London? Check. Paris? Check. Antarctica?
While the seventh continent may seem an unlikely destination for the luxury traveler, those who shudder at the thought of "roughing it" now have their chance at exploring the unexplored polar region. This November, the Explorer II, a cruise liner chartered by luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, will sail its maiden two-week voyage, the first of several excursions during the 2007-2008 Antarctic summer season.
As opposed to its predecessor, the Explorer I, which Abercrombie & Kent’s chairman and chief executive Geoffrey Kent euphemistically describes as having "personality," the Explorer II is more like a floating Four Seasons with luxury bedrooms and amenities ranging from a gym to a hairdresser.
While traveling to an "area that has never been touched by humans in a big way," on board a 198-person luxury expedition ship may seem a bit paradoxical, viewing the great outdoors from a more comfortable vantage point is hardly a new point of interest. Glamour camping, or "glamping," is now a global phenomenon, with destinations cropping up everywhere from Australia to Montana.
The glamping phenomenon
Offering tented accommodations typically powered by solar electricity and furnished with king-sized beds and Persian rugs, most resorts provide guests with butlers who are responsible for everything from pitching guests’ tents to roasting marshmallows.
"When you go glamping you’re not really going there to live as a native or villager," admits Nicole Cotroneo, associate editor of luxury travel blog globorati. As CEO Kent describes Abercrombie & Kent’s tented African safaris: "You put people in the depths of nature with nice nights and lots of drinks," says Kent.
Being in the depths of nature doesn’t have to mean you’re cut off from the real world though. Internet and telephone access are "available if you want it," says Kent, recalling one investment banker who completed a major deal in Botswana against the backdrop of an onlooking group of hyenas.
The end of traditional tenting?
While glamping in the wilderness may vary little from staying in a five-star resort, Cotroneo points out: "You’re not confined by the four walls of a typical suite." Furthermore, at least as Antarctica is concerned, glamping opens up exotic travel destinations to a traditionally uninterested demographic. "If you didn’t have a moving four-star hotel, you wouldn’t get half the people there that you could," says Kent.
Asked whether Abercrombie & Kent receives criticism for bringing luxury travel to regions such as East Africa, Kent dismisses the idea. "We produce high-yield, low-impact travel," says Kent, meaning high yield for the local economy and low impact on the surrounding environment. "Cheap travel is massive impact and no yield. It's much better to have fewer people paying more money."
While glamping Abercrombie & Kent-style isn't accessible to the average American traveler, upgrading in the camping industry appears to be a trend. Though the National Park Service reported 272 million visitors last year, a considerable decline from 292 million visitors 10 years ago, the numbers for RV visitors are up.
Camping in buses
About 2.3 million RVs visited the Park Service-run campgrounds last year, and though that figure still trails behind the reported 3.1 million tents, the two figures are inching closer and closer together. Reasons David Barna, the service's chief of public affairs: "Americans increasingly want a more comfortable visit."
Barna notes that the service is receiving an increasing number of calls from visitors whose 52-foot-long buses are too big to fit into camp sites built decades ago. "Thirty years ago we never dreamed that people would come in buses," he says.
While no "glamper" himself, Barna admits that he now tends to stay at a lodge, as opposed to camping outdoors as he would have 20 years ago. Says Barna: "You're facing a generation that wants to go out and see nature, but also wants to get a good night's sleep."