 40 foot high city wall in the old part of the city is another group of people lined up doing movements in unison. This group doesn’t have music and the average age is probably 23 years old. They follow the lead of a trainer as he shouts out stretching instructions as they prepare for a group run. I’m amused by this young and old culture in such proximity and it seems to be an ongoing theme I run into all over China.

Old/New, Ancient/Modern whatever you call it, opposites attract. China, maybe more than any other country, lives in this world of opposites. With a culture that dates back 4,000 years, China is considered one of the ancient civilizations along with Egypt, Babylon, and India. Today, however, its years of traditions are clashing up against the modern world and an economy growing at a rapid rate.   It’s a petri dish of old and new intermixing, elders and hipsters co-mingling, braided together in a complex waltzing partnership; one in which you never quite know who is going to take the lead.

Many things and world famous sites stand out when you visit China; the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall, the architecture of Shanghai, and the billions of people. However, what I was fixated on was the relation between old culture and new. And I found it was this relation between ancient and modern that was the lens through which I viewed the famous sites of China during my tour with Wendy Wu Tours.

Shanghai Markets

Shanghai new architecture, and an old barge, viewed from the Bund

Shanghai new architecture, and an old barge, viewed from the Bund

I was expecting Shanghai to be completely modern and architecturally stunning, but when I walked to the Bund district to view the sleek skyline from the river, the first thing I saw was an old barge chugging down the river in front of skyscrapers.

In addition to the busy pedestrian shopping street with familiar brands like Apple, TopShop, H&M and Starbucks, our local guide, Ling, took us to a street in Nanshi Old Town surrounded by old buildings painted in red with traditional Chinese rooflines. Don’t let the term ‘old town’ fool you though, its façade is old, but its goods are new. Bins of selfie sticks and the latest craze of plastic flower sprouts that people wear in their hair were found at every shop and vendor. Nestled among the latest fads though were a few old items; I was entranced by the old Chinese comic books.  And by old I mean 1980’s old.

China’s latest craze sold on the streets of the Old Town – flower sprouts

China’s latest craze sold on the streets of the Old Town – flower sprouts

But it was also here in Nanshi where we found the Yu Gardens, an oasis of calm and feng shui among the chaotic shopping streets. We walked around the beautifully manicured gardens and Ling told me about the 4 pillars that are required of any Chinese Garden; rocks, water, pavilion, and plants. As I walked through the gardens I forgot that outside of the walls was a chaotic crowded new square with dumpling vendors and people with selfie sticks.

And of course don’t forget the 5th pillar of a Chinese Garden…the garden cat

And of course don’t forget the 5th pillar of a Chinese Garden…the garden cat

Xi’an Old City Wall

The city of Xi’an oozes ancient tradition; it’s one of the most important cities in Chinese history. It’s been the capital of 13 great dynasties and was the starting point to the Silk Road. Today it holds one of the most famous archeological finds in the world, the Terracotta Warriors; an army of 8,000 soldiers that were created and buried to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife. As I pushed my way through what felt like an army of people to see the warriors, I was getting a feel for what modern day China is really like; bursting with people.

A crowd gathers around a warrior

A crowd gathers around a warrior

However, what captured my attention in Xi’an was the Old City Wall standing 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide; a giant square cube running 8.5 miles around the old city. It was originally built to protect the city and Dynasty from invasion; however, it was never actually attacked. I guess the look of it was protection enough. Today the wall is this division of old and new.  Inside sits the old city and Muslim quarter, bell towers, and parks. It’s quiet inside of the walls as only electric motorbikes are allowed, while outside the walls is a bustling metropolis of new buildings, high-rises, and traffic! Going up on the wall and walking or biking is a great way to place yourself between the old and new China.

The City Wall in Xi’an

The City Wall in Xi’an

Beijing Hutongs

Beijing’s culture was built in the hutongs, old courtyards forming tightknit neighborhoods where you find day-to-day life. Not many hutongs remain these days as most have been leveled to make room for the new China, but ironically, many tourists prefer to visit the few remaining hutongs rather than the city’s new modern buildings. It was my walk through the South Gong and Drum Lane hutong that made me love Beijing. I meandered through the narrow streets and alleys and got a feel for the old life of Beijing. I was even able to enter one of the homes and eat lunch with a local family.

china (4)

I easily became distracted looking down every little lane, finding old men playing Mahjong. But the part I loved the most is that nestled among the connected homes, public restrooms, and men playing Mahjong, were young men and women with tattoos and piercings sipping coffee in small, hip coffee shops. This was the ultimate mix of old and new in Beijing. We stopped in at Si…if Bar on North Luogu Alley Dongcheng District, which labeled itself the ‘first bar in the hutong’.  It was an oasis of calm during the day with its clever wood design, bar dog that would lay by your feet, and self-proclaimed “F!*cking Good Coffee”.

