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The new luxury

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High-end travel is shifting away from ostentation and conspicuous consumption to the pursuit of unique experience, says Ben Lerwill

 

Luxury travel is notoriously hard to define. To one traveler, it might mean private butlers, limo transfers and fine wines; to another, the solitude of an upmarket mountain lodge. It might be a cruise, beach vacation, city break or fishing trip. But if there’s one thing that binds luxury travelers, it’s the search for an unforgettable experience.

Earlier this year, a global study of high-end holidaymakers by Leading Hotels of The World showed 81% of respondents felt that “creating memories” was their priority when traveling, and American travelers emerged as the single most likely market to visit new overseas destinations. The same survey also showed that four-fifths of them — more than any other nationals — described themselves as being curious about other cultures. In other words, there’s infinitely more to affluent travel than petits fours and 1,000-thread cotton sheets.

“True luxury has three hallmarks,” says Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA. “Authenticity, flexibility, and a sense of well-being. Authenticity means the product is true to its place and traditions, incorporating elements of the past and reflecting the local culture. Flexibility refers to service that anticipates guests’ needs and satisfies them in an unobtrusive manner. The sense of well-being comes from traveling with professionals for whom the word ‘impossible’ does not exist.” 

Daren Autry, operations manager at Montrose Travel, concurs. “More than anything, luxury travelers want to be able to cross an item off of their bucket list,” he says. “Spending top dollar can get them a ‘luxury’ experience almost anywhere, but booking a top hotel in the US doesn’t mean that they’ll be fulfilled. What’s proven to be successful for us is recommending unique and exclusive itineraries, as opposed to focusing on luxury.”

The spread of destinations being visited by wealthy US travelers is broader than ever
— perennial favourites such as France and Italy now share bookings with Antarctica and Japan. By the same token, a 2016 survey of close to 1,000 luxury travel agents by the Travel Leaders Group highlighted up-and-coming destinations as disparate as Australia, Bora Bora, China and the United Arab Emirates.

And the good news for the trade is this group of travelers frequently makes use of agents. “Absolutely!” says Dan Ilves, senior vice president at Travelstore. “It’s about trust and the relationship. Our core luxury traveler is still the baby boomer, but there’s also the affluent millennial traveler.  They book their honeymoons with us and understand the value agents provide — and then they come back.”  

African safaris

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image: getty

“Our business in Africa is up dramatically this year,” says Abercrombie & Kent USA’s Otterson, pointing to the likes of Zambia, Botswana and South Africa as being big draws. “Safaris were the original form of experiential travel, and it’s still possible to have wildlife encounters that are truly extraordinary.” This is borne out by the astonishingly varied range of unforgettable experiences on offer here, from gorilla-tracking in Uganda and big cat-spotting in Botswana to witnessing the Great Migration in East Africa.

World-class lodges, gourmet dining and private concessions are found widely on the continent. South Africa, with its beautiful game parks and superb food and wine offering, is arguably the pick of the bunch and the current exchange rate makes it particularly attractive. Meanwhile, the timeless appeal of Kenya, has been given a boost by the 2015 opening of the Angama Mara, an ultra-luxurious safari lodge perched high above the
Great Rift Valley.  

Antarctica

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image: getty

The bucket list destination to end all bucket list destinations, Antarctica is the nearest most travelers will come to visiting another planet. The rise in demand for experiential travel has seen the ice-covered landmass at the bottom of the world become more of a realistic proposition, with various A-list expedition cruises now making the long voyage across the Drake Passage from South America. Tourism in Antarctica is still tightly regulated, however, so it’s emphatically not a free-for-all — indeed, there’s a good chance your clients may not see another vessel all week.   

A trip out to the southernmost continent on Earth is an adventure with a capital A. The scenery is stupendous, the sense of remoteness is intense and the wildlife
— penguins, whales, seals, and albatrosses, to name but a few — is simply breathtaking. Clients won’t have to forego their five-star comforts, either. Silversea’s custom-built polar vessel offers what it bills as “the southernmost afternoon tea in the world”, while Seabourn’s trips combine Zodiac landings and digital photography workshops with champagne and massages.

Be aware that timing is a crucial factor to bear in mind when suggesting an Antarctica trip to clients — the cruising season only runs from November to March, with pack ice preventing sailings at other times.

Australia

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The land Down Under is another destination with a currently appealing exchange rate for American travelers: the US dollar fetches around 1.4 Australian dollars, a rise in value of almost 50% since as recently as 2012. So it’s no shock that visitor numbers from the US increased again in the year ending March 2016, with more than 635,000 arrivals (up from 566,000 in the previous 12 months).

However, the country’s magnetism is down to far more than simple economics. This is one of the planet’s great travel destinations, a place of epic scenery, warm hospitality, and numerous out-of-this-world luxury experiences. From private islands on the Great Barrier
Reef to premium wine tours through the Barossa Valley; from glamour-filled opera shows in Sydney to hot-air balloon rides above Uluru, Australia delivers consistently strong travel memories.

Clients will find five-star accommodation everywhere, from as far afield as the Outback to the rainforest, while the country’s various luxury train rides can make getting around a joy in itself. The Ghan, a long-distance train that journeys between Darwin and Adelaide, has just added extra carriages, so it can now welcome more than 300 Platinum and Gold Service guests as it winds its way through the arid Red Centre.  

Cuba

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“Cuba is hot,” says Travelstore’s Ilves. “There’s tremendous interest in visiting before it changes a lot.” And with the decades-old ban on American visitors only recently loosened, it’s no surprise that this most fascinating of destinations has piqued the interest of wealthy travelers. There are still caveats, of course. Tourism itself remains tricky, with all visits needing to help the Cuban people in some way or have an educational component to them. The upside of this is the packages being offered by operators are rich in varied experiences, with “people to people” visits often connecting clients with local musicians, diplomats and artists.       

