Image credit: Wendy Wu Tours

Squeeze every last drop out of Asia with an epic escorted tour

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There are plenty of Victorian traditions better left in the 19th century, but there is one – the Grand Tour – that is still alive and well.

It’s no coincidence that many operators name their most epic itineraries after this one-time rite of passage for Britain’s upper classes.

The destinations might be more exotic and the mix of travellers more diverse these days, but the spirit of exploration and cultural enrichment that the name evokes is just the same now as it was then.

That’s because longer tours – anything above a standard fortnight – can be more than just a holiday, especially when it’s somewhere as vast and varied as Asia.

With the luxury of time to explore, travellers can delve deeper into their chosen destination, visit remote regions often bypassed by those on a tight time frame, or link different countries together for a truly epic journey.

Multi-centre tours



The most obvious advantage of a longer tour is being able to visit more than one country: why choose between Vietnam and Cambodia when you can do both, and even throw in Laos for good measure?

With durations of more than two weeks, clients won’t feel cheated at having to devote the odd morning or afternoon to travelling between destinations, especially with Asia’s short and reasonably priced flights making it easy to combine more than one country in a single trip.

Geographically and culturally, Indochina lends itself most easily to multi-centre tours, with good transport links, a shared French colonial history and the mighty Mekong River running through the heart of the region.

Most operators offer at least a Vietnam and Cambodia pairing. Trafalgar’s 15-day Highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia is one such tour, visiting Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City, before crossing the border for three nights in Cambodia.

But many also add Laos for a more rounded introduction to the region, such as Insider Journeys’ 19-day Indochina Explorer, or Collette’s 20-day Three Kingdoms of Indochina, which enable clients to visit a third country without having to cut down their time in the other two.

There is certainly growing demand for Laos, albeit still mostly as an extension of other tours, which is why Cosmos Tours & Cruises has rolled it into a 22-day Grand Tour of Indochina, launching next year.

Product and commercial manager Leila Grochowski says: “The Laos extension was so popular on our tour of the region that we have included it in the main itinerary for 2016. Indochina is a natural combination and is certainly a bucket-list ticker for those wanting to explore all three countries in one trip. A longer tour offers great value for money, with just one international air fare, as well as the opportunity to build great friendships during the three weeks.”

It’s less common to see Thailand included in Indochina tours, although Bangkok or the islands are popular pre and post-tour add-ons.

Thailand-Contiki

A notable exception, however, is Contiki’s 25-day Big Indochina Adventure. Appealing to its 18 to 35 demographic, many of whom might be travelling independently for the first time, this is a good introduction to the whole region with the reassurance and camaraderie of a group.

Digging deeper



If anyone said they were going to tour the whole of the US in less than a fortnight, they’d be laughed at, and rightly so. Yet it’s not uncommon for clients to think they can pack all the highlights of China – only marginally smaller than the US – into that kind of time frame.

That’s where a tour of more than two weeks can come in handy. Clients still won’t be able to see everything, but with an extra few days to play with, they can immerse themselves in the culture with homestays, local transport and more in-depth activities, rather than just skimming the surface.

Wendy Wu Tours has added a 28-day tour, China: The Big One, for next year, which spends as much time exploring rural regions and quirky ancient towns as it does visiting the Terracotta Warriors or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and makes time for memorable experiences such as a three-hour hike in the Longji rice terraces and a cycling trip through Xi’an.

Marketing manager Ben Briggs says: “The longer tours give customers a chance to see iconic sights such as the Great Wall or Angkor Wat, as well as less-visited destinations that are further from the main transport hubs. Longer can be spent in each destination, making it more of a relaxing trip, rather than a tick-box itinerary.”

Angkor Wat - Image credit: Cosmos Tours & Cruises
Image credit: Cosmos Tours & Cruises

China is not the only country to benefit from a more in-depth itinerary. India is too big and too diverse to see in one sitting, but longer tours, such as Newmarket Holidays’ 18-day Grand Tour of India or Travelsphere’s 19-day tour of the same name, do at least give travellers a chance to compare different regions and understand what makes each one unique.

Travelsphere group sales director Colin Wilson says: “Like China, India’s size and wealth of cultural experiences make it the perfect country to really explore. We tick off its most impressive sights including Old and New Delhi, the Taj Mahal, the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur and Agra Fort, search for tigers in Ranthambore, visit an elephant camp and cruise the tranquil backwaters of Kerala.”

