Summer is here and, thanks to the buoyant economy, Hongkongers are packing their suitcases and heading for overseas holiday destinations like never before. This year, though, many are looking for something more than the conventional fast-paced package tour. They are opting for special interest trips that cater for more sophisticated interests and personalised needs, and this is driving new business and job opportunities for leading travel companies. Lanny Leung Kong-lan, chief executive of Wing On Travel Service, said there was now a burgeoning market for themed tours, with costs and itineraries tailored to suit different groups. The company started providing specialised trips a few years ago, foreseeing the long-term potential, and now offers an attractive alternative to the more traditional or mainstream travel products. 'This is a natural direction for the market to go,' Ms Leung said. 'Many Hong Kong people have travelled far and wide over the years with generic-interest package tours. They are not satisfied any more with the broad, but more rushed and superficial, experiences they offer.' She said that because the majority of people were so busy at work, they treasured their time off and wanted to have holidays that were more fulfilling. Therefore, when they took a break, they were keen to do something that was truly memorable or allowed them to focus on a genuine interest, so that they could return feeling revitalised and perhaps even enlightened. To meet this demand, Wing On had initially concentrated on tapping into what the mainland had to offer, allowing tourists to see more than just the standard sights and scenic spots. The company had collaborated with the Xian city government to organise an annual tour that enabled more than 300 Hong Kong visitors to experience a ceremony emulating the Tang emperor's entry into the city in imperial times. This year, there was also a religious pilgrimage to Mount Emei, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains, to coincide with Buddha's birthday, and next year luxury trains will start running on two routes from Beijing - to Lhasa in Tibet and Lijiang in Yunnan. 'The Xian and Emei tours were unique and very well-received,' Ms Leung said. She said organising the tours had been hard work, but it had definitely paid off, because each tourist had gained knowledge of China's history and culture through first-hand experience. She said tours combining leisure and learning were also becoming popular. Experts such as financial analysts, investment consultants, political commentators and beauticians were invited to pass on their knowledge during evening lectures in the course of the tour. 'Travel is now part and parcel of the modern lifestyle,' Ms Leung said. 'We have to stay alert to ever-changing social needs and lifestyle interests, and quickly create new themes to match them.' She said that this took vision, innovation and an astute sense of the market to stay ahead in a fiercely competitive sector. She saw further potential for short weekend tours, with more employers adopting five-day weeks, and for low-season tours for retirees. Country Holidays caters for travellers who want personalised arrangements or are interested in visiting more offbeat destinations through customised services and a team of knowledgeable consultants and guides. The company, founded in Singapore in 1993, has been in Hong Kong since 2004 and, according to Sharon Heng Lee-sie, who heads the local office, its customer base is about 60 per cent expatriate. 'Our expatriate customers are mostly interested in Asian destinations,' she said. 'Those from Hong Kong tend to go long haul. They like exotic, unusual destinations such as the Middle East, Africa and South America, and want itineraries tailored to their requirements.' The company specialises in cultural, heritage and exploration tours which allow people to learn more about the natural world. 'We do not encourage large groups because that takes the personal touch away from our guiding service and affects the quality of the travel experience,' Ms Heng said. Costs tended to be higher than those for standard package tours, but consumers were willing to pay more if they saw value for money, Ms Heng said. There were plans to hire extra consultants this year to support business expansion. Applicants should be passionate about travelling, be competent researchers and have excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Ms Leung said Wing On had more than 700 staff and planned to take on 50 to 80 recruits in various roles.