Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The tourism industry is hoping to keep baby boomers on the go as they enter retirement and convert from business travelers to leisure travelers.

American and international tourism companies must prepare for the aging population as well as keep an eye on the needs of the fastest-growing group of travelers — Generation X, tourism officials said yesterday. They were in the District for the sixth annual Global Travel and Tourism Summit.

“The number of elderly in the world is simply set to explode,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a research associate at the Institute for International Economics.

In the United States, the number of people older than 65 is expected to grow 133 percent by 2050. In comparison, the 16- to 64-year-old age group is expected to grow 25 percent, he said.

“The global demographics are changing at a rapid rate,” said J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Marriott International Inc. in Bethesda. “Baby boomers are now retiring with a lot of money to travel.”

International companies rely on American baby boomers’ travels, too.

The average American visitor to Britain is about 50 to 60, said Alan Parker, chief executive at Whitbread Plc, a British hotel and restaurant chain. As that age group grows, tourism to Britain is likely to increase as well, he said.

“Since 9/11, we’ve seen a depressed U.S. market to London and other places,” Mr. Parker said. “We hope to see some significant growth return this year.”

Baby boomers are the top purchasers of hotel rooms around the world, said Stevan Porter, president of the American hotels of InterContinental Hotels Group Plc. “I would expect that to keep up.”

“But the most rapid-growing consumption group today are the Gen X group … and that has a significant impact on what the shape of our products will look like in the future,” Mr. Porter said, referring to people born between 1971 and 1981 that make up Generation X. “It’s a much more expanded consumer expectation where style, technology and access play a much more different role.”

Baby boomers demand more light in their rooms, showers instead of bathtubs, bright colors and artwork that changes to correspond with the seasons, he said. Generation X likes nearly the same products, plus Internet access and high-tech television.

Some say tourism companies should not put all their eggs in the baby boomers’ basket.

“The last thing a business wants is an aging population,” said Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, an Oakland, Calif., travel guide company that specializes in locations off the beaten path. “You have a bunch of 60-year-olds and in 20 years they’re dead.”

Generation Xers are traveling more than previous generations at the same age, Mr. Wheeler said, and he expects them to continue to travel in growing numbers.

“If you run into a 20-year-old halfway around the world, just the fact that they got halfway around the world at 20 means, of course, they’re going to be staying at the Four Seasons in Bali in 20 years,” he said. “It’s a very important constituency.”

This is the first summit sponsored by the World Travel and Tourism Council to be held in the United States. Previous summits were held in New Delhi and Doha, Qatar.

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