Alexander + Roberts, now in its 72nd year, is still managing to stay on the frontiers of travel. Originally founded by Alexander Harris in 1947 as General Tours, the company got the personal blessing of President Eisenhower in 1955 to take Americans into the Soviet Union to create Eisenhower’s first People-to-People program, designed to forge connections between the ordinary citizens of the two countries and promote peace.
General Tours was one of the first tour operators to go into China after President Nixon opened relations with the country in 1972. It was one of the first into many different destinations that had previously been off the tourism map, such as Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Today, with most of the old barriers to travel lifted, the frontiers of the travel industry are defined differently. Staying on the leading edge of travel exploration is a different kind of proposition than before. But Alexander + Roberts, led by Harris’ successor Robert Drumm, uses its seven decades of institutional experience to find fresh ways to provide tourism experiences that are new to Americans.
Armenia and Georgia on my mind
Drumm, who took over leadership of the company in the early 1990s, retains the exploratory mindset of the early days of General Tours. He recently spoke to Travel Market Report after returning from one of Alexander + Roberts’ new programs, a trip to the former Soviet Republics of Armenia and Georgia.
“I just led a group on one of our newer trips to Armenia and Georgia, which I love,” said Drumm. “I was there in the Soviet period and I was there last January to scout it out. I love both of those places so much. Armenia is where wine originated 8,000 years ago. They taught the ancient world how to make wine and they still make it in the ground in clay pots. There are not many places where history goes back 8,000 years.”
In a globalized world where much of the world seems to have been turned into an American mall, Alexander + Roberts still finds places to travel where you really feel like you’ve gone to another world.
“Most of the music there is a capella,” said Drumm. “We arranged for a choir, so when we entered this fourth-century basilica in ruins but just reeking with atmosphere and fantastic acoustics, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Although these countries preserve relics from ancient history, they are also participating in the changes of the 21st century.
“These cities — Yerevan, Armenia, and Tbilisi, Georgia — are just coming to life,” said Drumm. “They both have weathered political turmoil. We had dinner with a young politician who is part of the reform movement that led to the turnover in government a year ago from the old apparatchiks from the Soviet times that were still in power. He was talking about the process of change in a country like Armenia. It was just great, so multidimensional.”
Rising out of the dark oppressiveness of the days under Soviet occupation, these young democracies are vibrant and blossoming, in spite of difficulty.
“These two cities are just arising now,” said Drumm, “with shops and restaurants that are loaded with young people. They both have populations that are 50% under the age of 25.”
In the days of the old regime, young people tended to leave the country to find opportunity. Now with the old guard thrown over, many are coming back.
“In both instances the streets are teeming, like New York, filled with energy,” he said. “People are going out. They are socializing in cafes and new restaurants and bars. We stay in Tbilisi in the Rooms Hotel. It used to be a printing factory where they printed broadsides for the Communist party. It’s now been converted into a hotel, and it’s quite edgy.”
From a culinary standpoint, the area has much to offer.
“Georgian cuisine is one of the great cuisines in the world,” said Drumm. “It’s very pungent. It uses a lot of fruits, such as pomegranates and apricots. It’s a very rich agricultural area. It’s the Caucusus mountains and it’s volcanic. That’s why wine developed there so easily.”
Europeans are flocking to the area, Drumm said, but “Americans just haven’t discovered it yet.”
Go to Rio
Another new tour Alexander + Roberts introduced this year is The Colonial Road to Rio, a nine-day program that includes stays in Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, and Rio de Janeiro. Even though Brazil has become visa free for Americans, which adds up to a big savings in money and time, interest in Brazil remains low.
“Americans just aren’t going to Brazil,” said Drumm. “They’ll do Iguazu Falls, and you’ll get them into Rio for a couple of nights. But they don’t go out to these beautiful, untouched colonial towns that are loaded with things to see and do and eat and drink and ways to have fun, because the Brazilians certainly know how to have a good time.”
See the USA
Exploring the frontiers of travel is not only about the destination. It’s also about the way you travel. In 2016, Alexander + Roberts offered its first tour within North America, a trip to Churchill, Canada. This year, the company is launching a new program on the Mississippi, a river cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, for some of its loyal customers who like to travel with the company, but want to do some exploring closer to home.
“It is true that some get tired of traveling abroad,” said Drumm. “But they like the creature comforts they get on European river cruises. We’re doing small groups of 16 on the American Duchess. We’re doing private sightseeing throughout the trip. We have a private guide onboard with them. We’re doing some Bayou cruising. We’re going to the Grammy Museum in Mississippi, which not many people go to. We’re doing a tour of recovered regions of New Orleans from Katrina. And we’re going to Vicksburg, focusing on the experience of black troops there, because some of largest numbers of black soldiers participated in that siege in the Union army.”
Another new tour in North America is a tour of Kentucky with special close-up looks at horse racing and bourbon.
Alexander + Roberts’ is offering a new trip to Patagonia that begins with a day in Santiago, Chile, before heading south to the wilderness areas. The tour visits the Marble Caves, which can only be reached by kayak, and Patagonia National Park. Like many of the tour operator’s new programs, it includes activities that are physically challenging.
The trip is selling well, which supports Drumm’s sense that people want to be physically challenged when they travel today.
“One of the things we are finding in the Caucuses, Latin America, New Zealand, and Asia is that people want to have outdoor experiences, as well as refined places to stay, and good food,” said Drumm. “It’s really quite surprising how energetic and adventuresome our travelers are these days. They like five-star hotels, lots of great wine and good meals, but they want adventure as well. That’s a development that’s being reflected by companies like Intrepid, who are going after an older audience because they see that older travelers are just as energetic in their own way as they were when they were younger. They don’t want to be constrained. That’s part and parcel of expeditions being popular now, expedition ships, polar regions, where people are challenged physically.”