Gigi Lau Wing-chi's five-day trip to Taipei had nothing to do with rest or recreation. Curiosity about Taiwan's volatile and deeply divided voters is what spurred the landscaping assistant to sign up for a tour last year to observe the island's fiercely contested presidential elections. 'We have yet to have our own general election, so I wanted to see how it's done and see what democracy is like,' she says. Organised by the Roundtable Community, a political consciousness-raising group, the tour involved an intense itinerary that took Lau, 24, and about 30 others to political rallies, campaign headquarters, television polling centres and meetings with watchdog groups and officials such as the deputy mayor of Taipei. The mood in the city was electrifying, she recalls, with supporters clogging the streets. 'I was awed by how fervently the people showed their support for their party and candidates.' Hongkongers keen to gain more insight and knowledge from their travels are beginning to turn to specialised tours that offer immersion in a chosen field, with well thought-out itineraries and knowledgeable guides. Charles Lee Yee-keung, founder of eco-travel site HKTraveler.com, says demand for educational tours has been growing, although such trips still make up only a fraction of holidays. 'We first organised [specialist] tours for people training to be eco-tourism professionals, but regular tourists are becoming more open-minded and more are trying out these tours,' he says. Travel with an eye on learning usually costs more (expert guides don't come cheap), but participants don't seem to mind paying extra for a more intellectually rewarding experience. 'I'm tired of travel that revolves only around eating, shopping and sightseeing,' says investment manager Wilson Yam Kam-shing. 'I want to explore my interest in the countryside in greater depth.' Yam, who has joined customised tours from birdwatching visits in Guangdong to hiking trips in Taiwan, was struck by his guides' erudition and professionalism. A 2006 expedition to the Shishan Volcanic Cluster Geopark in Hainan, for instance, was led by geologist Ng Chun-yeong, who brought along a mainland colleague for expert input. 'Our guides explained everything about the volcanoes - from how they were formed to how they shaped the scenery and ecology,' says Yam. The guidance of naturalist Samson So Ngai-hung on an HK Traveler birdwatching tour to Nanling National Forest in northern Guangdong proved so inspiring that Yam has since taken up the hobby. 'He taught us how to recognise birds in motion and distinguish them by their calls. You can't do it on your own or just from consulting guidebooks,' Yam says. 'It's not only hard to reach remote places on your own, it also takes longer to discover the highlights. A good guide makes all the difference and helps you make the most of the experience.' Keen traveller Joanne Kwok Hei-man set aside her aversion to organised tours to join expeditions to the interior of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo and to Kenya. What swayed her, though, wasn't the promise of adventure, even though she enjoyed trekking in the rainforests of Borneo and hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the opportunity to better understand an ecologically sensitive corner of the world and to help preserve it. On their 2006 visit to Kenya, Kwok and about 20 others spent two days building a school extension in a remote village. Last year, between exploring karst formations and jungles around Mount Mulu on her 11-day trip to Malaysia, she also helped renovate the longhouse of an Iban community. 'For me, travel is about gaining knowledge and new experiences. I've always been concerned about environmental issues, so I found these trips fascinating,' says Kwok, a secondary schoolteacher. 'I like travelling on my own, but I am too busy to plan trips to [such remote places] because they take a lot of time and energy. Besides, they may be too much to handle on my own.' That's how she signed up for the annual Mighty Rovers expeditions organised by outdoor activities consultancy Hong Kong Discovery. The themes and destinations are selected because they help illustrate the impact of climate change, says Miriam Lee Man-ting, its project manager. Kenya was chosen, for instance, because the snow cap on Mount Kilimanjaro has been shrinking over the past 20 years and it was a chance to see how this has affected tree cover and led to continual drought in surrounding villages, she says. This summer, the programme will take a group of 10 people on an Arctic tour devised by polar researcher Rebecca Lee Lok-sze and her team. 'It's an accessible route that enables participants to observe the wildlife and landscape and to visit the research station set up by Chinese scientists,' says Miriam Lee. Mighty Rovers expeditions are organised to support two charities: Rebecca Lee's Polar Museum Foundation, and Care Action, which funds the construction of schools for disadvantaged mainland children. In addition to the costs of the trip, the participants are also asked to raise at least HK$5,000 for the charities. For the Roundtable Community, outings are framed with a concern for social justice. They range from studying abandoned building projects in Guangdong to visits to learn about Iran's cultural heritage. This summer, the group plans a walkabout in Dongguan to learn how the city is being affected by widespread factory closures in the wake of the global economic slump. 'Travel is an opportunity to sharpen your mind and engage with issues that you care about,' says Roundtable business development manager Jacky Fung Chi-ching. The group is affiliated with a number of scholars and experts, whose contacts have helped secure entry to significant sites and organisations. Having cross-strait relations expert Benson Wong Kwok-wai on its advisory board, for instance, was a boon in smoothing the way for the Taipei trip. The heritage visit to Iran was organised in collaboration with travel consultant Timothy Kwai Ting-kong, who has a special interest in the Middle East. 'Iran's ancient civilisation is one of the oldest in the world and its monuments some of the best preserved. They're extraordinary,' says Kwai. Besides major sites in Tehran, the group also visited the ruins at Persepolis, the tomb of Cyrus the Great near Shiraz - a World Heritage site - and the enormous Naghsh-e Jahan square in Esfahan. 'We spend time at these places - we don't just take a few snaps and leave,' says Kwai. 'The participants hold discussions about their impressions of Iran, which usually contradict the stereotypical image of the country as a dangerous place rife with religious conflict. We also discuss Persian culture, the role of women there, and Iran's place in the world now.' Cultural interest groups have also come up with their own itineraries in collaboration with travel agents. See Network, a group advocating sustainable development, led trips to Shenzhen and Seoul last year to learn about their architecture and urban planning trends. See Network director Patsy Cheng Man-wah says 10 people each paid about HK$7,500 for the five-day tour of Seoul, which included visits to Heyri Art Village and Paju Book City outside the capital, vibrant communities known respectively for their high concentration of galleries and publishers. Through contacts in local architectural circles, they were also able to meet Korean architects. 'The idea is not to see and do touristy things. That's how I travel and I just want to share my interesting experiences with others,' Cheng says. Describing the tours as 'personalised, in-depth and spontaneous', Cheng says, 'It's not for everyone, but I believe it can give you a genuine understanding of a place and its people.'