A dusty shoulder bone rises from the chalky soil of Wyoming, apparently newly discovered. A scalpel stands next to it to indicate size – this is clearly an impressive, intact fossil. It is part of a Diplodocus skeleton, which is currently being excavated from a secret location in the Cowboy State. Surprisingly, however, it’s not just paleontologists who are discovering it. Tourists are also getting in on the action.
These are guests of The Luminaire, a London-based “tour company for the deeply curious.” In fact, curiosity certainly helps on this kind of journey. Like a deep pocket: joining the dig costs £28,485 per person. But then again, the guests aren’t exactly in the slums. Nights are spent in a “luxury tented camp,” and there’s champagne on ice waiting for budding paleontologists. Free time can be customized, with stargazing sessions, fancy dinners, and helicopter rides all potential add-ons.
It’s part of a new wave of experiential travel for the one percent. No longer satisfied with spa breaks and beach views, the ultra-rich demand travel opportunities where they can be competitive at the golf club. And so, the ability to don your shoes and “cosplay” as something (or someone) shocking opens up a whole new way of traveling.
For example, if you deign to visit the Maldives again, you can pretend it’s for reef regeneration instead of the massage menu, as many resorts now have an on-site marine biologist who offers day trips to the Indian Ocean. Luxury travel company Black Tomato organizes customized “field trips,” based on a client’s preference for history, sustainability, earth sciences, or the arts. Those who book with personalized operator Scott Dunn, meanwhile, can take a guided trip through the back streets of Tokyo to learn about photography from an expert.
That’s not to say that these trips are there purely for show-off. The Luminaire has twinned with the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a research institute in the Netherlands that specializes in life sciences. Institute geologists and paleontologists have already begun the process of excavating Jurassic remains in Wyoming; guests simply join them halfway through the dig, for three mornings of “active contribution.”
Adam Sebba, chief executive of The Luminaire, insists that the company’s Wyoming trip involves real research. In fact, he scoffs that a “preliminary discovery” has revealed something scientifically remarkable. “I don’t like to use hyperbole, but I really think the guests could be taking part in a scientific discovery that furthers humanity’s understanding of dinosaurs.” That feels like a big statement: Recent advances in paleontology have helped detail extinction events and evolutionary theory. Could a group of tourists make an equivalent discovery?
Sebba thinks so. Professor Dr. Anne Schulp, the paleontologist who led the dig, was part of a team that discovered the world’s most intact T-Rex skeleton in 2014. She certainly adds legitimacy to the effort. It’s a selling point, too.
“I think by partnering with Naturalis, we have created a travel brand that will compete with National Geographic,” says Sebba. This is a bold statement; the latter has been hosting educational tours since 1999. They’re not exactly a snip in and of themselves, though it’s not exactly the distinct portion of your salary that The Luminaire is asking for. Take your trip to Monument Valley in the US – a breeze at £4,550 for a week of travel.
What Sebba does not say, however, is that these trips are somewhat drier. On The Luminaire voyages, luxury is king. “Obviously there’s a lot of free time – afternoons will be spent on really personalized activities, whether it’s fly fishing, rappelling, hiking, wolf tracking or other activities.” So, not exactly conferences with a PhD student in an echoing back room.
You will admit, however, that The Luminaire is aimed at a slightly different audience. “I would say we’re more like a real-life lecture than a university lecture,” he says, referencing the popular online education platform. Digging through the undergrowth for a long-lost beetle, this is not it. “We don’t see ourselves as a citizen science project.”
Regardless of how unsexy “citizen science” may seem, it is essentially what dinosaur digging is. The practice essentially takes a serious research project and adds members of the public, often to help record a host of rather mundane results: monitoring water quality in a given area, for example, or the timing of life cycles. of the plants. Sometimes this is done at scale to get as many results as possible. In other cases, such as with The Luminaire, a small number of participants essentially pay to participate.
Professor Abby Kinchy is a scholar at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US who studies the impact of citizen science trips. she thinks they are not necessarily a negative force “It creates opportunities for new kinds of scientific knowledge among the public,” he says. “But I do think we also need to make sure that people aren’t using the idea of citizen science in a superficial or even misleading way.”
The impact of some trips, such as cruises to Antarctica, strikes a difficult balance between scientific objectives and environmental burden. “Could the trip itself be causing damage to the ecosystem or to a society? Who will benefit from it? she asks.
The answer is not always dire. Thirty percent of The Luminaire’s proceeds from this trip go to Naturalis, at a time when funding for academic research is hard to come by. Professor Kinchy says higher-priced trips, which attract “privileged, college-educated, wealthy people”, can be extremely beneficial to public institutions that would otherwise struggle to raise money. “It also makes science photogenic, which can lead to a more positive public perception of the scientific enterprise.” Camping in the remote wilderness of Wyoming is certainly an awesome vacation spot, too.
Naturally, there is a sense of rivalry among educational tour operators. Biosphere Expeditions, which operates in Australia, sees itself as a ‘genuine’ citizen science offering. CEO Dr. Matthias Hammer isn’t specific, but describes luxury companies as a “fig leaf.” “People come, look and go back to their champagne and luxury accommodation,” he says.
Seba disagrees. “Guests will do everything from the most delicate brushing of the bones to placing them in the drywall so they can be removed. I gather they’ll even be allowed to use the jackhammer to clear the rocks. You couldn’t get more hands-on than that.”
Perhaps, then, it’s inevitable that luxury science travel will suddenly be the flavor of the moment. It allows the super-rich to feel like “miniature scientists” and, with the notion of responsible tourism gaining ground among even the most glitzy travelers, vacations have zeitgeist appeal.
Sebba wishes to emphasize that the trip is not just for the participants either. “It brings research and projects to life that would not have been possible,” she says. “And that benefits everyone.”
“If a skeleton is discovered and dug up by a commercial organization, it could be lost to humanity. In this way, the fossils are preserved and placed in a public institution for posterity and learning. There’s that, of course, and the cash injection can’t hurt either. But are the tourists making that discovery or are they just there for the ride?
The paleontological journey of the Luminaria is priced at £28,485 per person, based on a party of four guests. A fixed departure group tour for eight people starts at £14,000 per person, with tour dates available on request