Alison Gardner, Editor
My dictionary defines a marvel as something to be amazed or astonished by, a wonder or a spectacle. While recognizing that such picks will always have plenty of subjectivity, there should be some common characteristics by which to track how 21st century travelers are searching out both ancient and modern marvels to enrich their vacations. One thing we may eliminate from this discussion is the many remarkable natural marvels throughout the world because they can neither be classified as ancient nor modern … they just are. We will leave those to be pondered by another traveler on another mission.
Let’s begin with a not-so-simple question: how old is ancient and how current is modern? Most people equate ancient with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that many of us memorized in school, a list of exclusively eastern Mediterranean architectural or sculpted marvels compiled by two Greek scholars 2,300 years ago. From that list, only the Egyptian pyramids stand today, clearly a reminder that man-made crowning achievements have a limited life span.
I declare my own desire for pushing “ancient” marvels about 15,000 to 40,000 years further back to the spectacular cave art of our early Ice Age ancestors. While they did not build the caves in which this art has been preserved until re-discovered in quite recent decades, they certainly decorated walls and ceilings with artistic expertise in an astonishing and spectacular way. Only a fraction of these cave sites are open to the public, mainly in France and Spain, but without a doubt worldwide travelers (myself included) are flocking to marvel and learn about such wonders with excited interest.
Certainly the UNESCO World Heritage Site preservation initiative, established in 1975, has been the single finest resource pointing travelers to the planet’s most treasured existing marvels while at the same time monitoring and often providing funding to help protect them from deterioration. All the hard work of screening for eligibility and authenticity has been done by UNESCO experts, virtually ensuring that travelers will be impressed by what they see.
There are currently 1,052 World Heritage (“WH”) Sites in 165 countries. Of these, 814 are cultural (including a number of Ice Age cave art sites!), 203 are natural and 35 are mixed properties. Before any traveler sets off to explore a country, near or far, some research regarding which WH Sites have been declared in the vicinity would be a great way to start. Tour operators today certainly do their homework by including such sites in their itineraries wherever possible.
Originally founded as a small-group tour operator in 1978, Bestway Tours & Safaris (bestway.com) recognized the magnetic pull of UNESCO Sites when it established a specialized division of World Heritage Tours in 2008. Its mission is to create country and regional itineraries around visiting such sites on six continents.
“UNESCO World Heritage Sites reflect the vital role heritage and history have played in shaping mankind to what it is today,” says Bestway’s Chief Explorer, Mahmood Poonja. “Through feedback from our travelers themselves, we recognize that travel is an important way to understand, share and help preserve World Heritage Sites. About 80% of our clients are well traveled, educated people over 50 who are passionate about different cultures and civilizations. Of late, there has also been a growing interest among families to travel together and see World Heritage Sites. This is usually either parents wanting to educate their children, or intergenerational travel, where grandparents take their grandkids on heritage journeys.”
Curious to learn how the increasingly influential millennial travelers (18 to 35 years) prioritize cultural marvels, I sought out Sheralyn Berry, Vice President of Sales of Contiki Holidays Canada (contiki.com). As the leading expert in young adult travel for 55 years, Contiki has recently polled its global clientele to compile a top 20 “No Regrets List” for 2017. Visiting Egypt’s pyramids (#2) and walking the Great Wall of China (#3) are perhaps predictable though having such a top priority is impressive. However, prioritizing a pilgrimage to see the Mona Lisa painting at Paris’s Louvre Museum (#15); that’s amazing!
“This is a generation that is selfinformed, reflective and more globally conscious than any other demographic before them,” shares Berry. “A whopping 96% of those polled agree that experiences and memories far outweighed material possessions, with 64% noting that cultural experiences are the most important aspect of their travels. They prefer to experience our world’s greatest monuments, whether manmade or natural, and are unapologetic about wanting to do it now rather than waiting until they retire.”