Affinity travel is an under-recognized part of the luxury travel spectrum. Alumni associations, non-profit organizations and cultural institutions often sell travel as a way to cultivate donors and to raise money. Recently, affinity travel has been bleeding into the journalism arena, which itself has been bleeding cash for years.
Janet Moore, owner of affinity tour operator Distant Horizons, says it’s a logical business for certain publications to consider. “The tours add a much-needed revenue stream for special interest magazines that already have a ready-made audience–subscribers–for their programs,” says Moore. Additionally, reporters on staff can lend expertise, either on tour or pre-tour. Planners can work with reporters to open doors, given their strong connections in a country’s political, cultural and academic landscapes.
Teresa Stack is the former president of The Nation and founder of the publication’s educational travel programs. “Publishing is struggling in general,” says Stack. “Frankly, we largely developed the tour program to support the journalism. It’s not our number one source of revenue, but it’s a growing source.”
The Nation is the country’s oldest weekly magazine, debuting the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The left-leaning political and cultural magazine is certainly not the first media outlet to introduce tours in order to subsidize journalism. Several travel-related magazines, like National Geographic and AFAR, run tour programs. In 2014, the New York Times initiated its Times Journeys program. And later this month, the Los Angeles Times will unveil the details of its new Expeditions catalog.
The Nation’s first trips were seminars at sea, a concept borrowed from The National Review, its political arch rival. While The Nation’s cruise program has sailed along for 20 years, land-based programming was added only in 2014. Cuba was the first stop on The Nation’s itinerary, and the island continues to be a top seller three years later.
Unlike so many group tours, The Nation hones in on issues of interest to its readers. Visits to Cuba have included tours of healthcare facilities and meetings with women’s associations. A group that is currently in Russia with The Nation is meeting the head of the Mikhail Gorbachev Foundation. A trip later this year to Vietnam will include a visit to the DMZ, and seminars on everything from Agent Orange to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Among the other countries on the 2017 roster are Iran and Colombia. According to Stack, “We want to go to places that are unusual, perhaps where the government is at odds with ours. We think there’s something to be gained by having an open, dialogue.”
And the more politically-charged (to a degree), the better. While your average traveler might shun a controversial destination, The Nation’s readers tend to lean into these places. “Our travelers are open-minded, curious and intrepid,” notes Stack. “They want to learn about geopolitical power and politically-charged issues.” According to Debra Eliezer, The Nation’s travel program manager,“Our travelers think it’s important to go places, meet people, see a different side of the story and draw their own conclusions.“
Eliezer adds that there’s another big advantage to this type of affinity travel. “Our travelers bond over politics, and they can sit at dinner knowing they are in a safe environment. That’s a powerful thing, especially now with what’s going on in the United States.” As longtime reader Mary McEvers puts it, “I’ve told my friends it was like I spent a week in a support group for anxiety-filled progressives.”