For students seeking a break between school and university or at a later stage in their career, a gap year offers the opportunity to do something completely out of the range of their normal experience. Travelling to distant lands and/or participating in adventure activities is usually a key requirement. However, the trip can encompass a variety of different types of experience, including volunteering, paid work, work experience and learning the native language of the host country.
Specialist gap year travel companies are positioned to meet the needs of such students. However, many language schools have also proved adept at tapping into the market for adventure by offering programmes that combine language study with adventure trips, as well as those that add on a period of volunteering or work experience after completing a language course.
The extent to which language schools are able to succeed in this is, quite naturally, dependent to a significant extent upon their location. While those in easy reach of locations traditionally favoured by travellers on the adventure trail are, of course, best placed to do this, language schools in perhaps less exotic destinations can still cater for the need for adventure through providing sporting and other exciting, or unusual, activities.
Malta is a popular destination for water-based adventure, and language schools frequently offer programmes that combine language learning with either a package of different adventure activities or English plus programmes, such as diving or snorkelling.
Mark Ransley, Director and Principal of Maltese language school, EEC Language Centre in Pieta, believes that, considering cultural discovery as well as water sports, adventure would be the primary motivation of as many as 80 per cent of EEC’s students. However, at the English Language Academy (ELA) in Sliema, Louiseanne Mercieca, stresses that the majority of students come to the school with the primary intention of improving their English, while a small percentage may perhaps be more motivated by the adventure aspect of the programme.
Nevertheless, “Offering an exciting programme is of the utmost importance,” she observes, “since students also want to enjoy their stay in Malta, and participating in these adventure activities is a very good way for them to practise and improve their English.” Hence, a range of English plus programmes are available, including diving, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and horse-riding. “At ELA we believe there is great potential for this market,” Mercieca underlines. “We believe everyone wants to experience adventure in their travels, including educational travel.”
Travellers to Canada are attracted by the idea of the great outdoors. Hence, for 60 per cent of students attending Archer College in Toronto, ON, Canada, adventure represents the primary motivation, especially during the summer and winter seasons, according to spokesperson, Regina Popmarkova. Popular with students from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, China and Turkey, the school is ideally located for exploring the rest of Canada.
According to staff member, Julie Pinho, French agency, Languages & Travel offers working holiday visa programmes in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and, successfully promotes English plus ski, English plus snowboarding and English plus mountain biking programmes in Canada, as well as scuba diving in the Australian Great Barrier Reef, in its working holiday brochures. “These programmes are for people who want to begin their trip…by attending English classes and having fun, thanks to these activities,” she comments. “As a result, I guess that most of our clients are planning a gap year in those countries, as most of them are going to stay abroad for six months or one year. A lot of our clients who go to Australia leave France after their baccalaureat diploma or their bachelors/masters [degree].”
Australia and New Zealand are both firmly on the map for gap year travellers, and many language schools capitalise on this advantage by offering a wide range of adventure-based experiences alongside their core language classes. Coromandel Outdoor Language Centre based in Whitianga, New Zealand, is a case in point. Here, Director Maurice Kirby reports that most of the school’s Japanese and Korean students are there as part of a gap year, often taking an English course and then finding a job, with a working holiday visa. Meanwhile, the majority of its Swiss students who are unable to obtain a working holiday visa seem to have quit their jobs, or taken long leave, he observes.
At ABC College of English in Queenstown, New Zealand, Principal, Tricia Lund-Jackson confirms a similar trend. “Many of our students, both from Asia and Europe, are on a gap year, either prior to university, or taking a year out from their university study. We have also noticed a trend in the growing number of students who are taking a year out to consider their future.” She says that they are drawn to the area by the wide array of adventure activities that are available year-round. In line with this, Taupo Language & Outdoor Education Centre in Taupo, New Zealand, has recently begun to market its programmes towards “le gap après le bac” (post-high school gap students) in the New Caledonian market, where the concept of the gap year is starting to take off, comments the school’s Esther McErlain.
At Coromandel, the leading adventure programmes at the moment are horse-riding, kayaking, surfing and paintball, according to Kirby, while ski and snowboarding feature high on the list at Language Schools New Zealand’s Queenstown school, as spokesman, Guy Hughes, observes. Taupo Director, Mary-Rose Blackley, says, “We offer what our region has: ski resorts, rivers for rafting and kayaking, the lake for sailing, fishing, water-skiing [and] mountains for hiking.” Probably 80 per cent of the school’s English-only students come...just to be near the outdoors, she says. Meanwhile, perhaps 15-20 per cent of those enrolling at Language Schools New Zealand in Queeenstown may be motivated primarily by its opportunities for adventure, according to Hughes.
