Why you should care

The concept, which first emerged in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, is now spreading across Asia and Latin America amid an epidemic of loneliness. 

OZY's Love Curiously explores the many facets of romance and commitment.There's more to love than you ever imagined. OZY's Love Curiously explores the many facets of romance and commitment.

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 websites promising to take single men to foreign countries with the aim of helping them find a bride. Morton was hooked. He launched International Love Scouts, a company that covers news and trends related to the international dating business. Now, a decade later, he’s going a step further. In 2020, his firm will offer its own “romance tours” for the first time.

Morton’s no exception. Romance tours first emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with firms matching wealthy and lonely middle aged or older men from the West with women from Russia or Ukraine trying to escape their countries and find a better life elsewhere. And 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. Now, that’s changing, with a dash of professionalism and a fast-expanding geographic footprint promising to remake a controversial industry.

Romance tour companies are for the first time exploring trips for their customers to China, Southeast Asia and even South America. A Foreign Affair, the market leader and one of the oldest firms in the business, is now taking trips to Philippines, Thailand and the Chinese cities of Chongqing and Shenzhen. It also has trips planned to Peru, Colombia, the Philippines — and of course Ukraine — by January 2020. Where it had few real rivals until recently, the company now faces competition from a slew of other new romance tour operators also targeting fresh markets such as China and Thailand. Chinese Brides is an example, as is Doves of Love which offers tours to the Philippines, Thailand and China. Anastasia Date, which now has an app for smartphones, is focusing on helping Western European men meet Serbian, Hungarian and Bulgarian women.

Romance tours are as good a way to meet new people as any other way.

Charlie Morton, International Love Scouts

Meanwhile, these firms are also going out of their way to demonstrate transparency — even as they jostle to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Normal romance tours involve a group visiting cities, attending parties where they interact with women looking for Western partners. Last year, A Foreign Affair launched an “executive” subscription where members get personalized services, including a consultant who will help identify women the customer wants to date, and set up one-on-one meetings with them. And International Love Scouts says it’s targeting its new trips at “shy men” who struggle on normal romance tours. They’re all 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 tells me.

That “negative perception” has reasons, though. Research by Donna Hughes from the University of Rhode Island has shown ithat many of these platforms advertise for tours by emphasizing sexual and racial stereotypes, and by peddling semi-nude pictures of the women.

John Adams, founder of A Foreign Affair, however contests the notion that romance tour companies are effectively international prostitution or trafficking rackets. Far from it, says the head of the Phoenix-based firm. He’s traveling to Florida to conduct a seminar for 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.” His own story is his strongest sales pitch. Adams met his wife Tanya in St. Petersburg in Russia in the summer of 1998, he tells me, during a social event.

Some industry observers say they’re noticing another shift: now, many young men enlist for the tours too, says Dr. Julia Meszeros from Texas A&M University-Commerce, who has researched on the romance tours industry, though hard numbers aren’t available. And men from a greater range of countries — and not just the West — are now exploring romance tours. “They look at this as an opportunity to travel to a different country and also meet women,” she says. Adams too says that he has had some interest from Indian men as well.

There’s change in the air in the industry even in Ukraine, where romance tours first started a quarter of a century ago. Natalie Koval’s Kiev-based agency, Marriage by Natali, is “more [about] organic matchmaking,” says the 41-year-old. She says her market research suggests women want someone with the almost same age, economic stability, and someone who can be a good husband and “not just a free ticket to the States.” Koval hires a psychologist to interview the women, to try and determine if they’re genuinely interested in getting married. Then, she sends profiles of those women to men who’ve written to her, if she thinks they’re a good match.

There’s no getting away from the industry’s deeply misogynistic and sexist underpinnings. And even those at the frontier of change, such as Koval, are unwilling to embrace matchmaking involving LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. “This is just for straight men and women,” she says. “I believe in the traditional family.”

But with the loneliness epidemic only spreading — the number of Americans living alone has grown by 10 percent in the past decade — the need for companionship will only grow. For romance tour firms that means an expanding market. As far as they’re concerned, the controversies can wait.

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