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Meet the new faces of world travel, from India to Africa

As middle-class incomes and aspirations rise around the world, travelers are discovering new and unexpected ways to spend their vacations, both near and far. 

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    South Africans and tourists walked to the lighthouse on Heritage Day, a cultural celebration, in Cape Point, South Africa, last September.
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A British writer called it the ‘Holiday Paradox,the sense that a great vacation seems to pass so quickly, yet feels long in retrospect. We leave behind our daily routines and embrace the onrush of new experiences and sensations. Or we retreat to a familiar setting where doing as little as possible affords maximum relaxation. 

For Kenyan professionals exploring their own coastline or Mexican teens going overseas for a coming-of-age celebration, novelty and familiarity collide. Today, more people than ever before have the means to travel for leisure and are refining their own art of the vacation. We asked Monitor correspondents on three continents to give a sense of getting away in their respective time zones.

SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA

The narrow road leading to the resort slices through the heart of scrubby platinum country, lined by mines, dusty taverns, and clusters of glinting tin shacks. The resort itself is invisible until you are practically inside, when it appears suddenly – palatial hotels and manicured golf courses, and a glassy man-made lake with an artificial beach lapped by gentle waves.

If the resort seems out of place, however, that’s intentional. When Sun City first opened its doors in 1979, it sat smack in the middle of one of apartheid’s black ethnic “homelands” – a nominally independent country where South Africa’s Calvinist legal codes did not apply. Visitors flocked from nearby Johannesburg – 100 miles away – for weekends of gambling and secluded debauchery. A bevy of Western rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Bono, declared their refusal to play lucrative concerts there in the 1985 anti-apartheid hit “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City,” by Steven Van Zandt.   

“People used to say this was the Las Vegas of Africa, and I suppose it was,” says Nokuthula Nkosi, a resort official whose father used to work the overnight shift as a maintenance worker here. “But now it’s something very different.”

Indeed, the end of apartheid quickly broke the spell of Sun City. Gambling and race-mixing were no longer illegal in South Africa, dampening the resort’s appeal for thrill-seeking day-trippers. The resort scrambled to reinvent itself – in part by appealing to a new category of travelers, South Africa’s rising black middle class, colloquially known as “black diamonds.” It added a second golf course, a “five star-plus” hotel, and a massive water park – including that artificial beach – while doubling down on the gambling tables. 

On a recent morning, a Johannesburg advertising executive and his teenage daughter sit sharing an ice cream near the wave park, watching tubers bob past in the park’s lazy river.

“Growing up, in the apartheid days, Sun City was the dream,” he says. “It was multiracial. It wasn’t part of South Africa; we all wanted to come here, but we never really imagined we would.” Now, he says, he visits four times a year, staying for a week at a time in one of the resort’s luxury hotels.

Many of the black families who now vacation here are part of what Ms. Nkosi refers to as the “BEE crowd,” referring to the black economic empowerment codes that helped propel many black South Africans to executive and management positions in the years after apartheid and created a new consumer class with a taste for travel.

“We like that it’s kid-friendly and easy to get to,” says another guest, who came from Johannesburg with her husband, a lawyer, and two young sons for the boys’ school vacation. As she talks, she snaps a photo of her sons giggling on the back of a water scooter on the artificial lake. Behind them, two shrieking parasailors float by, and on the shore nearby tourists buzz past on Segways.

For many black South Africans, however, the end of apartheid not only unlocked white-oriented local destinations like Sun City, it also opened up the world – from Mauritius and Thailand to Madagascar – for summer touring.  

“You’d rather brag about an overseas holiday rather than something you’ve done locally,” says Milette Kruger, a travel adviser for Pentravel, a national leisure tourism agency. 

One popular international destination is Mozambique, a country whose civil war, which formally ended in 1992, was stoked by the apartheid regime. Today it’s largely peaceful, and more South Africans, blacks and whites, are vacationing there. 

But once there, their tastes often diverge: Many whites prefer “adventure” holidays including bush retreats and scuba diving, while black South Africans tend to fly to Maputo, the capital, for weekends of shopping and nightlife.

Still, even this distinction is breaking down with the rise of black diamonds, says Esme Pretorius, a consultant for Astra Travel, another agency. “I’ve been in the industry for awhile, but I have seen a change in what different ethnic groups like. I would say the line is getting blurred.”

  – Ryan Lenora Brown and Kenichi Serino Correspondents 

NAIROBI, KENYA

When Esther Njeri went online to book a beach holiday for herself and her son, she was ready to settle for Mombasa, a popular choice for middle-class Kenyans on a budget.

Instead, she happened upon a deal at Turtle Bay Beach Club, a luxury resort that usually caters to foreign tourists, with prices to match. Ms. Njeri, a media professional, paid $495 for a five-day stay, a very steep discount from rates just two years ago. 

