Group Travel Still Makes the Most Sense

Even in tough economic times, people are turning to group tours as a reliable way to travel that provides value and peace of mind. Tour operators negotiate group discounts, plan activities with smooth logistics in mind, access unique venues and draw on well-connected contacts in destinations around the globe. With years of experience under their belt, tour operators offer travelers the most value and security for their dollars.

Here are ten pointers from the National Tour Association’s latest newsletter that reinforces why Academic Travel Abroad is proud to be part of this organization of tourism professionals who share our common goals.


Excerpt from the NTA's "Trip Planner" for August 2009


ATA heads to Morocco

Moroccan musician

Moroccan musician

I was standing on the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech in March when I “got” something about Morocco that had been eluding me.  The Djemaa is the sprawling square in the Medina where the sounds, the smells and the soul of Marrakech jump and dance and waft all day every day and far into the night. I was standing there as evening began to fall, watching a group of gnaoua musicians perform for an appreciative crowd of Moroccans. The audience surrounded them in a thick circle on the square, clapping, laughing, swaying their shoulders to the infectious beat. I didn’t understand the words of the song, but I could feel how completely involved the audience was with the performance. I could see it in their eyes, feel it in the movement of their bodies.

That’s when I understood this simple truth: despite the impossibly rich spectacle of Moroccan markets and the awe-provoking tableaux of deserts, mountains and farm villages that greet you as you travel through, the real richness of Morocco is in the people. This is a truly warm, friendly country where a sincere smile will melt a scowl like the spring sun on the Atlas snow. They are as complex and diverse as their long turbulent history, but their hospitality is sincere. Even when Moroccans are trying to sell you something (often), they will be happy just to talk, learn about you, offer you sweet tea and opinions. Yes, it helps if you speak Arabic or Berber or French, but they will find a way to communicate with you.

Street olive market

Street olive market

On the Djemaa that night, when the musicians had finished, a story teller came into the circle, dramatically took off several layers of clothing, then began to move around the group, making jokes about people and extracting a 5 dirham coin from each of them.  Again, I didn’t understand the words, but couldn’t help myself from joining in the infectious laughter of the crowd. I was enfolded into Morocco that evening, entranced, enticed. I am very glad indeed to be going back.

Andrew Simon
Tour Manager


National Geographic Expeditions: Moroccan Odyssey

American Museum of Natural History: Morocco

Academic Travel Abroad

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Academic Travel Abroad: Connecting to Cuba – Again!

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration easing travel restrictions to Cuba from the United States for Cuban Americans has sent a ripple throughout the travel community. It is ATA’s hope that educational and cultural travel to Cuba will also soon be restored. Airline companies are suddenly rushing to find small planes and potential carriers to fulfill the undoubtedly large upcoming demand for travel to the Caribbean island nation.

Here are just a few of the reasons why Cuba is a compelling destination for the intellectually curious traveler:

Cuba’s art and music beautifully reflect the Spanish and African influence on the island throughout its history. From native to contemporary art, galleries have become a popular venue for Cubans to display emerging styles.

Below are some recent articles related to Cuban art;

Cuba’s dynamic musical heritage ranges from Latin jazz to salsa to bolero, where dancing is virtually a Cuban pastime. Cuba is also home to a unique Spanish-influenced architecture ranging from the more urban and contemporary Havana to the colonial town of Trinidad, with cobblestone streets and red-tiled roofs. Read more about Cuban architecture here.

Between towns you’ll find the rolling hillsides of the Vinales Valley, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, and the historical tobacco farms for which Cuba has become famous.

Cuba’s history is portrayed throughout its cities and landscapes with Spanish fortresses, several UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ernest Hemingway’s home, 19th-century French settlements and local horticultural treasures like the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens.

As soon as political conditions permit, Academic Travel looks forward to re-entering the educational travel market in Cuba. From 2000-2002, ATA operated successful programs in Cuba for several organizations, including National Geographic Expeditions, The Bayly Art Museum, The Florence-Griswold Museum, The University of Maryland, and Vanderbilt University.

Academic Travel Abroad

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Bermuda – A North Atlantic Historical Gem

The historical home of Bloomfield.

The historical home of Bloomfield.

Many think of Bermuda as a subtropical island get-away in the north Atlantic, where sun, pink sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters of the Sargasso Sea can wipe away the ever-present stresses of our hectic every day lives on the main land.

