South America Rising

Everyone in the industry knows how dramatically overseas travel stalled after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. However, in the months that followed, travel to South America picked up, with many tour operators reasoning that travelers deemed the destination neutral. It somehow only seems fitting then, that as the sixth anniversary of the attacks approaches, South America is getting a second go-round as a top vacation destination—but this time, more due to its exciting exoticism.

Statistics back up this proclamation. In 2006, a record-breaking 30.1 million U.S. travelers visited overseas markets, resulting in a 5 percent increase over 2005, according to the most recent data available from the government's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI). Travelers to South America certainly contributed to that rise, as the continent set a regional record for visits by Americans between 1985 and 2006, OTTI says.

Machu Picchu visitors on an Adventures by Disney tour visits in Peru

Queries about the region are noticeably higher—a survey released in March by the Adventure Travel Trade Association reveals that U.S. travelers' interest in South America increased roughly 40 percent from 2005 to 2006—and as a result, a number of tour companies are founding or increasing product offerings there, focusing on such destinations as Machu Picchu, Costa Rica and the Galapagos. The draws of South America, these operators say, include fascination with products from the region such as Chilean wines, interest in a culture well known for its warm and welcoming nature, an increasing reputation as a family-friendly destination and favorable exchange rates.

Disney's New Peru Itinerary

Helping to cement that burgeoning cachet is Adventures by Disney, which will launch its first tour in South America next year. "Sacred Valleys and Incan Cities," which focuses on Peru, escorts guests on a private guided tour of Machu Picchu, a visit to the Moray ruins followed by a dance performance by Urubamba students, a one-of-a-kind weaving demonstration at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco and a visit to the Sacsayhuaman ruins. The Bottom Line

The trip is likely a great choice for first-timers, as Disney will guide guests in and out of Lima's airport, which can sometimes be overwhelming, says Heather Killingbeck, director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney. It also should be noted that the trip, like most to South America, is relatively active. "We try to have experiences that are somewhat physical, but not too rigorous," she says.

A major appeal of South America is that it's easy to get to, and for U.S.-based travelers, it comes with minimal, if any, jet lag. "The convenience of traveling there is certainly something people take into consideration," says Kim Vincent, project manager for Globus, which has been offering escorted tours to the region since 1994. "People have gone to Europe and now they want to do the exotics. In South America, you've got the combination of cosmopolitan cities mixed with wildlife, national parks and gorgeous, pristine, untouched lands."

Travcoa visits Iguazu Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina

In 2008, expect to see a big push behind Globus' South America product, as interest in tours there continues to grow—so much so that in 2007, sales of Globus' South America itineraries grew by 50 percent. In 2008, Globus is looking to establish a culinary tour there.

The tour operator is increasing departures on its existing tours, as well as launching several new ones. New for 2008 is "Patagonian Adventure: Journey to the End of the World," a 15-day trip that spans Santiago, Chile; many other cities, including Buenos Aires, Argentina; Puerto Natales, a city that claims to be the world's most southern; and Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for an overnight. Departures begin January 3, 2008, at a price of $5,299.

"Wildlife is abundant on this trip," Vincent says, "with foxes, swans and condors everywhere. It's a very nature-based trip, but guests will be taken care of in the hotels."

What's more, the tour operator believes that South America's current reputation as a relatively untouched destination could be a good way for agents to attract younger clientele. To help out, Globus has expanded its FIT Monograms product in the country and, like China this year, in 2008 Globus will focus on heavily promoting South America, using a three-tiered mailing and launching a new micro-site, "Colorful South America," on its web site.

In addition to the potential for attracting younger customers, South America also is a magnet for female travelers, according to Jerre Fuqua, president of First Choice Expeditions, the parent company of the luxury operator Travcoa. According to the recent survey by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, women make up the majority of adventure travelers worldwide, and the most popular destination among them is South America.

"I personally love South America," Fuqua says, "and my reason for that is that if you think about all the places on your life list, you'll find a lot of them are in South America: the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Brazil's IguazuFalls and Easter Island in Chile." In fact, Fuqua says that Travcoa was one of the first companies to take travelers to Easter Island in the 1960s. Since that time, a variant of that trip has continued every year and continues to be one of Travcoa's most popular products. "We'd be in trouble if we didn't go; the trip is that strong," he says.

In 2008, the company will offer a 12-day "Chile's Patagonia & Easter Island" itinerary priced from $7,295. Guests start their stay in Santiago and cross the Patagonian pampas to Coyhaique. After stops in Laguna San Rafael and San Cristobal Hill, the last four days are spent on Easter Island, where Travcoa privately guides guests through the area using local experts. "We are not a volume tour operator, so we go to exotic places that can't handle hordes," Fuqua says.

Still Room to Grow

Meanwhile, Tauck World Discovery has been escorting travelers to South America for close to 10 years, though it's certainly a region where the portfolio has the potential to expand, says Brian Stacey, Tauck's regional planning manager for the exotics region, which includes Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and South America. "The infrastructure there is improving month by month with new hotels and better air lift," he says.

"In recent years, we've been focused on Europe and China, but right now that focus is turning," Stacey continues. "South America is an area where we have room to grow. The demand is there."

Stacey says that in areas like Chile's Atacama Desert and Brazil's Pantanal—places that used to be considered backpackers' destinations—luxury hotels are starting to pop up. Yet before Tauck ventures there, the company wants to make sure that the areas have the infrastructure to support the level of quality Tauck customers have come to know and expect. "That's the key to our success," Stacey says. "We may not be the first people there, but we will do it right."

Tauck is offering two new trips to the region in 2008: "Essence of South America" and "The Panama Canal & Costa Rica" cruise. "Essence of South America" is a 13-day trip that explores Chile, Brazil, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, with prices starting from $4,940. On "The Panama Canal & Costa Rica" tour, the trip is split between five days on land and a six-night cruise aboard Le Levant through the Panama Canal. Prices start at $5,490.

Central America

Austin-Lehman Adventures is also seeing increased interest in Central America, so much so that the tour operator recently established an office in Costa Rica.

Monolithic human figures in Easter Island's Rapa Nui National Park

Because of its growing popularity, it's getting more difficult to put together an authentic experience, says Richard Edwards, chief marketing officer for Austin-Lehman, who in June relocated to Costa Rica. "If we're down there, it makes all the difference," he says.

"Our Costa Rica trips are in the top 10 of web page views of our site," he professes. "They're as popular as our traditional Montana and Yellowstone trips."

Edwards is responsible for product development, the oversight of operations and working with local operators and hotels to create new itineraries.

"Why people are going there and why it's a good time to open an office there are related," Edwards tells Travel Agent.

"People are going there for authentic experiences. You talk about travel as seeing new places, like Machu Picchu and the rainforest, but when people come back, what they talk about is the people they met."

With the idea of meeting locals in mind, Austin-Lehman Adventures is revamping its product in Costa Rica. "We're going to offer more romantic trips from a luxury point of view, but with a local twist," Edwards says, adding that the company will focus on family travel in the same way. "We're not getting rid of our active component, but we are really trying to answer what people are looking for in experiential travel—interacting with people in an authentic way." Trips should be listed online later this year.

Clearly, the industry's excitement over South America is palpable. If it continues at this pace, the region could be on its way to becoming the next Europe, with its rich culture, taste of the past and exciting future.