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OUR SECOND ANNUAL: Tours for the Thinking Person : A look at some of 1994's most intriguing 'goal-oriented' vacations. The bottom line: There are more than ever to pick from, and competition is bringing some prices down.

January 09, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

What satisfies a thinking traveler most? An up-close look at artifacts worthy of the Smithsonian Institution? A panorama pulled from the pages of National Geographic magazine?

That first possibility is the enduring hope of Smithsonian officials, who in more than 20 years of sponsoring escorted tours have built up to a schedule that this year includes 300 departures to worldwide destinations. The Smithsonian Study Tours and Seminars program, based in Washington, D.C., anticipates some 7,000 passengers in 1994.

The second of those two travel scenarios, meanwhile, has set many gears grinding in the nearby offices of the National Geographic Society. In September, the society dispatched its first-ever escorted tour, an eight-day exploration of Colorado and New Mexico. For 1994, the On Tour with National Geographic program has scheduled 10 different itineraries, each likely to attract the same stripe of affluent and inquisitive traveler that the Smithsonian program aims for.

Thus begins perhaps the most genteel rivalry in the travel trade--and thus do academically inclined American travelers have more vacation options to ponder than ever before. Want to take measure of rumblings within Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano? Stroll through the philatelic bureau on one of the Falklands? Ascend by helicopter to a remote lodge in the Canadian Rockies? Dig for dinosaur bones in Wyoming? All are possible, for a price. Costs usually range from $1,700 to $7,500 per person (excluding air fare) for journeys of eight to 16 days, though some shorter and more affordable trips are offered.

The Smithsonian and National Geographic programs are hardly twins. Most obviously, Smithsonian's schedule of departure dates is more than 20 times as long as National Geographic's. Beyond that, Smithsonian's offerings include more tours that are tightly focused on a particular theme, often with special attention paid to museums, the arts or natural sciences. One three-day seminar this spring in Washington, D.C., will concentrate exclusively on picture frames in American art. The National Geographic programs, at least so far, suggest a broader approach; they're likely to mix culture with natural history, and often rely on scientists and writers associated with the magazine as lecturers.

Still, both programs fit into a burgeoning trend in the travel industry: the rise of the goal-oriented vacation--in which travelers aim not only to escape their daily routines, but to widen their understanding of the world. Museums and university organizations have joined private-sector tour operators in jostling for the attention of such travelers, and many travel professionals expect the "thinking trip" market to get even more competitive in coming years. (For some top picks from this year's museum- and university-sponsored tours, see related stories on this page.)

"Americans are now well-traveled, and they're looking for more than the sights," says Bryan DeLeo, who directs National Geographic's On Tour program. "They're looking to learn and experience, to meet local people, and find out what's going on and what the history is."

One sign of heightened competition, and the struggling world economy, is in the pricing of 1994's tours. Of 98 itineraries listed in Smithsonian's catalogue of international tours, 37 are offered at lower prices than in 1993.

Another side effect of this rush to offer specialized travel, ironically, could be homogenization. As institutions scramble to strike up alliances with premier local outfitters and international tour operators, they often end up doing business with the same specialists. In 1994, National Geographic and Smithsonian are both acting as sponsors of voyages arranged by the tour operator Academic Travel Abroad, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based firm that specializes in arranging travel programs for nonprofit groups. It's entirely possible that one of these days, groups of Smithsonian and National Geographic travelers may find themselves side by side in the same remote body of water, seated in canoes operated by the same local concessionaire and reserved by the same international tour operator.

Here's a quick look at some of this year's offerings from each of these granddaddy nonprofit organizations.

SMITHSONIAN STUDY TOURS/SEMINARS

The Smithsonian program, which took its current form in 1975, unabashedly aims for the most educated and often most wealthy travelers, noting in its catalogue the "rather exclusive company" a Smithsonian traveler keeps. The range of subjects and destinations among the Smithsonian's 300 or so departures is no less impressive.

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