These English plus activities programmes are usually booked for a maximum of four weeks, as “it becomes too tiring after that!” explains Blackley. “However, we also recommend that long-term, full-time students purchase maybe two weeks of the activities programme, so that, if they are here for six to 12 months, they can already have 10 pre-paid activities.”
A significant proportion of the student body at Brown’s English Language School in Brisbane and the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, is made up of adventure travellers, according to Director, Richard Brown. While some book well in advance, he notes that others especially those travelling on a working holiday visa from countries such as France, Italy and Germany will just walk in and ask to start immediately. Most of these come through recommendation. Such students are looking to explore the west coast of Australia after completing their English studies, says Brown, and, while at the school, they take advantage of its English plus surfing and English plus scuba diving programmes.
Meanwhile, in Bunbury, WA, at the West Coast International College of English, adventure travellers are in a minority, but are represented by three distinct groups, according to Director of Studies, Jenny Byatt. The first is students on a working holiday visa, “who want to go where they think nobody has ever been before the whitest sandy beach [or] the deepest rocky gorge... Our English courses are their first stop on their quest to discover the unknown,” she observes.” The second group is students on agricultural exchanges, who want to experience the Australian outback, while finding out about another way of farming and a different way of life; and the third category consists of students who have always dreamed of swimming with dolphins, and come to the college as a way to enter the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre’s dolphin assistance or volunteer programme. For them, the school’s English plus dolphins programme is a major draw.
Likewise, South and Central America consistently draws in gap year travellers and others in search of adventure. Academia de Español Probigua in Antigua, Guatemala, attracts adventure travellers during the summer season, according to Karin Sturm at the school. It does not lay on adventure activities, but offers travel programmes for groups that book language courses. As she highlights, “Antigua is a perfect place for students, as the place is very much alive, well known and popular among young people, and [because] adventure attractions are accessible from [here].” In Brazil, Damar Sandbrand of Diálogo Language School in Salvador da Bahia reports that many students come during their gap year, but, rather than engaging in adventure activities, the majority come to undertake volunteering programmes. “We have never had so many students volunteering, and they usually spend at least three months in Brazil,” he reports. Diálogo does offer surfing weekends alongside its language programmes, but bookings are generally made after arrival, says Sandbrand.
While language schools often capitalise upon the gap year market to attract students onto language plus adventure programmes, there are also gap year providers who have started offering their own language programmes. Venezuela-based Jakera started out as an adventure travel company. It subsequently expanded its operation to include language schools, and started to develop a range of Spanish and adventure travel programmes, as Tim Poullain-Patterson recounts. Today, between 60-70 per cent of its student clients are enrolled on courses that combine learning Spanish with either adventure travel or volunteer work experience, although, says Patterson, adventure remains probably the primary motivation in virtually all cases.
Around 80 per cent of clients are Europeans, mainly British, German, Dutch and Scandinavian, and the average duration of courses here is eight weeks. However, notes Patterson, there is a trend towards longer stays, as exemplified by the growing popularity of its twelve-week and six-month programmes. Students, typically, will then undertake some solo travel elsewhere in South America. Most will book between three-to-five months in advance. However, contrary to the experience of providers elsewhere, Patterson says that the company does see a fair number of walk-in students for its short programmes and trips.
Among its most popular programmes are jungle survival including an introduction to the local flora and fauna and to indigenous peoples, such as the Warao Indians in Orinoco and kayaking trips in Mochima National Park. Recently introduced is an x-class (extreme) six-month programme offering Spanish with adventure travel across Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in order to meet demand from students wishing to travel on after Venezuela.
At Jakera, the market for combined language plus adventure programmes is “huge” according to Patterson, “and seems to be getting bigger”. Today’s financial climate may be inauspicious, but, Kirsten Lillelund of adventure specialist company, Adventure Heart, is upbeat, observing, “There are lots of people who just want to have their once-in-a-lifetime experience. It doesn’t come again.” Language schools that can offer students courses to complement the gap year travel experience are well placed to take advantage.