Charter flights between the US and Cuba have increased in kind, with American Airlines leading the way — it now serves five Cuban cities 27 times a week. Flying clients into the country via a private charter company such as Island Travel & Tours is another option.

Once on the ground, the destination itself is a hugely absorbing one, from the vintage cars and old-time architecture of Havana to the UNESCO treasures and pristine beaches of Trinidad. And there’s further good news for luxury travelers: a five-star Kempinski hotel is due to open in the capital in 2017.  

Italy

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Europe is full of classic vacation destinations — the likes of London, Paris and Ireland all offer dynamic top-drawer travel experiences, whether clients are touring, sightseeing or even rediscovering their family roots — but one country on the grand old continent still stands apart. There’s always something profoundly romantic about Italy. Its mix of ancient history, swelling landscapes, sun-baked cities and honed-to-perfection food is a heady one. And when you factor in the chance to experience places as timeless as Rome, Tuscany, Venice and Sicily, it’s no wonder the nation remains such a favorite with affluent travelers.

Luxury in Italy means anything from a private guided tour of Florence’s art galleries to unwinding with a chilled pinot grigio as the sun sets over the Amalfi Coast. What’s more, the costs don’t need to be prohibitive.

“We’re still seeing travel to Europe because of the strength of the dollar,” says Tama Holve of California-based Willett Travel, A Frosch Company. “The high airfare to Hawaii is creating the ‘it’s so expensive, we might as well pay a little more and go to Europe’ scenario. Italy is always a big luxury destination for us.”

United Arab Emirates

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Few, if any, global destinations have evolved so rapidly and spectacularly over the past two decades as the UAE. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the blockbusters, boasting futuristic skylines of gleaming towers (Abu Dhabi’s Sun and Sky Towers are particularly striking), opulent spas, gourmet restaurants, and decadent malls. International overnight tourist numbers to Dubai alone have soared by almost 70% in the last five years, and it welcomed more than 600,000 US visitors last year.

The UAE’s popularity is partly to do with its accessibility and location: it’s well served by two high-class airlines, Emirates and Etihad, and forms a convenient midway point between Europe and the Far East. But its reputation also has much to do with its visitor offering. Many of its hotels and resorts provide superb levels of comfort, particularly in Dubai where the likes of the ‘seven-star’ Burj Al Arab have become destinations in their own right.

It’s a place of surprises too, whether clients want to sip champagne in a rooftop nightclub, have dinner at the top of the world’s tallest building, stroll around a fascinating museum or take a 4WD dune-bashing tour of the desert.  

Vietnam

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President Obama’s historic trip to Vietnam in May highlighted what many have known for years: this Southeast Asian country has become a place best experienced first-hand. Blessed with long beaches, green mountains and heavenly food — not to mention an endlessly intriguing history — today’s Vietnam caters better than ever to luxury travelers. Clients can cruise the majestic karst islands of Halong Bay, unwind at world-class beachfront resorts, hike the stunning northern highlands with a private guide or even tour Ho Chi Minh City on a vintage Vespa scooter.

Almost 500,000 American travelers arrived in Vietnam in 2015, an increase of more than 10% on the previous year. This rise has been mirrored by an increasingly fine-tuned tourist infrastructure — new properties such as The Reverie Saigon, which made Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 Hot List, have sprung up to complement lavish resorts like the Six Senses Ninh Van Bay and the Nam Hai Hoi An.

But a trip to Vietnam doesn’t have to be five-star luxury all the way. Why not suggest
to clients they try following in the footsteps of the president, who raved about the $6 Hanoi street food meal he enjoyed with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain?  

Las Vegas

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Long a kingpin of the five-star scene, Las Vegas continues to do what it does better than anywhere else in the world. In Sin City, as far as luxury is concerned, anything goes. News for 2016 includes the opening of the first W Hotel on The Strip — due to take over an existing tower at SLS Las Vegas — and the freshly unveiled T-Mobile Arena, a new 20,000-capacity event venue that has Barbra Streisand, Drake and Coldplay among its upcoming bookings. It opened in April, and will also play host to a number of sporting events.

Overall visitor volume to the city rose almost 3% in 2015 to a total of more than 42 million guests, and the first three months of 2016 have shown a similar increase. But clients don’t want to be mere statistics, and there’s still nowhere like Las Vegas — with its VIP suites, private dining options and exclusive privileges — for providing the high-roller treatment.

Meanwhile, the possibilities for unique experiences include everything from driving laps in a Lamborghini at Speed Vegas to arranging a golf lesson with Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods’ former swing coach.         

Where else

Sri Lanka

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The little island continues to draw discerning travelers with its colorful blend of beaches, nature and swirling streetlife. Head to the Central Highlands for colonial-era luxury and sweeping views, or visit the newly opened Chena Huts at Yala National Park, a reserve renowned for its elephants and leopards.

Japan

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The Japanese exchange rate is kind to American travelers at present, which is
the perfect reason to make now the time to discover the country’s enticingly foreign charms. From the sci-fi feel of central Tokyo to the ancient traditions of former capital Kyoto, Japan is very much a place apart.   

Cruising Europe

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image: getty

Europe is veined by mighty rivers, with the likes of the Danube, the Douro and the Rhine all offering excellent potential for luxury river cruises. The scenery often reaches scintillating levels of beauty, and this particular means of travel provides a far more comfortable and sedate alternative to transfers by road. 

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