Exploiting the “Gap Year Travel” niche
Although the idea of taking time off in order to travel is by no means a recent one, “gap year travel” is both a relatively new and a relatively unknown market segment. Travellers in this segment do not spend a great deal, yet nonetheless make a significant contribution to the local economy because of their length of stay. [August 10, 2006] This phenomenon has gained widespread popularity in the UK. Several primarily internet‑based organizations have capitalized on it, offering services ranging from basic travel advice to specialized travel agencies organizing the entire trip.
What does it mean?
“Gap travel” refers to a trip taken by a person who has decided to postpone or put on hold work or studies in order to satisfy his or her wanderlust. “Gap travel” first began after WWII, at a time when society looked favourably on young people discovering the globe in order to broaden their outlook and increase the possibility of achieving world peace. However, it was not until the end of the 90s that the idea of travelling before starting university became more widespread.
Three distinct segments
More recently, the gap travel concept has expanded to include other age groups, specifically successful professionals who have decided to change careers. These people often take advantage of this period of transition in order to travel. Increased acceptance of this idea in educational and professional milieus has contributed to the expansion of this kind of travel. A growing number of seniors who are both financially secure and in good health also decide to discover new horizons. People in this category were backpackers in their youth and are hence experienced travellers. There are three distinct categories of gap travellers:
- College or high school graduates about to start university;
- Professionals who decide to take time off from their job;
- People who have taken early retirement but who have not yet begun any post-retirement activities (casual part-time work, volunteering, etc.).
Extent and origin of the market
Over 90% of the gap travel market consists of independent travellers who organize their own trips. The British research firm Mintel estimates that such travellers spend over CAD$10 billion on 1 million to 1.5 million trips per year worldwide. The UK has by far the most gap travellers, accounting for roughly CAD$5 billion in spending.
In terms of their impact on the local economy, their length of stay offsets the relatively low daily spending of this group of travellers. On average, gap travellers spend roughly CAD$10,000 per trip; those in mid-career tend to have deeper pockets, budgeting approximately CAD$16,000 per trip. UK gap travellers represent a mere 1% of international departures from Britain, but an astonishing 10% of total spending.
The primarily English-speaking youth segment hails mostly from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Approximately 230,000 British students between 18 and 24 go on this kind of trip. The Scandinavian countries, Canada and Ireland could also be potential client bases. A certain percentage of young Americans studying in the UK visits the Old World between semesters. However, unlike other nationalities (notably the British), American youth seem less inclined to travel internationally.
British mid-career gap travellers number 90,000, compared with a total of 200,000 retirees.
Australia and New Zealand are ideal destinations for this kind of trip, particularly for Europeans. A number of factors affect a destination’s appeal for gap travellers: security, visa requirements, cost of living and the chances of getting a job. Australia capitalizes on its reputation as a far-away, dream destination, boosting its competitive advantage in this area with aggressive ad campaigns. In 2005, the Australian government allocated CAD$6 million for publicizing the advantages of its Working Holiday Maker visa to attract gap travellers from abroad. It also extended the visa period from one to two years.
Asia’s combination of cultural riches and low cost of living also appeals to this kind of traveller. Must-see destinations in that part of the world include India, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Japan is also a favourite destination, but more as a place to work.
South America and the South Pacific, with Brazil and the Fiji Islands heading the list, are increasingly popular choices. Finally, Africa’s international aid organizations attract a great number of workers inspired by humanitarian values.
What about Canada?
Since the rules governing international visitors fall under federal jurisdiction, the Canadian government plays a crucial role in attracting this segment of travellers. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada has Working Holiday Programs. They offer visas to residents of the 13 eligible countries: Germany, Australia, Austria, Belgium, South Korea, Finland, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These visas enable foreigners to travel in Canada and supplement their travel funds through incidental employment, up to a maximum period of 12 months. Unfortunately, residents of the US are not eligible for this kind of visa.
At the regional level, Tremblant is an excellent example of a destination that has successfully exploited this market segment. The organization “Ski le Gap” was created in 1994, specifically targetting British outdoor enthusiasts looking for intensive downhill ski or snowboard instruction. The resort claims it provides a unique gap-year experience as well as the opportunity to gain practical qualifications. This also gives it access to a pool of qualified instructors, a significant asset for companies in this sector.
There are innumerable strategies for attracting this category of travellers, whose habits certainly do not follow any of the usual patterns. New ways of exploiting obvious affinities – such as Tremblant’s Ski le Gap program aimed at British skiers – could be explored. For example, Quebec could stimulate French interest in specific niche markets. After all, our wide-open spaces are still a powerful draw that could easily be associated with a work-travel program, specifically by the outdoor and adventure tourism sectors.
– e-tid. Brazil Develops as Gap Year Destination, July 11, 2006.
– Hide, Will and Tom Chesshyre. “The Trip of a Lifetime Starts Here,” The Times [travel.timesonline.co.uk], June 17, 2006.
– Hotel News Resource. Gap Travel – Emerging Niche Market with 1 million to 1.5 million Trips Per Year, February 21, 2006.
– Mintel International Group. “Gap Year Travel International,” Travel & Tourism Analyst, No. 12, July 2005.
– Wignall, Alice. “Time Out,” The Guardian [travel.guardian.co.uk], August 19, 2004.
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