In 2004 travel firm VegVoyages launched, offering three trips in one country. Fourteen years later, the company, which specializes in vegan adventure tours in Asia, now runs up to 23 trips a year in five different countries. Based in Texas, it’s one of several operators that caters for this growing market of ethical consumers seeking to experience different cultures without harming animals, exploiting people or devastating the environment.
“There’s definitely been an increase in the demand for vegan travel,” says VegVoyages co-founder Zac Lovas. “More people around the world are warming up to vegan ideas, concepts and benefits who were previously put off by the mere mention of the word ‘vegan’, much less considering it as a full-time or part-time diet in their daily life. This directly fuels vegan travel – whether it’s more vegans searching for vegan travel options or more non-vegans not fearing being on a tour with vegans and eating vegan meals for one or two weeks at a time.”
According to Lovas, food is one of the biggest incentives for travelers to choose a vegan tour. “People don’t want to go to a country and be able to only eat side dishes and salads, or be stuck eating the same thing that they eat back home,” he says. “One of the benefits of traveling on a vegan trip is to be able to enjoy eating what the locals eat and not having to worry about whether or not it’s 100% vegan. You can still get a glimpse into the local culture and history through the community’s cuisine on a vegan adventure.”
Collaborating with local communities is key to the success of VegVoyages’ trips. “We don’t go in and thrust our beliefs on the locals,” says Lovas, who founded the company with two friends who lived and worked for many years in different parts of Asia. “We work with local communities and develop the programs to help them tell their story to our guests, and make their story – including their cuisine – vegan-friendly. They’re often surprised that some of their classic home dishes can still taste good when they’re made vegan. We like to look at the whole experience as a cultural exchange.”
Guests range in age from 18 to 80 and include both singles and couples from all walks of life. The most popular destinations are India, Bali, Thailand, Sumatra and Laos and the company has increased its group size from just eight people to 18 to keep up with demand. According to Lovas, during the first seven years of running the company, the majority of people identified as ‘vegetarian’, but nowadays many more are vegan. Approximately 75% of guests are vegan, with 25% non-vegan, the latter typically comprising friends or spouses of vegans, or those who are curious about the lifestyle. The company’s repeat customer base is between 70%-80%.
Demand for vegan travel has ‘doubled’
Tour operator Tierno Tours in Concord, North Carolina, has also seen demand for vegan travel rise. In 2010 it ran the first of its annual Vegano Italiano trips to Italy. These proved so popular that the company launched Vegan Travel Club in 2016, in collaboration with veteran eco-vegan travel agency Green Earth Travel, and added new destinations to its 2017 roster. These included Peru, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The tours feature a range of activities, such as celebrity vegan speakers, plant-based cooking demonstrations, and visits to wineries and heritage sites.
For 2018, the company has branched out even more, offering excursions to Ireland as well as closer to home in San Francisco. “Because we have a lot of repeat business we try to develop different tours every year,” says Vegan Travel Club co-founder Gretchen Sheridan. “Some, like Italy and Ireland, we continue to do every year, and others, like San Francisco or Peru, are a one-time deal. Some of our choices are based on prices and some places become more favorable because airfares go down or money exchanges are to our advantage. Locations also come in and out of favor. Right now, Ireland and Scotland have become very popular due to a lot of movies and hit TV shows being filmed there. Berlin, Rome and Barcelona are also big attractions because of the sheer number of vegan eateries there.”
Tierno Tours is a small, niche company that offers heritage and specialty tours. According to Sheridan, Vegan Travel Club now makes up 30% of its total income. The age of travelers is generally between 40 and 60, although younger and older people are getting on board as they become more health and environmentally conscious. Around 60% are vegan, with the rest being non-vegan spouses or friends.
Donna Zeigfinger, owner of Green Earth Travel, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. During this time she’s seen the number of enquiries from people wanting vacations, tours and adventure trips that incorporate plant-based eating more than double, with a particularly large demand for veg festivals, culinary tours and health conference tours on cruises. “A lot of my clients used to be the honeymoon couple where one was vegan and the other wasn’t, or the one child in the family was the vegan. Now it’s the couple where both are vegan or the whole family’s vegan,” she says.
