It sounded like yet another kooky Japanese fad: Sending stuffed toys on vacation. The first “toy travel agency” debuted in Tokyo in 2010, running local tours for clients who wanted to live vicariously through their plush animals.
But perhaps this trend wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan. Japan now has several successful agencies that take mascots all around the country, as well as overseas. And Europe has even joined the fad too—a few “toy travel” companies have popped up, including ones in Paris, Barcelona, and in the unlikely city of Warsaw.
The owner of Poland’s Panda Tours, Agnieszka, was inspired by a TV report on the Japanese phenomenon. It dawned on her that this whimsical business had meaningful possibilities. “Many tours for humans are too expensive, and some people can’t travel due to illnesses or physical restrictions,” she explains. “But they might have a fondness for a stuffed animal, and can experience the world through them instead.”
Panda Tours, which began this past spring, is named after her favorite bear, who “leads” the excursions. The cheapest package costs US $35 with shipping, and it is a tour to Warsaw. The company also offers trips around Europe, such as to Berlin, Norway, and London.
Agnieszka says her client base is growing, and she gets requests for customized itineraries from around the world. Uniquely, Panda Tours also runs an educational program for students. “We offer low prices to classrooms, and teachers can send one large parcel of toys,” she explains. “The cuddly animals help the children learn about geography, history and English in a creative way, such as via social media.”
I understood the appeal of a toy tour because I always wished my Scottish Fold cat could join me on my trips. I knew my friends and family would enjoy seeing Basil Farrow on vacation—so I mailed his stuffed doppelgÃ¤nger to Panda Tours in Warsaw.
The leader, a panda bear, shows toys off-the-beaten-path destinations throughout Poland. Agnieszka writes, “After the arrival of Basil, we went to Skarzysko, a country town south of Warsaw. It was a very hot day so they cooled off by eating fresh raspberries, currants and cherries.”
“We visited the White Eagle Museum, which has a large outdoor display of military equipment. Most of the aircraft dates back to the World War II period.” She posts daily images on Panda Tours’ Instagram, where I could check on my cat’s shenanigans.
“The day after, we went to Krakow by Polish Rail.” The new friends appear to be bonding as they admire the scenery.
While it may be strange to see a toy tour in action, Agnieszka says the reaction is always positive. Many bystanders ask to take photos with the animals, as this street performer did.
I loved how Panda Tours documented every step of the trip, including lunching at local restaurants.
Just like regular tourists, Basil posed under landmarks. During his tour, Basil visited St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sigismund’s Column in Castle Square.
In Warsaw, Panda took Basil to the opening of a hip club called The View. These “ballers” wore chains and VIP wristbands, and got a lot of attention from the ladies!
The furries took a road trip to Wladyslawowo, a town on the south coast of the Baltic Sea.
Finally, they stopped by Gdynia to attend a concert on the beach. Agnieszka says, “Basil lifted up his paw and aroused considerable interest among the fans and artists.”
I was pleasantly surprised by how well Panda Tours conveyed a joyful, local travel experience through a mascot’s eyes. Seeing my cat vacation in Poland made me want to visit the country for myself.
Basil returned by mail, along with custom T-shirts, a DVD of photos, and souvenirs. My toy’s tour turned out to be a delight from start to finish. and I have a feeling that these imaginative agencies will keep on growing worldwide.
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This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel under the headline Send Your Stuffed Animal on a Tour of Europe. It is reprinted here with permission.
(Photo at top: Panda Tours)