Wholesalers

Chernobyl and adventure travel: Explore’s Ben Ittensohn chats brand success

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Less than a year after HBO’s Chernobyl put Pripyat on the map, visits to the region remain strong for Explore Worldwide.

In an August interview with Travel Weekly, general manager Joe Ponte stood by his claim that the popularity of tours to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant will continue to grow over time.

This came as the GM revealed tours there had been the adventure travel company’s fastest-growing over the past five years. Time has certainly proven Ponte right.

As one of the world’s only established and credible wholesalers game enough to visit the decommissioned power plant, Explore is reaping the reward of taking a chance on Pripyat – a gamble that began with tours that started in 2016.

As a matter of fact, based on figures to February, Explore global head of sales Ben Ittensohn told Travel Weekly “Chernobyl is up 31 per cent year on year.”

“Overall for Explore, we see a 66 per cent repeat customer base … which speaks volumes to the product delivery itself.”

Ben Ittensohn is visiting Australia from the UK as part of Adventure World Travel’s WILD Showcase (supplied)

Capitalising on this kind of success seems to be in Explore’s DNA.

As of 2020, the small group adventure specialist is the first United Kingdom-based tour operator to carbon offset all of its trips.

According to Ittensohn, Chernobyl tours – which came into popularity with the release of last year’s HBO series Chernobyl – remain hugely important for the wholesaler.

So much so that Explore continues to regularly expand them: travellers later this year will not only be able to stay within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but also visit reactor no. 3, one of the power plant’s non-exploded reactors.

Speaking to Travel Weekly, Ittensohn said it still amazes him that there has been such a swift rise in popularity to Chernobyl, just 34 years after Pripyat endured the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

“We’re seeing a real interest in those unusual destinations, anywhere from Georgia in Central Asia, to Benin and Togo in West Africa,” he said.

“People are becoming more interested in more unusual trips, because they crave experiences rather than a traditional … holiday.

“Again, taking people to unusual places, when they’ve done trips with us, is a little easier because they’re comfortable with the brand and know what the product is about,” he said.

Adventure travel booming

Active trips to Eastern Europe and the Balkans are among Explore’s most in-demand experiences (iStock.com/stock_colors)

Explore is also celebrating an Australian and New Zealand market success, with a massive 53 per cent increase in active bookings over the last 12 months.

Ittensohn is also proud to say, “21 per cent of people who had travelled with us last year, had done so 10 or more times.”

“We’re needing to continually evolve and bring on new product, because people are doing trip after trip with us,” he said.

The fastest-growing type of experience for Explore, popular active trips now include those to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Silk Road and the five ‘stans.

“What’s driving that [growth] is obviously the support of our trade partners in this market,” he said, adding two “strong” campaigns over January and February had been well supported.

“We hope by the end of the year to put a dedicated [Explore] account manager on to support the account managers that represent us around Australia for Adventure World Travel.”

Safari and South America: Two great tour propositions in the time of COVID-19

In Australia, Explore has seen 47 per cent year on year growth in the market up to February, trajectory that unfortunately is likely to have been arrested due to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Ittensohn declined to comment when asked about the impacts of COVID-19 on Explore, but said “we’ve been affected like everyone else”.

“Where we are fortunate is we’re a global operator with 500 trips to 120 countries,” he said.”We’re fortunate that we can offer credit vouchers to customers who are looking to postpone travels.

“Or for those loyal travellers – they are a little bit more resilient and are looking to another destination instead.”

He insisted that the safety of travellers remains Explore’s “highest priority”, and pointed to many destinations across the world that are still safe to travel to.

“Trips in Africa and safari are still a great proposition at the moment”, he said adding that Explore’s third biggest destination, South America, is also a good option for travellers.

Featured image: ‘Welcome to Pripyat’ sign at Pripyat, Ukraine, near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (iStock.com/svedoliver)

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