Now a major tour operator is throwing in the towel.
On September 7, TrekAmerica posted a farewell notice on its website.
"We’re incredibly sad to say that due to ongoing uncertainties from COVID, TrekAmerica won’t be continuing to run trips," the notice begins. "As of today, we’re no longer taking bookings. If you already have a booking with us, we’ll be offering a full refund, or you can transfer your booking to a trip with our sister company, Exodus Travels or Exodus Edits."
Founded in 1972, TrekAmerica introduced millions of domestic and international travelers to the iconic sights of the United States over the decades. The hallmarks of the company were affordable pricing, a youthful clientele, and dedicated guides. Small groups, usually around a dozen people, would travel by customized van, pooling their money into a food kitty for meals, and camping out. It was a seminal experience for customers as well as guides.
"The best thing about TrekAmerica was that it was geared towards 18 to 38 year olds," Michael Harding, a senior tour leader from 2000 to 2019, told me. "You sometimes got to take people on their very first trip abroad. What an amazing opportunity it was to open a young person’s eyes to the beauty of travel and especially to the natural wonders of North America. I get emails or messages several times a year from people who still remember a two-week trip we took together 20 years ago and what an impact it had on their outlook. That’s really special."
In recent years, the company was owned by umbrella organization Travelopia, which placed it under the management of Exodus Travels in 2019.
TrekAmerica had been struggling even before the virus stopped all multiday tours.
“The election of Trump deterred many foreigners—and Europeans in particular—from traveling to the U.S. at this time,” said Joseph Spaid, a TrekAmerica guide in 2018 and 2019, when I asked him what he thought had gone wrong with the company.
What's more, the internet has made self-planned travel easier than when TrekAmerica got started.
"Visiting a single or a couple of closely situated cities has never been easier," as Spaid put it. "Just Google top 10 youth hostels, bars, and attractions and you’ve got everything you need to know to explore a city. Trek’s strength was in the overland and cross-country adventures they offered, but they lost market share for these reasons."
Among remaining tour companies in the market, Contiki and G Adventures probably have the closest business models to TrekAmerica's—both offer affordable trips geared toward young travelers. At this stage, Contiki and G Adventures still have numerous departures available for purchase in 2021 and 2022.
But will they and other tour operators be able to negotiate this difficult period? It’s hard to know for sure. So much depends on when travel bans will be lifted and vaccines introduced.
What seems indisputable is that TrekAmerica will be missed.
"The things I learned, the bonds that were forged, the friendships that were made, have lasted a lifetime," says Shirley Fleig, a TrekAmerica guide in the 1980s and a sales associate for the company in the last two years. "Thirty-five years later, I still visit and vacation with past passengers and tour leaders from my days as a TrekAmerica tour leader. Best job I ever had.”