Retirement, retired seniors, the elderly

The geographical approach to tourism links the practice to free time and therefore to its opposite, work, justifying the question “Can one still be a tourist at retirement age?” People in this age group are sometimes referred to as “seniors” or “the elderly”, to avoid using the term “old”. They are a new population group whose integration into tourism took place in the second half of the 20th century, contributing to the deseasonalisation of the practice, as well as to its globalisation.

Tourism remains a plan

In fact, while retirement or the cessation of activities for self-employed persons frees people from work, it does not remove all constraints. In addition to daily requirements like eating, bathing etc., other constraints remain or become even more stringent. No longer required to raise their own children, grandparents are the prime candidates for hosting and caring for grandchildren. What is more, not only do they agree to help but are willing to do more. And the grandchildren being only partly their responsibility, they more easily give in to every whim and commit themselves unduly. Some also engage in community life, where power struggles rival those of the corporate world (Friedberg, 1993). In fact, it is not uncommon for retired people to be busier than working people. Hence, the opportunity to get away for a bit is welcome. Tourism therefore continues.

Freed from timing constraints

In fact, retirement does not put an end to tourism experiences. Quite the opposite. These experiences do not have to be planned at specific times of the year to fit work constraints. Of course, retirement does not change the economic condition of retirees. However, it does narrow down the options affordable to most of them, making the poorest among them even less able to travel. But being able to travel off-season partly compensates for the reduction in their purchasing power. Prices are lower, especially for accommodation. On the other hand, the off-season atmosphere is different, especially in September-October, when tourist spots can feel gloomy, or when the only other tourists are also retirees, which some of them greatly dislike. Autumn can have a feel of being closed for business with maintenance works under way and shops and restaurants closed. May and June are more cheerful, especially in the southern regions, where the weather is already good. Ultimately, in many destinations, thanks to the emergence of retired customers, occupancy has increased from two to six months, even if off-season volume is half that of peak season.  A deseasonalisation of tourist flows can thus be observed.

Latecomers to mass tourism

The large number of older people travelling at a given tourist season is a late feature in the development of mass tourism.  The curve on INSEE’s graph representing holidays taken in 1969 (Ill. 1) still shows a steady decline after the young-adult age group. Conversely, in 1989, a plateau appears from the age of 50 extending to 65-69 years, but retirement at 60 was only introduced in 1981. In 2004, however, the rate remained stable, at over 65%, falling later on for those over 70.

Three factors contributed to this development. On the one hand, the extension of healthy life expectancy means people are staying physically fit for longer to travel. On the other hand, many retirees have disposable financial resources for travelling because their mortgage is paid off and their children are independent. In order for the poorest to continue to travel after retirement, countries like Spain have set up social tourism programmes whereby pensioners pay a few hundred euros for a week anywhere in Spain. Moreover, the generations who reached these ages in the 1990s and 2000s had already experienced tourism in that they had been tourists during their working life and were not willing to stop now. On the contrary, very few of those who reached 60 years of age in 1969, having been born at the beginning of the century, attempted to engage in tourism. Finally, the share of the population working in agriculture was still significant in the 1960s; a demographic that rarely travel because of the time constraints involved in farming.

Ill. 1. Percentage of people take a holiday away from home between 1969 and 2004 (source: INSEE)

Specific practices

Older people have adopted practices. In fact, while they are in their 60s and remain in good health, their behaviour does not change at all. With time on their hands, those who have the financial means even practise tourism more intensely. In particular, they spend the winter in warm destinations, such as Morocco, for three months. On the other hand, from age 70 onwards, the appetite for group travel increases (Caradec et al., 2007). People are physically less robust, and they may be isolated by the loss of a partner. Going on trips with others means they can make new acquaintances. This is especially appealing since the experience is time limited, and one is not obliged to maintain these new relationships if one does not wish to (Caradec et al., 2007).

As a result, a professional sector has developed with dedicated companies and segments supplying comfortable coaches and offering specific services such as transfers or home pick-ups. Tours have also adapted, offering itineraries based on “star” or “daisy” models, with day excursions radiating around a fixed place of accommodation, instead of moving on to a new destination every day. This formula saves on unpacking and repacking suitcases and carrying them to the room or the bus daily. Finally, the programme regularly includes tea dances to encourage socialising.

Philippe VIOLIER


  • Caradec Vincent, Petite Ségolène et Vannienwenhove Thomas, 2007, Quand les retraités partent en vacances. Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, coll. «Le regard sociologique», 256 p.
  • Friedberg Erhard, 1993, Le pouvoir et la règle. Dynamiques de l’Action organisée. Paris, Seuil, 405 p.