There was also a mixture of old and new at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, an hour outside Beijing. You can take a gondola up to the wall and walk on the ancient steps where warriors once protected China from Mongol invasion and then opt to take a more modern route down the wall – a toboggan slide that wound like a snake down the steep hill.

The Great Wall represents a very old time in Chinese history

The Great Wall represents a very old time in Chinese history

Getting Off the Beaten Path

While many travelers tend to focus on the older, ancient sites of China, local guides will take you off the typical tourist trail and introduce you to today’s ‘new’ China.

Sherry Ott is a long term traveler, blogger and photographer without a home. She spent a year living in Vietnam, hiked the Annapurna Circuit, did cultural exchange programs in the Middle East, drove 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia, and walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. She seeks out adventurous opportunities to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel. Hear more about her journey to China with Wendy Wu Tours at AFAR.com.

Beijing Behind Closed Doors: A Peek into the Hutong Neighborhoods

By Kelley Ferro

I craned my neck to look into each doorway that we passed. We were moving along at good clip on a bike taxi, or “bike rickshaw,” through the narrow streets of a Beijing neighborhood. The streets were lined with high walls and intimidating doorways. These imposing facades gave very little insight into what lay behind…but I knew. They were hiding courtyards with bird cages, children playing, cats basking in the sun, old ladies hanging laundry. I was welcomed into one of these homes just moments before, to have lunch with the Fan family. This family welcomes travelers, entertains them with music and allows them to peek into this otherwise hidden daily life. I only had a taste of what was on the inside and I wanted to see more, so desperately I tried to catch glimpses through open doorways as we bounced by.

Bike rickshaws are a great speed for seeing a lot in a short amount of time

Bike rickshaws are a great speed for seeing a lot in a short amount of time

This neighborhood of Beijing is known as the “hutongs,” or what the locals refer to as “slums.” That word is a bit abrasive and I had a very different idea in my head of what we were going to find before we came here. As we bounced down the cobbled streets, vines crawling up impressive walls, old men playing mahjong on plastic tables down side streets, this didn’t feel at all like a slum. Sure, it was a little worse for wear in some areas, but these one story buildings were over a century old. It felt like one of the first times that I actually got a real insight into China’s culture.

They seemed to be having the best time

They seemed to be having the best time

Thus far I had been exposed to the clean, precise streets of orderly Shanghai, the modernized historical city of Xi’an, with its manicured parks, and the hyper modern downtown area of Beijing which could have been New York City or Paris if you looked quickly. Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry and Apple lined the streets and the busy crosswalks were filled with well-heeled Chinese carrying smartphones. Here in the sleepy, tree-lined hutongs, there were more birds chirping than car horns. Life was slower and moving at the same pace of the Chinese ancestors that lived here generations before. China’s door to personal life was left ajar.

Stunning doorways in the hutongs

Stunning doorways in the hutongs

Hutongs used to dominate Beijing but they’ve now been bulldozed to give way for the city’s rapid development. However, there are still several century old hutongs that have been preserved and exploring these will take you back in time. We went to the Nanluoguxiang hutong, one of the more popular in the area near the Forbidden City. Though it isn’t as wealthy or modern as other areas, there was energy there. A resurgence of youth had come back to these hutongs, choosing to appreciate the past instead of plow forward to the newer, faster, the shinier. On one block, old men were playing mahjong outside but on the other, a young couple shared headphones as they poured over their laptop, drinking chai lattes at a laid-back cafe. We hopped off the rickshaw to browse the kitschy shops selling minimalist homewares, succulents and vintage handbags. A number of restaurants and cafes caught my eye, and I typed their names on my iPhone, hoping for the chance to try them out on a return trip.

Chill cafes in the Nanluoguxiang hutong

Chill cafes in the Nanluoguxiang hutong

But Bar Si…if grabbed our attention immediately. Two millennial men sat on wooden benches in front, wearing black t-shirts, eyeliner and smoking cigarettes. The unusual name is open-ended, giving the sense of “what if” or endless possibilities. It seemed appropriate for a hipster coffeehouse meets clubby bar located on a centuries old street. It also was decidedly quiet on this Friday afternoon. Understandably so, as it was crowded until early morning and is one of the nightlife destinations on this trip. Many of these sleepy cafes and bars morph into the city’s new in-the-know going out spot. After dusk, music flows from the open windows until daybreak. We grabbed a delicious coffee, ordered via a tablet menu, and we considered grabbing a cold beer from their impressive list (Brooklyn beer in Beijing, what!). But we had at least nine more hours of shooting, so we forged on!

