Why you should care
The concept is spreading amid an epidemic of loneliness.
Former history teacher Charlie Morton was struggling to find a job. It was late 2008 and the economy had tanked. One day, he stumbled upon a website offering to take single men to foreign countries with the goal of helping them find a wife. Morton was hooked, and his fascination led him to launch International Love Scout, a company that covers news and trends related to the international dating business. A decade later, he’s going a step further: In 2020, his company will start offering its own “romance tours.”
Romance tours first emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with companies matching wealthy and lonely middle-aged or elderly men from the West with women from Russia or Ukraine trying to leave their countries and find a better life elsewhere. For much of the past three decades, the industry has remained focused on former Soviet republics, even as it has faced allegations of human trafficking and of mistreating women. That image has begun to change, with companies intent on remaking a controversial industry focusing on professionalism while expanding their geographic footprint.
Romance tour companies have begun exploring trips to China, Southeast Asia and South America. A Foreign Affair, the market leader and one of the oldest companies in the business, is offering trips to the Philippines, Thailand and the Chinese cities of Chongqing and Shenzhen. It also has trips planned to Peru, Colombia and, of course, Ukraine. Where it once had few real rivals, the company now faces competition from a slew of new romance tour operators that are also targeting fresh markets such as China and Thailand. Chinese Brides is one such newcomer, as is Doves of Love, which offers tours to the Philippines, Thailand and China. Anastasia Date, which has a smartphone app, is focused on matching Western European men with Serbian, Hungarian and Bulgarian women.
Romance tours are as good a way to meet new people as any other way.
Charlie Morton, founder, International Love Scout
These companies are going out of their way to demonstrate transparency — even as they jostle to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Romance tours typically involve a group of men visiting cities and attending parties where they interact with women looking for Western partners. Last year, A Foreign Affair launched an “executive” subscription: Members receive personalized services, including a consultant who will help identify women the customer would like to meet and then arrange one-on-one meetings. International Love Scout is gearing its new trips toward “shy men” who may struggle on typical romance tours. All of these companies are targeting a slice of the $2 billion online dating market.
“Even though there is negative perception, romance tours are as good a way to meet new people as any other way,” Morton says.
There are reasons for those “negative perceptions,” though. Research by Donna Hughes, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Rhode Island, has shown that many of these companies advertise tours by emphasizing sexual and racial stereotypes and by peddling photos of seminude women.
John Adams, founder of A Foreign Affair, argues that romance tour companies are far from being the international prostitution or sex trafficking rackets that their critics contend they are. Adams recently conducted a seminar in Florida that was attended by more than 30 men. “They have all come offline to understand what we can do for them,” he says. “We have a very hands-on approach.” Adams’ own story is his strongest sales pitch: He met his wife, Tanya, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1998 at a social event.
Some industry observers are noticing another shift. An increasing number of young men are signing up for the tours, says Julia Meszaros, an assistant professor of sociology at Texas A&M University-Commerce who has researched the romance tours industry — hard numbers, however, are hard to come by. And men from a greater range of countries, not just the West, are also exploring romance tours. “They look at this as an opportunity to travel to a different country and also meet women,” Meszaros says. A Foreign Affair’s Adams says Indian men have also expressed interest.
There’s even industry change in Ukraine, where romance tours first started, a quarter of a century ago. Natali Koval’s Kyiv-based agency, Marriage by Natali, is “more [about] organic matchmaking,” says the 41-year-old. She says her market research suggests women want a man who is close to their age and economic stability, someone who will be a good husband and “not just a free ticket to the States.” Koval has a psychologist interview the women, to try to determine whether they’re genuinely interested in getting married. She then sends profiles of those women to men who’ve written to her, if she thinks they might be a good match.
There’s no getting away from the industry’s deeply misogynistic and sexist underpinnings. Even those who present themselves as being at the frontier of change, such as Koval, are unwilling to embrace matchmaking involving LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people. “This is just for straight men and women,” Koval says. “I believe in the traditional family.”
With the loneliness epidemic spreading — the number of Americans living alone has increased by 10 percent in the past decade — the need for companionship will only grow. For romance tour companies that means an expanding market. As far as they’re concerned, the controversies can wait.