How Backroads Went International
Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to bike through rice paddies? Hike ancient ruins? Explore tiny villages with cobblestoned streets? When I started Backroads 38 years ago, I could hardly foresee just how many of the world’s “back roads” we would one day be exploring with our guests. What a journey it has been! It’s truly amazing to me how, after starting with just a handful of bike trips in the US and Canada, we now have about 350 biking, hiking, multi-adventure, winter, active cruise, and family trips in over 50 countries on 5 continents (and Antarctica coming in 2019).
Expanding Backroads internationally is a tale of necessity, entrepreneurialism, and of course, adventure! My bet is that many of you will relate, as you might be growing your own companies, trying to connect with someone from a very different culture, or fondly remembering your own international adventures.
The global journey
Originating in 1979 as a very small company with just a few employees, we were very seasonal. As in, we’d run out of money every winter like clockwork. Then we added Baja and New Zealand, and as our international trips boomed in popularity, I was happy to do the original research and lead or take as many trips as possible.
On an early Peru trip, I did my typical, “I want to go at my own pace” thing, separated from the group with three other intrepid souls, and we ended up hauling our bikes on our shoulders over goat paths to make it to the hotel. In South Africa, a 12-mile run on a game preserve seemed like the right thing to do. The lodge insisted on sending a worried guide in a jeep to trail my every stride… OK, so maybe I won’t do that again! In Ecuador, I needed to leave a trip early, but we couldn’t get to the airport because the roads were barricaded by indigenous people rebelling against the government. As a protestor approached our car carrying a gasoline can, the trip leader threw the car in reverse and sped away over the craziest dirt roads to the local military base. She talked my way onto a cargo plane, so I hopped on, harnessed myself to the wall, and enjoyed the bumpy ride out.
When scouting, researching and refining new Backroads trips, we’re bound to find ourselves in situations we’ve never encountered before. And that continues to this day. I always tell myself that right when I think I’ve seen it all, I’ll be smacked in the face by a fun reminder of how wrong I am… even in places we have traveled for decades.
Soaking in the people and the place
I think one of the reasons our international trips are so successful is that they let our guests see different countries in such an authentic way. Guests can be as close and as real to the place, people, culture and natural history as they want to be. With other forms of travel, you’re just not able to do that. And while Backroads is group travel, once you’re on foot or on bike out there during the day, it’s as individual as you want it to be (although I’d stay away from taking a run alone on a game preserve with big cats and the like!).
I’ve been on lots of trips and it seems there are always wonderful moments–somewhat serendipitous–that aren’t necessarily planned by Backroads. In fact, many of them just happen because you stumble upon people and situations.
For example, last winter I visited Thailand with my daughter. Here we were on a group vacation, but most of the time we were riding by ourselves. We would often turn off the main road to wander small paths through fields or stop at schools along the way because we both love kids and my daughter wanted to photograph them. What ended up happening every time was the head of the school would come out, we’d exchange pleasantries and we’d end up having lunch with the kids. You just can’t plan real connections like that, and you can only experience them by leaving the beaten path.
More than just a vacation
Over the decades and around the world, Backroads has changed how travel is possible. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. My wife Liz and I have been able to introduce our family to so many places and people. And as our kids grow older, I see how enriched they’ve been by participating in what we do.
I think the world is improved by people who travel, especially when far from the masses of over-tourism. Our guests see things in a way that is very enhancing to the overall human perspective and return home with a more expansive perspective. When we’re outside our own environment, meeting people from completely different worlds, we learn to appreciate the great diversity our world has to offer. And interestingly, the more we experience other cultures, the more we find in common with our fellow human beings.
As I was writing this blog, I literally just received an email from Marybeth, a guest recently back from our Secret Provence bike trip, who said this: “The most important aspect of the trip is the window it gave all of us into a different culture and different point of view and the way the journey expanded our horizons. I don’t know of anything that could be more vitally important in our current times. Thank you for creating a company that ultimately opens people’s minds to other ways of seeing the world.” I could not have said it better!
Opening up more of the world to active travel
There are so many more places to explore actively! We’re looking at central Europe in general (again!), like Poland, Hungary and Romania. We’re researching the Baltic region, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. We’ll certainly do more in Africa, in countries like Namibia & Zimbabwe, Zanzibar and Zambia. We’re adding a new bike trip in Chile that touches the coast and explores the wine country. We finally have a multi-adventure trip in Brazil. In our own backyard, we’re excited to take guests to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in Alaska. Did you know it’s America’s largest national park? With fewer visitors, by far! That’s just to name a few.
We’ve grown exponentially over the years. And the more we see of the world, the more we want to share it with our guests in an immersive and personal way. There’s no end to the possibilities.