“Honestly, I expected to pay more,” she says. “The problem is people assume the whole country is unsafe.”

Terrorist attacks and travel warnings have sullied Kenya’s appeal to Western tourists, who once flocked year-round to sparkling white-sand beaches. The number of foreign visitors is down 25 percent this year, dealing a blow to what had become a $1 billion industry that supports hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and other small businesses.

But the decline in Western tourists may have a silver lining: Kenyans are booking summer holidays at fancy resorts that once seemed off limits, putting a new face on tourism in East Africa’s largest economy.

“In a way, the travel advisories benefit Kenyans interested in local tourism because hotels have been forced to rely on locals to survive,” says Rachel Muthoni, a travel blogger at Safari 254.

Edward Ngera, an interior designer, recently booked a trip with a group of friends to Lamu Island, a destination associated with wealthy jet-setters. Mr. Ngera and his party paid $1,587 for three nights at Forodhani House, a beachfront property that comes with a staff of five, including a chef. “They threw in a free night,” he says.

The Sands at Chale Island Hotel, which bills itself as Kenya’s only individual resort island, has had to adjust to the new reality. It previously had exclusive rights with an Italian tour operator. But now it’s focused on bringing in Kenyan tourists who can book off-peak rooms for only $66 a night. “We had to adjust our prices to be acceptable on the local market [by] at least 25 percent,” says Richard Glaser, a group marketing executive.   

Many middle-class Kenyans still prefer overseas travel; vacations in the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and across Europe remain popular. But for quick getaways, Kenyans are taking advantage of competitive airfares and accommodations.

Lyra Aoko, a self-described content creator based in Nairobi, recently took a weekend trip with her boyfriend to Diani, south of Mombasa. The few people she did see at the coast, known as a playground for German, British, and Italian expatriates, were locals. 

– Josephine Opar / Contributor

ALIBAG, INDIA

Like many middle-class families in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, the Pardhales like to drive out of the city on weekends to one of the resorts that pepper the nearby hills and beaches. But last year they decided to take a different kind of vacation. 

The family spent a long weekend at Krishivan, a lush 12-acre farm a few hours south of Mumbai, where they traded the resort staples of television, table tennis, and 24-hour room service for more rustic pleasures. For the first time, the city-raised Pardhale kids – 11-year-old Deepti and 8-year-old Ajay – had the opportunity to cradle newborn chicks, watch a cow being milked, and pick mangoes from a tree. 

“They didn’t miss their cartoons at all,” said their father, Nitin, who took the family back to the farm this past April.

As disposable incomes and car ownership have grown in the past decade, urban Indians have been traveling more, including on weekend breaks. In recent years, some of them have begun looking for unique experiences, including a sampling of the farm life that their parents and grandparents left behind. 

And as farm-stays have cropped up around major cities like Bangalore, New Delhi, and Mumbai, they don’t have to travel too far for a taste of rustic life – albeit a rather nicer version than that enjoyed by most farmers in India.

Village huts, after all, don’t have air conditioners. 

India’s newest domestic-travel trend is called agritourism, an industry label that can encompass a startling variety of experiences. The “farms” range from standard-issue hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, with bullock-cart rides thrown in to justify the label, to more immersive experiences in which vacationers can muck about with milking and planting trees or get a feel for agrarian life. 

At Banni Khera Farms, a large outfit in Haryana near Delhi, guests get to ride a tractor, spend a day with the local shepherd or potter, and watch folk dancers at night. At Farm of Happiness, a popular small-farm-stay seven hours from Mumbai, guests pound wheat into flour and go night fishing in the nearby river. 

“There are those who’d rather go to a hotel and sit back and relax and go to a pool,” says Mumbai resident Candy Vaz DiSouza, who took her children to Farm of Happiness in December. “But this is something different, something you can’t experience in the urban jungle. And the kids learned so much about our daily food.”

Travel agencies say the trend remains small, although a few agents catering to international tourists now have farm-stays on their list. A couple of travel organizations such as Grassroutes also specialize in taking groups for “authentic” village experiences. But word of mouth and TripAdvisor remain the main ways in which tourists find these off-the-beaten-track vacations. 

The western Indian state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has been at the forefront of the trend. Pandurang Taware, managing director of Agri-Tourism Development Company, which pioneered the idea in this region, says that the number of farmers who have signed on with his group has doubled in the past few years to 200. Last year, these farms received 330,000 visitors, most of them families on day trips. 

For farmers unable to survive on farming alone, agritourism provides a supplementary income that might save them from migrating to the city, says Mr. Taware, who worked in the tourism industry for almost two decades. Apart from collecting the fees for the visit, farmers get to sell produce directly to the customers, help the local economy, and gain new respect in the village for drawing educated visitors from the city.

