Roads to ruins
Well-travelled, well-read and well-off is one way of describing the growing band of travellers taking cultural tours.
But the travellers who are guided by archaeologists, historians and art experts want mind-expanding journeys, which, while they are expensive, are more about the rich experiences and the intellectual stimulation.
"It's the luxury of the mind," says Stuart Barrie, director of Academy Travel, one of a small band of cultural tour operators. Barrie, who started the company with academic Robert Veel 10 years ago, has seen the portfolio grow from 10 itineraries a year to around 50 now.
Like its three main competitors, Academy Travel was originally affiliated with a university; another competitor, Renaissance Tours, has connections with Opera Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW.
Academy Travel's clients are typically baby-boomers, from 55 to 70, often "former backpackers who travelled widely in their youth", Barrie says.
"They now want a deeper level of understanding and are not ticking countries off the list," he said. "But they still want to have fun, and go shopping."
Some tours, like the art and architecture tour of east-coast US, attract a younger crowd, with even a couple of 30-year-olds on board, he said.
Italy is by far the most popular destination, with Spain growing year by year.
Rob Lovell, who founded Alumni Travel 25 years ago after a stint teaching at Sydney University, said he had noticed a real shift in the popularity of destinations.
"We do a lot better with risky destinations. We have an over-subscription for our Iran tours," Lovell said.
Tours to Central Asia visiting Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also sell quickly.
However, while his Vietnam tours were popular years ago (Lovell is a Vietnam veteran who also taught there), he said they had dropped off as it became a mainstream country.
Alumni has a loyal core of clients who have been travelling with Lovell for years.
Most are over 55 and some are in their 80s. "As long as they are fit that's fine. I don't like to exclude anyone. Last year we had a lady, with a heart problem, who managed to climb up Nemrut Dagi (in eastern Turkey). It was so rewarding."
ASA Cultural Tours is the oldest of the companies, founded by art history lecturer Christopher Wood in 1977. Clients run the gamut from 40-year-olds to a woman of 92 "who outwalked everyone else on the tour", according to marketing manager Sandra Hansen.
"Everyone gets on with everyone else on the tour because of their interests," she said.
"It is a true meeting of the minds."
The bulk of the tours go to Europe, but there's also strong demand for Iran and the Silk Route.
Like other operators, ASA has dropped Syria and Egypt and is contemplating putting Jordan back on the agenda.
Hansen says it is ASA's tour leaders - "people with great personality who know how to engage with their audience" - which separates her company from the competitors.
However, all operators say they are "very picky" about their guides, as their well-travelled clients demand high standards.
Odyssey Travel, a not-for-profit company made up of universities in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, has made sure it appeals to a wide audience by running three types of tours. Its active tours for small groups of 15 include cycling or kayaking, the specialised tours are lecture and discussion-based and may include sketching and painting, while the discovery tours average around 21 days and explore a region in depth.
Odyssey, too, has a loyal following and, as with the other operators, women make up the majority of travellers.
Renaissance Tours has carved out a niche by following the art and music trails since 1997. Director Hugh Hallard said the new trend was for even more specialisation.
His clients are seeking more depth and exclusive events, such as his opera tour to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth.
Although expensive, cultural tours include everything from meals to performances, entrance fees and tour-guide tips.
FIVE CULTURE TOURS
Academy Travel's tour of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands with an Australian forensic archaeologist will be a delight for history seekers who love nothing more than raking over old bones. Travelling the length and breadth of Sicily, it visits Greek temples and Bronze Age ruins. It's led by Sydney University lecturer Dr Estelle Razer. Departs October 12; see academytravel.com..
Alumni Travel's "Turkey: The Lure of the East" is a three-week exploration to some of the oldest areas in human history, including Gobekli Tepe religious sanctuary dating to 9000BC. Taking in the stone heads at Nemrut Dagi and Lake Van, it is led by company founder Rob Lovell. Departs May 10. See alumnitravel.com.
Iran is the flavour of the month and ASA Tours' 21-day "Art & Culture of the Persians" will leave no marble stone unturned. It visits Tehran's museums, the UNESCO gem of Isfahan, spends four days in Shiraz and includes accommodation in a restored caravanserai. Departs October 8. See asatours.com.
A chance to trace stegosaurus relics with an acclaimed palaeontologist is the focus of Odyssey Travel's new 13-day China Dinosaur Odyssey. It combines fossil burial sites with the ethnic minority cultures of Yunnan province. Departs October 14. See odysseytraveller.com.
Renaissance Tours has something for everyone with its 16-day Music, Art & Wine cruise from Paris to Prague with exclusive tickets to opera, ballet and private museums. Departs October 4. See renaissancetours.com.