But there is so much more to these tightly clustered islands then meets the eye. Bermuda was discovered in 1503 by a Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermúdez., then was permanently settled by the British in 1612 as they sailed to Virgina. Bermuda’s town of St. George (originally named New London) has now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its depth in world history and culture.

St. George is rich in historical homes and gardens, seaports, quaint lighthouses and museums of the likes one could not find anywhere else in the world. Beautiful gardens surround private white and pink-washed Georgian houses of Bermuda coral limestone, furnished with Bermuda-made cedar furniture and still owned by the original families.

The Royal Navy dockyard has attracted visitors with specific interests military history as it was the acting principal base of the Royal British Navy in the Western Atlantic between the periods of American independence and the Cold War.

Should you be thinking of visiting these islands, it is worth mentioning that the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be hosting a terrific tour to Bermuda November 1-6, 2009.

Specialists will join in for visits, discussions and receptions to share their expertise on such topics as architecture and decorative arts, British forts and native and resident artists. Time to simply relax and absorb the gracious atmosphere of this enchanted island are ample – where narrow lanes, winding roads and well-tended gardens blend easily with pink sand and that famous turquoise sea.

Highlights of this journey include a tour of Verdmont, the “crown jewel” of the Bermuda National Trust; a walking tour of Hamilton and time to explore the famous Front Street; and a visit to Tucker House, home to Bermuda’s most famous families.

Inside the Bloomfield home.

Inside the Bloomfield home.

Bermuda holds a special interest for National Trust members because of the programs of our sister organization, the Bermuda National Trust. Since its establishment in 1969, the Bermuda Trust has acquired more than 60 historic properties and open-space areas in Bermuda, and is a formidable force in the preservation of this fragile island. Hosts from the Bermuda National Trust’s Cultural Tourism Office share their experience and knowledge of preservation issues of their well-kept monuments. To learn more about his tour, download this brochure from the National Trust for Historic Preservation or visit their website here or contact the tour operator, Academic travel Abroad for more information about Bermuda and this one of a kind tour.

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Vietnam: My Experiences


vietnam-istock_000001893968medium1I first visited Viet Nam in 1994 as a new employee of ATA and then again leading Smithsonian Study Tours’ first tour to country the following year.  Since then, I’ve returned to graduate school, studied Vietnamese language, history and culture, and even started work on a doctoral dissertation examining border trade between China and Viet Nam.  In all that time, I’d never actually made it back to Viet Nam.  I’d come close – Cambodia, Thailand, even looked over into Vietnam from the Friendship Gate close to Pingxiang, China, but I hadn’t been able to make it back for nearly 14 years. 

Finally, in October, 2008, I was able to make the trip.  People who’ve traveled there a lot told me I wouldn’t recognize the place, and based on my experience in China, where I frequently visit, I was expecting a complete transformation.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  To be sure, there were changes – the ride from the airport into Hanoi at midnight was along an elevated highway, crowded at the time with motorcycles overflowing with flowers headed to the wholesale flower market.  14 years ago, the road to the airport was at places unpaved and meandered through villages and farms.  There are now skyscrapers in Hanoi, mixed in with the elegant old French colonial buildings.  But it’s still recognizable as Hanoi.  Unlike their counterparts in Beijing, the Vietnamese haven’t torn down the vast majority of their city and replaced it with a hodgepodge of oddly shaped, hyper-modern buildings, or row after row of identical apartment buildings.  The old quarter looks very much as it did when I first explored it:  chaotic and colorful.  There are more cars on the road, and many, many more motorcycles, but it still feels like Hanoi. 

The biggest change I noticed was in the people.  Part of what I loved about Viet Nam when I first visited was the people  — friendly, smiling, welcoming.  They’re still that way, thankfully, but now there’s a sense of optimism and confidence that I didn’t detect before.  People in their 20s and early 30s have grown up and come of age in a period of relative openness and unprecedented economic growth, and they seem to have the feeling that anything is possible.  In the early 1990s, there was a lot less certainty.  Doi Moi had just begun, and no one was sure what would happen.  They seemed tentative, wide-eyed toward the outside world.  No more.  At least in the places I visited – admittedly all very much on the beaten track – people were hip, connected, well-informed and cosmopolitan.  I, being none of those things, felt a little out of place!

14 years ago on my first trip to Viet Nam, I received no fewer than 3 proposals of marriage from young women (none of them serious, but then again they probably weren’t completely unserious) who foresaw that their lives in Viet Nam would be bleak; this year I received none.  I like to think that this is not (only) because I am old, fat and generally unattractive but rather because the Vietnamese themselves like where they are and where they are headed.