Sherry Ott, equally impressed by Bar Si...if and its second level

Sherry Ott, equally impressed by Bar Si…if and its second level

Each coffee shop had personality

Each coffee shop had personality

Hutongs were originally created by the Mongol Empire, the word meaning “water well.” They were designed to center around water and now that sense of community continues. The bathrooms of the hutongs are communal, with one shared single sex bathroom every few blocks. This feature was something I had never seen before and to be honest, was a bit hesitant about trying. But nature called and to my thankful surprise, they were very clean!

A glimpse down the narrow alley separating the courtyard houses

A glimpse down the narrow alley separating the courtyard houses

We continued to meander through the alleys around the districts notable Drum Tower. These maze like streets continued to baffle me with one seeming like a replica of Abbot-Kinney, another like it was 1915. It pains me that one of the most historical parts of the city has been diminishing. Back in 1990, 600 hutongs were destroyed each year. However, there’s been an effort to preserve more and more of these culturally significant, personal homes. The gentrification by the shops, cafes and bars like Si…if, may serve to help this preservation by bringing in more awareness from the local and tourist population as well. The authentic local life is what many of today’s travelers are looking for and for the sake of the remaining residents; I can only hope that they continue to flourish. My best tip is to go spend a day there, chat up the locals and enjoy this living history. And I’d suggest, don’t wait too long.

Mrs. Fan, performing a hauntingly beautiful song for us after lunch

Mrs. Fan, performing a hauntingly beautiful song for us after lunch

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in California. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month. She is also a contributor to Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s  FacebookTwitter and Instagram pages.

Exploring China’s Food Scene

By Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

Dumplings you eat with a straw!

Dumplings you eat with a straw!

My first memory of international cuisine was when I was 12 years old.  I’ll never forget going to a Chinese restaurant in Peoria, Illinois for the first time. It was darkly lit, with big round tables and little cups for tea. I was fascinated with these cups because they didn’t have handles – unconventional for my Midwest life.  My dad ordered some dishes for our table; sweet and sour pork, wontons, egg foo young, and pork chow mien. I remember being that awkward age that hated eating anything that I didn’t know, but wanting to try new things. I had no idea how to use the chopsticks in front of me – they seemed as confusing and impossible as solving my Rubik’s Cube – but that was the first of many Chinese dinners I had in my hometown of Peoria. Chinese food reminds me of my childhood and exploration of new things, so when I landed in China for my 8 day trip with Wendy Wu Tours, I was excited for one thing – I wanted to eat!

Eating in China

Though China may seem daunting due to the language barriers, your local guide can lead you through all the tough decisions – like what to eat! They can help you order and work your way through the maze of menus. Most of the restaurants that we went into were gigantic, with big round tables and a lazy Susan in the middle for easy sharing. The menus tended to be the size of an old Sears Catalog and include pictures and English, which made things a little easier. These are great places to eat but it you want to throw caution to the wind and find some restaurants that are smaller and don’t have pictures or English menus, then just ask your guide and they’ll lead you deep into the alleys of China to eat. After all, travel is about going local and exploration of new things!

A super thick menu with pictures

A super thick menu with pictures

Dumplings

I quickly learned that dumplings are a staple in Shanghai, little bites of flavorful goodness; but in Shanghai you get something extra in your dumpling – soup.  I had my first soup dumpling at breakfast (yes, dumplings for breakfast). I was startled when I bit into what I thought was a normal dumpling and soup came out and subsequently went all over me! I pretty quickly learned that Shanghai dumplings need to be eaten with care. Shanghai is known for 2 main kinds of dumplings: Xiao Long Bao, a dumpling made of wheat dough that is steamed, and Sheng Jian Bao, made of a thicker dough first fried in a cast iron skillet and then steamed. Both are typically made of pork and have a gelatin soup inside that gets heated and liquefied when steamed. Dip them in a vinegar soy mixture and try to poke a hole in it first so that you can ‘drink’ out the soup or at least let it cool before you bite into it!  My favorite way to eat them was with a straw.

Xiao Long Bao – or XLB as the cool kids refer to them!

Xiao Long Bao – or XLB as the cool kids refer to them!

Sheng Jian Bao – or SJB

Sheng Jian Bao – or SJB

In Xi’an we not only ate dumplings (jiaozi), we learned how to make them.  Our teacher, Chef Jin, makes about 3,500 dumplings a night, which explains why her super power is to make dumplings lightning fast. Seriously, if you blink you’ll miss it and will all of a sudden have a butterfly shaped dumpling in front of you. Chef Jin works at the Shaanxi Sunshine Lido Grand Theatre (and in the time it took you to read that title, she made 4 dumplings). She makes dumplings every night for customers who come to the cultural theater show. Her dumplings are in the shape of butterflies, roses, swans, cabbages, and ducks.  However, for teaching purposes she kept the shapes simple and slowed down long enough to show us how to roll out the dough, spread in the filling, and then form them into shapes.  Mine didn’t turn out too shapely, which made me conclude that I’d rather eat them than make them.

