Grey pound joins the queue for a gap year with purpose

Dame Judi Dench and Celia Imrie
Dame Judi Dench and Celia Imrie
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A film about a group of retired Britons heading for India reflects a growing trend for adventurous travel later in life. Sarah O’Meara reports.

If you can remember the global travel industry of the late Seventies and early Eighties, then you probably didn’t take a gap year.

Back then, if you wanted to attempt adventurous, mind-expanding international travel, you would have to fight an army of holiday reps who didn’t expect anyone to come back from a foreign trip with anything more than a suntan and a bottle of some local brew.

However, priorities have changed in the last 30 years. A desire for life-changing travel experiences has seen teenagers heading off to every corner of the globe, and the same impulse is now fuelling the travel market that serves the older age group.

In the new film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Dame Judi Dench plays a widowed retiree, Evelyn, who’s looking for a second chance after she realises her pension won’t go far in Britain.

Like Dame Judi’s character, after a decades of full-time work Heloise Kareem was 70 when she decided to head to India in search of a new challenge.

“It’s time for agencies to start tailoring placements to make the most of the skills and experience older volunteers have to offer,” says Heloise, who spent four months teaching abroad.

“Gap years might usually be associated with 18-year-olds seeking adventure before settling down to further study. However, there are gappers at the other end of the spectrum, seeking a gap between work and retirement.

“I am one of this new generation of retired people, who have spent most of their lives in full-time work but are still healthy and energetic and not ready to settle into a round of bridge parties and evening classes.”

While often unflatteringly referred to as “denture venturers” or “Saga louts”, the grey pound is much sought after by the travel industry. While 18 to 24-year-olds spend an average of £3,000 to £4,000 on a gap year, those in retirement part with £5,000 and for many the first trip is just the start.

“Our clients love the idea of broadening their horizons, while giving something back to the communities they visit,” says Graham Edgeley, a founding director of Village Ways, a socially-minded travel company set up five years ago with the retirement market in mind. “It’s definitely a trend. These are people who might have final salary pensions, have seen their properties soar in value and now feel quite well off.

“They’ve also got their health, and children have gone on gap years, and they’re thinking: ‘We should get out there’.”

Set up to improve the lives of impoverished communities via sustainable tourism, Village Ways runs walking tours in the far-flung reaches of India and Ethiopia.

“When our groups come back they are ebullient. It’s the antithesis of mass tourism. There’s a fascination with seeing a part of India that’s not part of these rolling tours, where you hop on and off the coach at each palace,” says Graham. “Our main market is 50-70 years and we’re expanding.”

According to a survey by Saga, nearly two thirds of its customers didn’t travel abroad on holiday when they were younger, but 71 per cent wish they had been given the chance and are now making up for lost opportunities.

“While younger people still take the majority of our placements, we are getting a lot of older volunteers going away,” says Ian Birbeck, marketing manager for gap year and volunteering company Projects Abroad. “We had one chap whose son was doing a teaching course in China, so he decided to go to Romania to teach kids. It was a case of: ‘Well... if the kids are doing it, let me have an opportunity’.”

Similarly Saga says the gap year trend is definitely being taken to the next level by parents and grandparents, who are often acting as trailblazers for new destinations away from the well-trodden tourist trails.

Three years ago, recently retired Silvia Russenberger signed up to volunteer with a conservation project in Africa and despite initial reservations has no regrets about the trip, which she describes as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I was worried that at 66 I wouldn’t be up to the task of volunteering, but all my concerns vanished as soon as I arrived,” she says. “Many of the animals had been targeted by poachers and knowing I could play even just a small part in alleviating their suffering made the whole experience unforgettable

“Doing something with a purpose is incredibly fulfilling. It was a real privilege to travel to Africa and these kind of adventures do give your life new meaning.”