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The growth of adventure travel

Summit Ridge, Island Peak, Himalayas. Image: GettySummit Ridge, Island Peak, Himalayas. Image: Getty

No longer solely the preserve of young risk-takers, adventure travel is more in demand than ever before, says Ben Lerwill

Travel means different things to different people. In the traditional sense, a vacation is about relaxation: a chance to take a well-deserved breather and enjoy a break from the routine. At other times, though, the concept of a trip away can be very different. Activity and adventure tourism is nothing new, but in recent years its popularity has increased dramatically. Today the sector is a catch-all for experiential breaks — including everything from safaris and mountain tourism to socially responsible volunteer projects — and the number of options is greater than ever.

Adventure tourism used to be the domain solely of rugged risk-takers, but its appeal has now spread to the mainstream market. Research from the Adventure Travel Trade Association shows prior to 2007, 42% of tourism boards considered adventure tourism to be of ‘increasing importance’. By 2011, that figure had risen to 89%. Why the leap?

“The market has changed in recent years, firstly by easier access to remote places on earth,” says Michael King, co-president of Great Getaways. “The over-50 crowd is looking for more active travel than ever before, and they’re willing to endure some difficult conditions to travel where they want. On top of this there are large travel organizations working to promote this type of travel. And as for spend, prices are going up because, while the baby boomer may want the challenges, he or she also wants the luxury five-star accommodations with fine dining and a glass of great wine at the end of the day.”

With this in mind, we examine three key segments of today’s adventure tourism market.

Community Spirit

The experience: For many travelers, the chance to immerse themselves in an overseas culture is an adventure in itself. When interaction with locals extends beyond exchanging pleasantries with a tour guide or hotel receptionist, a trip can be far more rewarding than a standard itinerary.

Volunteer tourism is the classic example. Like other segments of the adventure travel market, ‘voluntourism’ has been around for decades but has found more prominence in recent times. Traditionally, these placements have been fairly extensive in length — certainly longer than the average vacation — but rising demand for briefer programs means short-term placements are now more commonplace.

Almost without exception, voluntourism involves a working vacation in aid of a charitable cause in a foreign country. Among dozens of different examples, this could range from helping at an elementary school in an under-privileged part of Asia to assisting with wildlife research in Africa.

This altruistic approach to a vacation can also feature in other forms of adventure travel, without being the most dominant aspect. A wildlife trip, for example, might involve a portion of the vacation cost being channeled into a conservation program, while a cultural tour could incorporate time staying, and helping, at a simple homestay in a far-flung community.

The travelers: Volunteer placements abroad tend to be most popular with school-leavers and university-age students, who see these trips as a way to improve their life skills, travel and do something worthwhile. Older individuals on career breaks are also likely candidates. Despite the voluntary nature of the vacations, basics such as travel and accommodation can be costly.

The destinations: Volunteer and community tourism usually focuses on less developed countries in Africa, Asia or South America.

Sample: The Africa Adventure Company has an eight-day voluntourism package based in the foothills of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Projects can include helping school teachers and assisting with anti-poaching support. From $1,750 per person. T: 1 800 882 9453. www.africa-adventure.com

Outdoor Adrenalin

The experience: The great outdoors provides an inexhaustible supply of travel experiences, from the relatively commonplace — a family camping break, say, or a trail hike — to more extreme, heart-racing activities like rock-climbing, paragliding and mountaineering. The main appeal is the chance to engage with nature, and the industry has developed to such a degree that viable options for thrill-seeking, safety-conscious US travelers now exist on every continent.

The charm, on a basic level, is these breaks allow you to experience a beautiful part of the world in a novel, far more involved way. In the Andes, for example, not only are you actually in the mountains, you’re also getting your pulse going and providing yourself with stronger, more memorable experiences. And while the majority of outdoor programs have only very manageable hazards, at the sharpest end of the spectrum the activities involved may well have an element of danger that, for some, is an integral part of the attraction.

The travelers: The stereotypical outdoor adventure nut is in their 20s or 30s with a thirst for fresh, vibrant experiences. But the beauty of this segment of adventure travel is these days it can cater for almost all ages and levels of physical fitness. Standards of equipment and guiding are better than ever, meaning many of those in their 50s, 60s and 70s — and in some cases even older — are now keen to sample the benefits of a more intrepid active vacation.

Given that many of the more extreme outdoor options involve travel to out-of-the-way spots such as Mount Everest or Patagonia, this is a market sector that often spends big to travel where it wants.

The destinations: Mountains generally play a large part in the outdoor adventure market. The Himalayas is probably the classic option, but there are of course North and South American mountain ranges with huge amounts to offer. Other major players in the outdoor market are New Zealand and the European Alps.

