Elderhostel, a non-profit network with a lip-smacking smorgasbord of live-in academic programs for travelers 60 and older, served up 265,000 courses last year. And its average participant came back for a fourth helping.
Since its founding in 1975, Elderhostel's enrollments have increased 15 percent to 25 percent a year, from 220 to last year's 265,000. Now other organizations and tour operators are taking note of this seemingly insatiable hunger of mature Americans for deepening their learning as they travel.
It's clear that increasing numbers of mature travelers no longer want simply to stare out the bus window at Boston's Old North Church or spend an hour wandering the Louvre in Paris. Instead, they want to learn about the historic, cultural and even scientific aspects of what they are seeing -- or how to paint and sculpt themselves.
Elderhostel meets that demand with low-cost, short-term residential academic programs at more than 1,600 institutions in 43 countries, primarily in the United States and Canada. Although participants must be at least 60, spouses or companions may be as young as 50.
Despite the college-cafeteria food and dormitory living with shared bathrooms in many cases, Elderhostelers keep coming back for more. The average participant has attended four sessions.
While Elderhostel is administered from offices in Boston, individual institutions design courses and provide the faculty. Normally, a maximum of 30 to 40 Elderhostelers arrive at the campus on a Sunday afternoon to take three courses and enjoy extracurricular activities over the next week. Overseas programs last two to four weeks.
A sampler of topics from a recent 108-page catalog gives an idea of Elderhostel's all-you-can-eat intellectual buffet: outer space, falconry, dulcimer playing, clowning and mime, nature photography, meteorology, genealogy, Greek tragedy, Zen Buddhism, presidential humor, the life of a lobster, cowboy art, jazz, computers, history and archaeology.
Plenty of offerings involve exercise or outdoor activities: Tai-chi, bicycling, dog mushing, golf, downhill and cross country skiing and bird-watching. There are programs for travelers with recreational vehicles -- including one that caravans portions of the Oregon Trail -- and another in which Elderhostelers explore Lake Powell from houseboats.
Overseas opportunities, many of which include home-stays, are growing in number and scope. In Bali, one of the newest destinations, hostelers stay in the artists' colony at Ubud. In Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, a former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, invites the senior students to his home.
Elderhostel took off like a Fourth of July rocket after its founding by Martin P. Knowlton, then in his 50s and fresh from a four-year walking tour of Europe. Impressed by youth hostels there as well as the active roles older people play in European communities, he and a University of New Hampshire friend put together a program designed to use education as a pathway to more meaningful later years.
In 1975, Elderhostel began with courses at five New Hampshire colleges and universities. Course offerings are now so numerous that Elderhostel issues 10 tabloid-sized catalogs a year. Copies go to public libraries all over the country.
Elderhostelers' average age is 69. About 60 percent are women. Most male participants are married and attend programs with their wives, but married women are almost as likely to go alone or with a friend. The majority have had at least some college education, and more than 90 percent of them watch public television.
Average tuition for a weeklong U.S. program is $250, within reach of many people on fixed incomes. There is a limited amount of assistance to help people who can't afford even this cost, though the money is normally used for programs close to the participant's home, not as a travel grant. Overseas programs vary in price because of air fares and differing lengths.
Included in the cost are food and accommodations -- usually in dormitories, sometimes at lodges, camps or nearby motels or hotels. Also in the package are three courses that meet for one to 1 1/2 hours daily.
Profit-making tour operators have begun to notice the demand these people have for reasonably priced, mind-expanding travel.
Saga Holidays, a specialist in travel programs for people 60 and older, added lecture tours several years ago. The Smithsonian Institution, which like many non-profit organizations has packaged rather high-priced travel-study programs, now is working with Saga to present less expensive educational tours and cruises.
This trend reflects the fact that the current crop of older Americans is the best educated ever, both through schooling and their own reading and experiences. When they're retired or semiretired, they don't travel to relax from high-stress jobs any more, but to tone up their minds and skills.