By Eliza Myers
For the average person, trekking to Mount Everest’s base camp, cycling through Tuscany and exploring the South Pole are no longer just pipe dreams; they are incredibly possible. Tour operators across the country are increasingly offering more adrenaline-pounding activities and destinations in their tour itineraries.
It is no longer far-fetched to be able to glimpse wild Uganda gorillas or visit the hill tribes of South Vietnam. Tours continue to expand to more exotic frontiers so even the most experienced travelers will find something new.
Even more commonly, tour operators are slipping more adventurous options and destinations into their regular itineraries. This causes traditional adventure tours, such as African safaris or Costa Rican zip lines, to be more enticing and accessible for travelers branching out from the usual motorcoach tour.
What is adventure travel?
Not all adventure travel is created equal. A person does not have to engage in activities as extreme as heli-skiing — skiing on a remote mountain peak reachable only by helicopter — to qualify as an adventure traveler. According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), adventure travel can be any trip that includes at least two of the three following aspects: “physical activity, interaction with nature, and cultural learning or exchange.”
Often, adventure travel is divided into hard and soft adventure to differentiate the level of difficulty involved in the activity. For example, hiking and horseback riding would be considered soft adventures, while mountain climbing and caving would be considered hard.
“Adventure travel is in the eye of the beholder,” said Terry Dale, president of the United State Tour Operators Association (USTOA). “Someone who is seeking a true adventurous experience is rappelling down a mountain or sleeping in a Bedouin tent. Someone who is looking for a soft adventure is experiencing a culture that they wouldn’t normally experience on their own.”
The vast majority of travelers choose soft adventure over hard adventure. A 2009 study done by ATTA reported that 18 percent of North American travelers have participated in soft adventure, and only 2.25 percent chose hard adventure. Most tour operators also offer mainly soft adventure to appeal to the masses.
“The majority of our products are soft adventure,” said Andy Trache, marketing manager for the Adventure Center. “These tours have easier walking tours and activities.”
Based in Emeryville, Calif., Adventure Center helps sell many tour operators’ adventure tours, with a choice of more than 2,000 trips. The tours range in their extremity from trekking up mountains to cruising.
No matter the degree of danger involved in the trip, many tour operators agree that adventure travel is a trend that is not going away.
“I firmly believe that adventure travel is a growing market,” said Dale. “Our members recognize there is potential there, so they are going to create programs for that growing market.”
USTOA’s website illustrates the prominence of adventure travel with 38 tour companies claiming to offer extreme adventure and 57 companies claiming to offer soft adventure.
About 700 tour operators, destinations and businesses also belong to the ATTA, which promotes the adventure travel market to the world. The association estimates that the global adventure market is now at about $89 billion and that it will continue to grow.
“I sense that travelers are awakening to a more thoughtful, responsible travel that is more sensitive to the people and places visited,” said Christopher Doyle, vice president for ATTA. “They want to see and experience these places through more active ways, whether cycling, kayaking, trekking or what have you.”
Choosing the road less traveled
The reassurance of knowing that a trip is in the hands of a professional tour operator can give people confidence to explore places they may not have ventured to see by themselves, such as India.
“I think people are interested in having travel experiences and placing themselves outside of their comfort zone,” said Dale. “Through an organized tour experience with guides that are experts and the safety net of a group, they can try something that they wouldn’t normally try on their own.”
The type of person to choose adventurous trips with a tour operator is usually more independent-minded than travelers who prefer a regular motorcoach tour. The flexible adventure-travel itineraries reflect this trend.
“The problem with mainstream tours is that they are very structured,” said Trache. “We give the clients a lot of time to explore on their own. You get the freedom of doing things independently without going on your own and not having anything to fall back on.”
The itineraries do not always have three planned meals, but they might set a group loose in an area where they can dine where they wish. More free time is also commonly built into the trip than usual.
But just because these travelers can be more independent does not mean that they will not value the attachments that can form during a group trip. Abercrombie and Kent found that one in four people who chose Extreme Adventures’ trips were traveling solo, which is a much higher percentage than typical Abercrombie and Kent tours.
Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for Abercrombie and Kent, believes that this difference comes from the fact that Extreme Adventures trips can help single travelers feel more connected with the group.
“When climbing Kilimanjaro on our Extreme Adventures trip, you can become part of an instant group and can be part of that team bonding,” said Fawcett. “If you are a solo traveler, it is nice having that instant camaraderie.”
Abercrombie and Kent launched the Extreme Adventure travel brand to highlight some of its more adventurous itineraries, such as experiencing life as a Bedouin in Jordan and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Each trip is marked with a designation of one to four, with one light physical activity and four strenuous physical activity in harsh climates.