When it comes to accommodation, hotels must consider more than just food, warns Zeigfinger. “Hotels need to be accommodating when it comes to things like bedding,” she says. “Most nowadays will provide allergy-free bedding, so that means no feather pillows or wool blankets. Most of the tour operators these days now have a better understanding of what a vegan is and will go out of their way to accommodate people. If not, we don’t use them again.”
Vegan ocean and river cruises are becoming popular
Vegan vacations are not confined solely to land-based tours. Australia’s first plant-based cruise has just been announced, and in 2017 the world’s first all-vegan cruise took place from London to Norway, carrying 1,881 guests from 34 countries. This was organized by German company Vegan Travel, which specializes in river and ocean cruises.
Managing director Dirk Bocklage came up with the idea for the company four years ago after living in Hong Kong for seven years where he hosted murder mystery dinner and theatre events and performed on cruise ships.
Because ocean cruises have a higher risk and typically require bank guarantees, Bocklage started off running vegan river cruises throughout Europe, and to date has completed three to four each year. The most popular include the Rhine and the Danube as well as the Doura in Portugal.
As is the case with the the other vegan travel operators mentioned, the cruises attract a diverse range of guests, but the demographic is typically younger than most traditional cruises. On last year’s ocean cruise, for example, the oldest guest was a 95-year-old woman from England and the youngest were five-month-old twins brought along by a couple from the US. The average age of guests on the vegan river cruises is between 35-45. “People have this idea of 80-year-old guests in wheelchairs going on a cruise,” says Bocklage. “It’s not something young people would have considered doing before we started the vegan cruises.”
Bocklage believes the demand for vegan vacations has always been there. “There are more vegans out there now, but also people who hadn’t considered going on a vegan holiday before are growing in number,” he says. “The first vegan river cruise we did there were only Germans on board. Now there are 50% English-speaking guests from America, the UK and Australia.”
Because the crew on cruise ships are not generally trained in plant-based cuisine, Bocklage works with vegan chefs from England and Germany and brings one on board to work with the staff. “We’ve created an online plan in a PDF document for cruise companies so they see that catering to vegans is no more challenging than preparing non-vegan food,” he says.
Recognizing the environmental impact of cruise ships, Bocklage is careful to only charter vessels that don’t run on heavy fuel oil. His dream for the future is to operate a small ocean-going vessel powered by electricity or gas. Meanwhile Vegan Travel – which boasts a 90-95% occupancy rate for each cruise – is looking to enter the ocean cruise market more, with a smaller expedition planned for October this year to Chile and Patagonia.
Spending time with animals – without causing harm
One of the newest players in the vegan vacation market is CPG Vegan Trips. Founded by renowned animal advocate and author Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, it hosted its first trip for 22 people in October last year to Thailand, and is now committed to running several tours a year. North Vietnam in April and the Alsace region of France in December are on the agenda for 2018, and the company recently sold out its first 2019 trip to Rwanda in just two days.
CPG Vegan Trips is positioned at the higher end of the market, with the cost of trips ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 (compared to $1,000 to $2,500 for other vegan operators). Customers are predominantly men and women aged over 35, of whom around 80% are vegan.
Patrick-Goudreau says that in addition to not having to worry about food, what’s driving the demand for vegan vacations is a desire for group travel with like-minded people who share the same values. “Many of our past travelers have said that while they appreciate the luxurious accommodations, the activities, and the food, they’ve been most moved by the fact that they unexpectedly made lifelong friends.”
Again, getting the support of, as well as educating local communities is essential to the success of the trips. “We work with our local tour guides to ask them to refrain from telling our group where they can find the ‘best fishing’ or the ‘best steak in town’,” says Patrick-Goudreau. “We also try to avoid as much exposure to overt animal exploitation as possible. This could be not choosing a hotel with deer heads mounted on the wall, sitting in a restaurant where our travelers might experience an abundance of meaty smells, avoiding the meat sections of a market, and telling our travelers what parts of cities, such as where there are live animal markets, they may want to avoid when they go off on their own. We ask vendors and tour guides to be sensitive to the values of our group and we wind up developing some really lovely relationships with them because of it. They want to provide the best service, and they appreciate that we work with them to enable them to do that.”