Jan Mauer fell in love with snorkeling 30 years ago. But it wasn’t until she came back from a 2012 Paul Gaugin cruise with her husband that she decided to become scuba certified.
Mauer, owner of Exciting Vacations, LLC, in East Brunswick, New Jersey, trained for and received various scuba certifications, so she could enjoy her love for underwater adventures with her husband more — and as another tool in her travel selling toolbox.
“Resort dives are what most people do first. But as they get more experienced, like I did, as an agent, you have the opportunity to introduce your clients to the most amazing experiences,” she said. Today, Mauer books clients all over the world, from Tahiti to Fiji and Australia, the Caribbean to Costa Rica. “Personally, it’s one of the most peaceful sports you can do, being there under the water.”
“My dive clients want to add chapters to their life stories. Seeing sting rays, being in that underworld, navigating it, it’s phenomenal,” said Dana Storr, CTA, a Los Angeles-based agent with the TravelStore, a Signature Travel company.
These clients also tend to be repeat, lucrative customers, Storr and Mauer said. “They want to keep up their investment in certifications, equipment, so that means they eventually want to travel to more destinations, and then more unknown destinations,” Storr said.
Dolphin Scuba Center in Sacramento recently hosted a dive trip to Palau, in Micronesia, priced at $3,935 per person, before airfare, taxes and other fees.
The latest in Costa Rica diving
Bill Beard, owner of Bill Beard’s Costa Rica, has sold scuba vacations to travel agents and travelers for nearly 50 years. Sometime in the 1990s, after Nicaragua’s civil war ended, tourism and dive vacations took off in the region, Beard said. Agents and travelers can purchase everything: air, transportation, travel insurance, accommodations, scuba diving, adventure tours (soft, medium and extreme), airport transfers, and completely guided VIP trips.
Today, there are eight large operations in the Guanacaste area alone. “It has always been steady growth, and our business has increased in the past three years,” he said.
Located in the Northwest Pacific side of Costa Rica, Guanacaste, is home to the popular diving area, Playa Hermosa; and the Papagayo Peninsula, dotted with golf courses and luxury resorts, like the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica.
Popular hotels for his customers include Margaritaville, the Occidental Grand Papagayo, Bosque del Mar, Villas Sol, Villa del Sueno, Tamarindo Diria, Hotel Colono, Casa Conde and Aguila de Osa.
Bill Beard’s supports diving by bringing in groups from the U.S., Canada Europe, South America, Mexico, and a few from Far East. He pays wholesalers a 20% commission, while dive shops and clubs receive 10%.
More than three million people visit Costa Rica annually, up nearly 57,000 from 2017. While the tourism board doesn’t survey visitors for scuba vacation participation, Beard, who lives there, says the number of divers is definitely growing.
Currently, The Bat Islands, Catalina Islands, Cano Island and Cocos Island, are the hottest dive spots in the region, Beard said, in part due to an increase in migratory marine life. Humpback whales, orcas, giant Pacific manta rays, schooling mobula, and cownose rays are plentiful there.
“Divers recently saw a mola mola in the Northwest Pacific, which hasn’t been sighted in several years; and a divemaster in Cano Island recently photographed a hammerhead, a very rare thing,” Beard said.
Other companies — like Aggressor Adventures (based in Augusta, Georgia), and Undersea Hunter (in Miami) — bring in about 150 divers a month, Beard estimated.
Sport attracts higher-end clients who spend more
There’s no doubt, diving vacations attract high-end customers. According to the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 64% of U.S. households with open water level divers have an annual income between $100,000 and $150,000. Nearly 60% have a college or graduate degree level education; and 92% own their home.
Mauer has been so successful, the Tahiti Tourisme Board invited her to take part as a Certified Tahiti Specialist at Beneath the Sea, a major annual scuba diving event. Held at the end of March, the show is based at the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, because of its proximity to “the country's wealthiest and largest concentration of consumers,” the exposition manager declares on its website, including “five of the top 10 communities with the highest median buying power.”
The average age of Beard’s clients is 40-50, “because they are the ones who have the means to afford the scuba gear and travel. The 20- to 30-year-old clients usually dive for a shorter number of days, but do more activities,” he said.
Because of the nature of the sport, dive vacations can be lengthy, as well. Beard said clients are booking mostly 8-day, 7-night trips, with European divers staying longer – 11 days and 10 nights for the dive vacation, with a land extension making up a two- to three-week vacation.
Another benefit of focusing on dive vacations is the ability to book groups with the potential for higher commissions. Beard’s average group size ranges from 12-24 people. “Because Costa Rica has so much to offer besides just diving, we get a lot of ‘mixed marriage’ groups that consist of divers and non-divers,” he said.
Beard’s company offers complimentary spots to divers or non-divers based on a minimum of nine persons purchasing the same package.
Even if not joining a dive tour, divers often travel in pairs, or more. Having built a very loyal following among travelers and agents alike, Beard books “a good amount” of couples and lots of honeymooners, and “lots of family business” during the summer and spring breaks.
As Beard and longtime advisors have found, these clients are active and adventurous, and will tag on other activities while taking a dive vacation. “The ‘DIVE-DIVE-DIVE' trend has changed to dive, adventure, wildlife and seeing some of the natural beauty that is Costa Rica,” he said.
Beard’s most popular package includes four or five nights at the beach with diving; one or two nights in the rainforest near Arenal Volcano; with a visit to the hot springs. But he also offers a wide range of activities, including horseback riding, ATV riding, ziplining, whitewater river rafting and tubing, waterfall rappelling, sunset sailing cruises, cultural tours, surfing, sport fishing, and wildlife observation tours.
Dive clients “are more willing to spend more, because they are out for this experience,” said Storr. “Everyone who has done a dive vacation with me are in their 40s, 50s, so they are feeling they're due for an indulgence on them. They want a nice environment to come back to after their dive, to relax, share their photos and talk about it.”
Beard suggests agents develop good qualifying questions for potential dive clients. “We ask things like ‘What attracted you to Costa Rica?’ and ‘What are you looking for in a vacation?’ Find out what their main focus is. Is it relaxation, diving, seeing natural beauty, or getting to see wildlife?”