Like a lot of tour operators, adventure travel infiltrates Abercrombie and Kent’s mainstream tours to various degrees.
“There are some traditional Abercrombie and Kent trips that are naturally a little more adventurous than others,” said Fawcett. “There are certain safaris we offer in Zambia where you can have a walking safari instead of the typical driving safari.”
Goway Travel has also created its own brand of adventure travel called Adventures Incorporated. The same adventure itineraries appear on both company websites, but Adventure Incorporated’s site highlights the exploratory aspect of travel.
“Almost every trip that Goway sells can be viewed as an adventure,” said Don Forster, product, marketing and sales manager for Goway Travel. “We see adventure travel morphing into being active and adventurous during the day, and then enjoying comfortable accommodations at night.”
Not every tour operator has an exclusive adventure brand. Some are just slipping more active options or exotic destinations into their regular tours.
“We see more of our tour operators developing adventure travel within existing brands for our adventure seekers,” said Dale with USTOA. “Some tour operators have other brands specifically for adventure travel, but the greater trend is for existing brands to put adventure travel into their itineraries.”
From 8 to 88
Although the term “adventure travel” may conjure an image of a 20-something male scaling a mountain, there is no set profile for the modern adventure traveler. According to a study by ATTA, the clientele is about half male and half female. The ages vary, with 43 percent age 41 to 60, 26 percent 21 to 40 and 18 percent 61 to 70.
“Adventure travel is not an age thing; it is a mind-set thing,” said Trache with Adventure Center. “We’ve had clients from age 6, which is the youngest we take, to age 82, which was a traveler who went on the Antarctica trip with us. Right now, the tours that are appealing to the 60-plus clientele are the trips to the Antarctic and the Trans-Siberian train.”
Trache has also noticed a lot of formerly independent adventure travelers now coming to Adventure Center because they want to take their families. Many tour operators are expecting baby boomers to play a major role in increasing adventure travel. To attract more of the boomer crowd, tour operators like Abercrombie and Kent, and Goway Travel focus on luxury adventure travel, with adrenaline-pumping fun combined with upscale accommodations.
“Boomers today continue to evolve and redefine themselves,” said Dale. “The amount of activity that they want to experience is very high. It’s not just for the young of heart; it is for those who have a heart for an experience that exhilarates them.”
As the demographic of the adventure traveler changes, so does the popularity of certain activities. Current sought-after trips include centrally based accommodations in one hotel along with day trips, cycling trips and wildlife-themed trips.
“Of all our activities, mountain trekking trips have tended to be our most popular,” said Fawcett of Abercrombie and Kent. “You can hike up Mount Kilimanjaro or hike up to Mount Everest’s first base camp. We just started offering a Greece trip that scales Mount Olympus.”
Many travelers now also book multisport trips that offer several activities in one tour instead of an itinerary focused only on one activity, like hiking. Abercrombie and Kent’s Costa Rica trip includes river rafting, snorkeling, canoeing and other activities to keep things interesting.
In the last few years, South America, Eastern Europe and South Asia have been regions of growing interest to customers. Although the frontiers of tour-operator-led adventure destinations continue to grow, with places like Cuba and China, classic adventure destinations like the Galapagos and South Africa remain favorite adventure hot spots.
“About 35 [percent] to 45 percent of people coming to us want to go to Africa, whether its Morocco or South Africa or somewhere in between,” said Trache. “People across the board are interested in that.”
If interest in adventure travel continues to grow, it will greatly shape the way tour operators develop future tours. Even if their tours do not include rappelling down mountains, aspects of adventure travel may continue to permeate travel itineraries.
“Many traditional companies are beginning to migrate to adventure tourism with small groups, special cultural experiences, etc.,” said Doyle. “They are getting away from the Main Street-buy-trinkets approach to truly connect with people from other lands and purchase more handcrafts that benefit local communities worldwide.”
As adventure travel becomes more the norm, the tours may also continue to shift further and affect other travel trends in the industry.
“I expect continued growth in responsible tourism, smaller groups and a fusion of culture, arts and culinary activities,” said Doyle. “I also expect more multigenerational travel for groups, with younger grandparents bringing their kids and their kids’ kids.”
With the current global recession, all eyes will be on adventure travel to see if it can continue to drive people to group travel.
“I believe that adventure travel is going to continue to constantly grow,” said Dale. “Even in this recessionary period, you will see growth. The true adventure traveler is passionate. They are dedicated travelers, and they will come up with the resources to travel.”