Rolling out dumpling dough in Xi’an

Rolling out dumpling dough in Xi’an

Milk

In our quest for local food, our Shanghai guide took us for a traditional breakfast enjoyed by the fast paced business workers in Shanghai – warm, sweet soymilk and a fried breadstick. Yon Ho is a fast food chain that started as a street stall in Taiwan and now sells their soybean milk all over China. The drink sort of tastes like what’s left in the bottom of a cereal bowl once all the cereal is gone and immediately won me over! It was fun to be the only foreigners in the restaurant and watch a steady stream of young business professionals come in and eat before work. Sort of like the Chinese Starbucks – a cool (and tasty) view of daily life in Shanghai!

Warm soy milk and fried bread

Warm soy milk and fried bread

Noodles

Have you ever heard a noodle? In Xi’an if you listen carefully you’ll hear why the Biangbiang noodle got its name. It is named after the sound of dough being thwacked on the chopping board so it can be stretched into one very long belt-like lasagna noodle. We stopped at a local food court inside the old city in Xi’an and saw the noodles being made and then slurped them down in a delicious broth mixture with soy, peppers, and scallions. And if you are wondering, in China it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles!

Biangbiang noodles in a soupy broth

Biangbiang noodles in a soupy broth

My other favorite noodle was the Peking noodle dish found in Beijing.  The noodles are long, cylinder shaped, and delicious. My favorite part was that the noodles, vegetables, and sauce were brought out in separate bowls and it was up to us to mix the three items together at the table…with chopsticks.  Good luck…the taste is worth it!

Peking Noodles is a dish you need to put together yourself!

Peking Noodles is a dish you need to put together yourself!

Peking Duck

It might look slightly unappetizing to have a whole duck brought out to your table, but trust me on this and say ‘yes’ to Peking Duck when in Beijing! The duck is best known for its breeding and roasting process; plus it was once the food of Emperors.

We went to Da Wan Ju, a small, local restaurant near the Wangfujing night market. Once the duck is carved by your table, you eat it in a pancake with scallions, cucumber and sweet bean sauce all rolled up like a taco. However, I’m not sure what I liked the most – the duck breast ‘taco’ or the crispy skin! For pure decadence, try dipping the crispy skin in sugar – the ultimate treat!

Carving Peking Duck at our table

Carving Peking Duck at our table

Street Food

If you want to get a little bolder, then try the street food in China!  Don’t get scared away by Beijing’s Wangfujing night market, which tends to cater to tourists more than locals. It’s a market with split personalities – it has a bunch of great traditional street food such as noodles, dumplings, and soups mixed with creepy crawlies on a stick. It’s definitely worth a visit to see how daring you are!  I decided to try dessert there after our Peking Duck dinner, sweet sticky rice ‘pops’ on a stick were the perfect ending!

Luckily I was already full when we came across these delicacies!

Luckily I was already full when we came across these delicacies!

Sticky rice pops – more my speed!

Sticky rice pops – more my speed!

There are plenty of other street markets selling food all over China’s cities that are geared to locals and your guide can help you find. Our guide led us to the Chang li neighborhood in Shanghai to try some local street food.  Nestled among retail stores, the market smelled of durian and was filled with businessmen and women stopping to get dinner on their way home from work. The food is cooked right in front of you and I suggest you just pick the stand with the biggest line! The other great thing about local street food is it’s cheap; I had a giant noodle and veggie dish for only $1.20 USD.

What About the Fortune Cookies?

If you are looking for those crispy sweet fortune cookies at the end of you meal in China, you’ll be waiting forever. In fact 90% of Chinese people don’t even know what they are.  One of my biggest surprises was learning that fortune cookies aren’t really from China at all; they are from the United States, created in San Francisco.

The food in China was nothing like what I grew up eating at my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Peoria; instead it was infinitely better. And like most things in the world of travel, it’s even better when you can get out and explore the local scene, because it’s all about the journey.

Sherry Ott is a long term traveler, blogger and photographer without a home. She spent a year living in Vietnam, hiked the Annapurna Circuit, did cultural exchange programs in the Middle East, drove 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia, and walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. She seeks out adventurous opportunities to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel. Hear more about her journey to China with Wendy Wu Tours at AFAR.com.