But like Taware, many farm-stay owners are also former city-dwellers who returned to villages their parents had left. Farm of Happiness owner Rahul Kulkarni was a burned-out ad executive who decided to give farming a go on an ancestral patch. Sachin Baikar, who runs Krishivan in Alibag, is the son of a city doctor who worked as an engineer before deciding to turn “entrepreneur-farmer” on his grandfather’s land. 

These farm owners understand their urban customers. Still there’s an “expectation gap,” says Kanwar Singh, whose family runs Banni Khera Farm. Thanks to the farm’s proximity to Delhi, Mr. Singh draws both international tourists and Delhi day-trippers. (He finds the latter less enthusiastic about participating in activities. “They’re happy to watch, take pictures, and upload them on Facebook,” he says.)  

Well-off Indians used to having servants might take exception to being asked to pick up their own litter, he says, or expect the luxuries of a resort. Singh and the others often caution visitors about what to expect – whether it’s erratic air conditioning or a ban on alcohol. Late nights, said Mr. Kulkarni, aren’t conducive to “seeing the sunrise or the dewdrops on the crops.”

Krishivan’s website warns visitors about falling fruit and creepy-crawly insects. Despite these minor inconveniences, there’s a good reason for families like the Pardhales to keep coming back: the food.

At Krishivan, meals include a local bread made from rice that’s grown on the farm, eggs from the farm’s hens, delicious coconut-filled dumplings made by the neighbor, vegetables from the garden, and a dessert made of mangoes from the orchard. 

“The taste you get from freshly picked vegetables and fruit,” said Mr. Pardhale, “you can’t beat that.” 

– Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar / Correspondent

Diana Itzel Rodriguez, from Mexico, visited Prague, Czech Republic, with other girls celebrating their ‘quinceañeras,’ a coming-of-age event. COURTESY OF DIANA ITZEL RODRIGUEZ

MEXICO CITY

Diana Itzel Rodriguez couldn’t sleep the night before her quinceañera, a coming-of-age celebration in Mexico and many Latino cultures when a girl turns 15.

But unlike her cousins and classmates who celebrated their big days by donning poufy gowns and dancing father-daughter waltzes, Diana was on an airplane, thousands of miles from her family and friends.

“I always knew I wanted to do something different,” says Diana, now 18. So, along with 60 other girls, Diana boarded a plane – only her second time, and headed outside the country for the first time – in order to spend her summer touring Europe. She was so excited, and taken by the onboard food and entertainment, that she didn’t sleep a wink. Jet-lagged after arriving in Paris, she got briefly separated from her group when they were at the Louvre, a favorite memory.

More and more girls like Diana are transforming their 15th birthday celebrations into summer travel experiences, from Caribbean cruises to Disney World trips and European tours. For Mexico’s emerging middle class, it signals a preference for overseas travel, often for the first time, over a traditional one-night blowout. 

“I had no interest in spending that kind of money on a party,” says Ana Lorenzo, who instead went on a Caribbean cruise with 29 family members to celebrate the quinceañeras of her daughter, Maria, and niece. 

Monserrat Machuca, a Mexico City travel agent, says quinceañera tours have existed for more than 50 years. “Upper-class Mexicans always had the opportunity to travel, for their quinceañera or for any reason,” she says. But in the past five years demand for summer tours has also come from middle-class families.

Mexico’s middle class grew by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010; some 44 million Mexicans, or about 40 percent of the total population, are now in this category, according to national statistics agency INEGI.

“There are lots of operators doing this in Mexico, and all their trips leave full,” says Beatriz Beristain, an executive at Grupo Travel. 

Her company began offering group quinceañera trips to Europe in 2005. Two years later, they started sending a second wave of girls each summer. This year they created a new option for those who couldn’t afford a full month of travel: a two-week spring-break trip for half the price. 

“The girls get so emotional,” says Ms. Beristain, who traveled as a chaperone on the spring-break trip this year. “They cry at the Eiffel tower; they cry at the Coliseum. They are just so overwhelmed to be there.”

That was the case for Maria Cecilia Metz, who traveled across Europe last summer. “I was jittery from excitement every single day,” she says, scanning through snapshots on her cellphone. Maria Cecilia had only one complaint: “The food was terrible,” she says.

Three years after visiting Paris, London, Bruges, Frankfurt, Vienna, Venice, Barcelona, and plenty of cities in between, Diana still keeps her itinerary posted on her bedroom wall. “When I grow up and work, I will go back,” she says. “I have to.”

Maria Carmen Sanchez, Diana’s mother, laughs at her daughter’s choice of words. “She ‘has’ to return,” she says. “I hope I can come [too]!”

– Whitney Eulich / Correspondent

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