Sample: Andes Journeys runs a seven-night fly-fishing trip in Chilean Patagonia from $4,984 per person, including lodgings, meals and daily, guided fishing tours. International airfares extra. T: 1 866 999 3218. www.andesjourneys.com

Into the Wild

The experience: Getting up close to exotic birds and animals in their natural environment can make for an exhilarating and deeply memorable vacation. There are enticing options all around the globe, from the lions of the Kenyan savannah to the orangutans of the Malaysian jungle, and in most cases there’s now a well-established — and responsibly organized — visitor infrastructure in place to ensure wildlife tourists have a positive, enriching experience.

Nature is, of course, unpredictable — there’s no guarantee you’ll see everything you’re hoping to — but at the same time this wildcard factor is essentially what raises something like an African game drive above a zoo visit. It makes the thrill of seeing animals in their spectacular natural settings that much more pronounced.

And as with other sectors of adventure tourism, wildlife-viewing caters to various demographics. Diving with great white sharks or taking an elephant safari on-foot can be elating for some and daunting for others, whereas activities like kangaroo-spotting in Australia or penguin-sightings in Antarctica have very few risks attached.

The travelers: It’s difficult to think of a more child-friendly form of adventure travel, and the nature of wildlife-spotting means it can hold appeal for all the family. The prominence of luxury lodges — particularly in the major African game parks — means the overall end product is often superb. As a result, clients will generally be high earners. The more niche wildlife tours, meanwhile, including bird-watching vacations, tend to hold appeal for those with an existing specialist interest.

The destinations: Sub-Saharan Africa has the monopoly on big game safaris, with Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia among those countries offering world-class wildlife-immersion options. Other classic destinations include Canada for grizzly bears, the Arctic for its polar bears, Australia for koalas and kangaroos and the Amazon for its rainbow assortment of birds, insects and reptiles.

Sample: Bushtrek Safaris offers a five-day safari to see gorillas in Uganda (leaving from Kenya). The itinerary includes two nights in the city of Kampala and two nights at a lodge in Bwindi Forest. From $6,400 for two people. T: +254 20 224 0012. www.bushtreksafari.com

EYEWITNESS: COLD CALLS

Ben Lerwill journeys to the southernmost continent of Antarctica — a land of ancient icebergs, towering peaks and lots of penguins

The penguins appeared in their tens, then in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands. I’d come ashore onto Paulet Island in Antarctica, and sharing this rocky, windswept isle with me were no less than 250,000 squat, rather smelly, Adelie penguins.

Nothing prepares you for the scale of the great southern continent, where both the wildlife and the horizon-wide landscapes defy all norms. Only in Antarctica can you find yourself wandering up an icy outcrop, gazing out at a heavenly spread of white peaks and trying to work out how best to photograph a quarter of a million penguins. Like many aspects of my trip here, it left me half-wondering if the whole momentous experience might not actually be some fevered dream.

Just getting here had been an adventure. We’d set sail from Ushuaia, in Argentinean Patagonia, around a week earlier. The first two days of the trip had been taken up with sailing south until land appeared — our ship remaining sturdy despite the buffeting afforded it by the Drake Passage — and since then we’d been cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula. It had surpassed each and every expectation. The beauty of the place, in all its snow-cloaked, super-sized majesty, was utterly spellbinding.

As a tourist, one of the things that shocked me most about Antarctica was just how much there was to see. A monochrome world of white and ice? Not here. Even at the northernmost tip of the peninsula — a tiny area when compared with the overall size of the continent — there was a ludicrous amount to process. Frequently, it was hard to know which way to face. Pods of whales would suddenly appear at the side of the ship. Seals reclined, plump and passive, on passing icebergs. Mountain belts rampaged into the distance beneath rainbows and hallucinogenic sunsets.

Two or three times a day, we had the chance to go ashore in small rigid-inflatable boats. These were the moments when I felt the most privileged to be here; the hours when I found myself walking on territory that belonged to no sovereign nation, wandering far-flung terrain immersed on all sides by the kind of scenery usually only seen in blockbuster nature documentaries. It’s hard to define exactly what makes a vacation an adventure, but to my mind this had it all.

We were on board Hurtigruten’s MS Fram for 10 days. During that period we spotted just two other ships in Antarctic waters. It was a magical, life-affirming voyage, a trip that took us away from anything that resembled normal life. Many of us onboard bonded — and in somewhere like Antarctica, how could we not? I’m still in touch with several of them. And even today, more than a year on, I notice the same thing happening whenever I’m looking at a world map. My eyes always flick momentarily to the very bottom, and I daydream a while.

PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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