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A tour operator typically combines tour and travel components to create a package holiday. They advertise and produce brochures to promote their products, holidays and itineraries.
The most common example of a tour operator's product would be a flight on a charter airline plus a transfer from the airport to a hotel and the services of a local representative, all for one price. Niche tour operators may specialise in destinations, e.g. Italy, activities and experiences, e.g. skiing, or a combination thereof.
The original raison d'être of tour operating was the difficulty for ordinary folk of making arrangements in far-flung places, with problems of language, currency and communication. The advent of the internet has led to a rapid increase in self-packaging of holidays. However, tour operators still have their competence in arranging tours for those who do not have time to do DIY holidays, and specialize in large group events and meetings such as conferences or seminars. Also, tour operators still exercise contracting power with suppliers (airlines, hotels, other land arrangements, cruise companies and so on) and influence over other entities (tourism boards and other government authorities) in order to create packages and special group departures for destinations that might otherwise be difficult and expensive to visit.
The three major tour operator associations in the U.S. are the National Tour Association (NTA), the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), and the American Bus Association (ABA). In Europe, there are the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), and in the UK, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). The primary association for receptive North American inbound tour operators is the Receptive Services Association of America (RSAA).
- S.J. Mathes (1849?–1927), an early tour operator
- Trafalgar Tours, one of the pioneers in international coach tours, began in London in 1947.
- Contiki Tours, The pioneers in international coach tours for 18-35 year olds.
- Australian Pacific Touring, An Australian-based tour operator that provides tours worldwide.
- Group Voyagers, the world's largest escorted tour company featuring Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways.
- Artisans of Leisure, a luxury travel company offering private cultural tours in destinations around the world.