Chris Roper
Senior Program Manager

Academic Travel Abroad 

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ATA Chairman David Parry Reminisces About Traveling to Russia during glasnost.

Sneaking into Russia!

During the excitement over the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 I attended a meeting of the American-Soviet Tourism Society in Tallinn, Estonia. With the breakup of the USSR, the three Baltic Republics were once again independent and now, I had to obtain a separate Estonian visa. When I arrived at the airport I encountered newly uniformed Estonian customs officials. Nearby stood several forlorn USSR border guards who no longer had a role to play.

I continued by air to Moscow and, at arrival at Sheretimevyo Airport, I was amazed that there was no immigration control. Clearly, the system still regarded Tallinn as an internal flight. So when I presented my passport and Russian visa at the Moscow hotel there was much discussion about the fact that all the parts of my visa were intact. (The Soviet system was to issue a separate paper visa with one part detached on arrival and, after providing authority for the hotel stay at each place, the remainder was kept upon departure. There was never a visa in the passport itself.

The same consternation occurred on check in at the Astoria Hotel in Leningrad or was it now St. Petersburg.

The finale came on departure at Leningrad’s Pulkovo Airport for home. I shuffled up to the border police stand and presented my passport and all the parts of the official visa. These passport control stands were and are booths where the shelf for presenting your passport is about 4 ½ feet high. Through the years this was usually the most uncomfortable encounter of a visit to the USSR.

The young and, as always, expressionless border guard took one look at my complete visa and rang for the supervisor. The supervisor appeared and went behind the counter where I could not see what they were looking at. There was much discussion and thumbing of my passport. My heart sunk because this meant I was going to miss my flight.

Finally, after about ten minutes, I heard the thump, thump of the official stamp on my visa and I knew that I would be free to go. As the supervisor left the booth she turned to me and exclaimed in disgust on word – Yeltsin!

Several months later the same thing happened on the night train from Vilnius, Lithuania to Moscow. But that is another story…

Dave Parry

Academic Travel Abroad

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Academic Travel Abroad: Eggshells and Outreach

istock_000006390045smallThe yester-year era of solid pseudo-walls built around companies, big and small, where their inner workings were shielded from the very clients they catered to has come and gone.  The last few years have brought about a quantum shift in corporate thinking and new online outreach and networking tools have materialized in a way that could not have been foreseen. 

I walk from the metro to the office every day and witness a distinct majority of others pounding the sidewalks as they text, call and email their way into their work week before ever setting foot into their office via smartphones, laptops and PDA’s.  Online networking and communications are no longer corporate lingo, but rather a way of life and is growing exponentially every day.

Do you remember the vinegar and egg experiment from grade school?  Put an egg in a glass, submerge it in vinegar, and presto!  In a couple of days you have a see-through egg!  Without affecting the innate structure of the egg, the vinegar transforms the hard shell into a transparent form in which the “inner workings” can be seen.

As Academic Travel Abroad’s Creative Manager, I have been fortunate enough to have been given the task of pouring vinegar over ATA’s metaphorical shell.  As a company that prides itself on it’s luxury and educational travel experience and commitment to excellence in customer service and satisfaction, we have come to a fairly simple realization. In order to reach out to others who share our distinct passion for travel and a desire to learn about unique cultures around the world we need to become more “transparent” and reveal our “inner workings”.  We want to humanize our company in a way that helps others realize we really are a passionate group of travelers and not a “corporate” hard-shelled business.

By using online social networking tools such as this blog, our Facebook page, a Twitter feed, our presence on and we hope to develop a community of travelers who like sharing their experiences abroad with both our staff and others.  Frankly, if you were to visit all these tools we have, you would see ATA as a “transparent eggshell”.   Our staff often write blogs about their recent travels abroad, our President writes her own blog and we encourage Facebook visitors to post their own comments and photos of their travels to share with our community.  We love interacting with other travelers and sharing ideas, experiences and resources.  Think of it… you could tell your friends and colleagues that you Twitter, blog, Facebook and more – talk about moving up the tech-savvy ladder!  You’ll be the envy of your peers.

So if you’re a world traveler and, out of sheer unbridled enthusiasm, simply can’t stop sharing your experiences abroad with others, we hope to see you “pour your own vinegar” and join in. 

Safe travels!

Steve Muth
Creative Manager

Academic Travel Abroad

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