Newmarket Holidays also uses its longer itinerary to factor in activities that wouldn’t be possible on a shorter and speedier trip, with a night on a traditional houseboat, a cooking demonstration and a visit to a wildlife sanctuary.

Remote patrols



While China and India are obvious contenders for a longer trip based on size alone, Burma might not seem to fall into the same bracket.

However, despite opening up to tourism relatively recently, there is already a market for off-the-beaten-track tours, as intrepid travellers seek out almost undiscovered areas of the country before the masses arrive.

InsideBurma – a new brand from small-group operator InsideAsia – has introduced a 19-night Untouched Burma itinerary, which goes far beyond Bagan and Yangon to explore quieter parts of the country and meet the many ethnic communities that live there.

Burma

Even in relatively well-travelled destinations such as Thailand, a longer tour can venture into remote spots often overlooked by others. Mark Pope, co-founder of regional operator TruTravels, says: “Thailand is made for long tours. It differs dramatically from north to south, and visitors can spend years here and still not cover it all.

“Travellers can reach more remote destinations, and meet the locals who live there, which would not be possible on a short tour. Khao Sok National Park, for example, remains virtually untouched and is a breathtaking part of Thailand where customers feel completely isolated from the outside world, while surrounded by cascading karst limestone mountains. This amazing part of Thailand rarely features on shorter itineraries and is a place that not many backpackers get to see.”

Khao Sok is included on TruTravels’ 18-day Island Hopper Tour, which also visits livelier spots including Phuket and Koh Phangan.

Value for money



If clients are going to shell out for the cost of a flight to Asia, they might as well get their money’s worth, and in this low-cost region, the price difference might be less than they expect.

Wendy Wu Tours’ 28-day China: The Big One, for example, costs £3,390 – only £400 more than 16-day trip A China Adventure – while the 18-day Vietnam Panorama is only £400 more than the 10-day Vietnam Impressions tour.

Not only is this a compelling prospect for those who want to get as much bang for their buck as possible, but a cheaper ‘per day’ rate can also help convince clients that they’re getting good value.

And even if they aren’t sure about committing to such a lengthy escorted tour, it’s still possible to eke out better value from that air fare by linking two back-to-back tours – some operator brochures highlight which tours are frequently bolted on to each other – or by adding a pre or post-tour extension to make sure the trip is exactly suited to their needs.

Don’t overlook the social side of group touring either: often cited as one of the main advantages of an escorted tour, a longer duration means more time for travellers to get to know each other, forging friendships that can be converted into repeat bookings if they decide to travel together again.


Ask an expert



Lesley Wright, general manager – commercial, Insider Journeys:
“Asia is ideal for longer tours. It is easy and inexpensive to combine destinations to create a longer trip, with short and convenient flight connections. Yet it is equally possible to focus on just one country in-depth. Epic tours allow clients to immerse themselves in the culture, and see beyond the highlights, visiting more remote locations and experiencing local life.”

John Parker, Japan product manager, Premier Holidays:
“A longer tour allows you to explore deeper into a country and get a better feel for its culture, tradition and values. For example, in Japan, most visitors want to tick off Tokyo and Kyoto, but spending longer there allows you to experience other parts of the country such as Kanazawa and Hiroshima, each of which has different influences and history.”

Colin Wilson, group sales director, Travelsphere:
“Longer holidays allow customers to feel part of the country they are visiting. They get used to the customs and learn a little of the language, which helps them interact with the people that call the destination home. In terms of their fellow travellers, we have seen close friendships develop, and people going on holiday with those they have travelled with previously.”


Sample product



Insider Journeys’ 19-day Indochina Explorer tour visits Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Prices start at £2,960, or £2,810 if booked this month, including internal flights, entrance fees, and some meals. insiderjourneys.co.uk

Newmarket Holidays’ 18-day Grand Tour of India takes in Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Kochi and Madurai. Prices start at £1,899, including flights, internal travel and some meals. newmarketholidays.co.uk

Riviera Travel offers a 17-day Grand Tour of China, which includes a Yangtze cruise, Beijing, the Great Wall of China and Terracotta Warriors. Prices start at £2,899, including 13 meals. rivieratravel.co.uk


How to sell



Longer tours are often seen as the preserve of gap-year students and adventurous over-60s, but don’t dismiss the people in between. Teachers, the self-employed, those on a career break or with plenty of leave to take are all captive audiences.