Sam Lewis looks at the changing face of adventure travel and the destinations that offer globetrotters experiences beyond the ordinary
While there are clearly some gutsy souls out there who want to go skydiving or shark-cage diving, adventure travel has become less about hurling oneself into the jaws of danger and more about exploring. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) defines adventure travelers as those keen to embrace a physical activity (such as cycling or riding), engage with nature (perhaps go on a safari) and experience a cultural exchange (from voluntourism to cooking courses with locals).
ATTA’s 2015 Industry Snapshot report reveals that what was once a small, niche segment of the travel industry is getting bigger, and remaining resilient even in difficult economic times. The 2015 Virtuoso Luxe Report, meanwhile, names active/adventure travel the third-biggest trend of the year. This may have something to do with shifting demographics. Today’s adventure travelers are older and bolder, according to research — and the segment is growing fast. The average age of an adventure traveler is now a mature 48 years old, with 51% aged 41-60, according to ATTA.
For adventure companies based in the US, ATTA reports, the US, Tanzania, Peru, Italy, Ecuador and Cuba lie at the top of the popularity rankings. By comparison, the 2015 Virtuoso Luxe Report lists its most popular adventure destinations as Costa Rica, South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand and Peru. Virtuoso’s Active and Specialty Travel (VAST) program now has more than 500 advisors, 40 suppliers and five tourism boards participating.
One of its participants, Sixth Star Travel, reports growing demand for ‘active’ safaris in Africa. President Jeannie Cartier Sauleau says, “The traditional safari has been enhanced by gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda, and walking safaris and elephant camps have become a hit for the more adventurous traveler.”
For traditional travel to Italy, Greece and Turkey, she says the experience has been “pumped up with biking, hiking, culinary explorations and chartered gulets or private yachts in the Mediterranean or Adriatic Seas.”
Elsewhere, Sauleau agrees that Machu Picchu and the Galapagos are big adventure spots in South America, while Patagonia, Easter Island and Amazon small-ship cruising have all joined in the surge for adventure seekers in South America. For 2016, she singles out Cuba as the place to go, “because you can, and it will change so fast” and names Bhutan as a hotspot for the boomers, “as they want an enlightening experience as they age.”
Although adventure travel is traditionally booked directly, many agents believe this may slowly change as demand for these holidays grows. Marsha Dolbow, of Yorba Linda Travel, says, “Statistically I would say that travel advisors connect with a small portion of the adventure market. However, networks within the Virtuoso framework, such as VAST, are making inroads with this audience and introducing adventure travel to clients who may not previously have considered the possibilities.”
It’s the perfect time to visit Castro’s Cuba: the US economic embargo is starting to lift, but the nation has yet to be brought out of its time warp. Supersized US cruise liners will begin trips to the island from May 2016 — the first time since the 1960s — but the adventurous should go it alone or as part of a small group tour. The birthplace of salsa may be famous for its music, cigars, rum and antiquated cars, but it also has unspoiled white sand beaches and clear seas for swimming, scuba diving and snorkeling. Activities on land include hiking, biking and horse riding — visitors can follow in the footsteps of Cuba’s traditional vaqueros (cowboys). Taking Spanish or salsa lessons is also popular, as is dancing to live Cuban music. cubatravel.tur.cu/en
Mountain gorillas are the big draw here. Tracking them can require patience and strenuous exploration on foot, following guides clearing paths through the dense jungle with machetes. Their most famous habitat is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south, home to over 200 species of butterflies, 350 species of birds and an estimated 320 mountain gorillas — roughly half the world’s population of these primates. Visitors are limited to spending one hour with the gorillas and must keep at least seven meters away from them. Few visitors are disappointed, despite the grueling trek. Only a certain number of trekking permits are issued each day by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, via registered safari operator. visituganda.com
“Bolivia holds a special appeal for hikers, naturalists or photographers who have already been to Peru or Ecuador, or those who want a more exotic, less-touristed destination,” says Robin Weber Pollak, president of VAST member Journeys International. Bolivia’s parks are home to 40% of the earth’s animal and plant species, making it a magnet for wildlife watchers hoping to spot everything from spectacled bears to blue-throated macaws. Every summer, Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, acts as a breeding ground for vibrant pink flamingos. Adventurers can also kayak on Lake Titicaca, visit the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, and mountain-bike down the Yungus Road, once named the most dangerous road in the world. bolivia.travel
Lucky visitors can hike past giant tortoises and land iguanas, swim with penguins, and watch sea lions play among the waves. Limited interference from humans makes wildlife the highlight of these volcanic islands. Over 800 miles from mainland Ecuador, they were the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Visitors come for the prolific birdlife, with pink flamingos and flightless cormorants among the many fascinating species. The best way to see the islands is on a 3-7 day cruise, with guides and experts leading excursions and giving onboard lectures. Most cruises stop at a different island every day, ferrying passengers to shore on pangas (inflatable motorised craft). Many are equipped with scuba and snorkeling equipment, enabling passengers to swim with stingrays, reef sharks and, occasionally, humpback whales. ecuador.travel
Journeys International believes this destination will gain popularity in 2016, with Pollak describing it as a country “full of unexpected surprises, with layer upon layer of cultural and natural beauty”. Activities include hiking its mountainous national parks, skiing — PyeongChang is scheduled to host the 2018 Winter Olympics — watersports, and visiting palaces, pagodas and temples. More than 100 temples offer Buddhist experiences such as meditation and yoga. Typical overnight programs consist of a temple tour, monastic vegetarian meal and tea ceremony. Guests can also learn to make popular Korean dishes through a variety of half-day cooking programs. english.visitkorea.or.kr
There are many exciting ways to soak up the magic of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with hiking, rafting, cycling and horseback riding all options. Travelers heading to the pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap next year won’t have to work up a sweat, as a cable-car is due to open in the ancient city. Operators can arrange homestays with local families; on Lake Titicaca, travelers can help with daily chores, learn about traditions and enjoy meals with their host family. The country’s jungles are also a haven for monkeys, giant otters, alligators, river turtles and exotic birds like jacanas, macaws and hoatzin. Those keen to volunteer on conservation projects can assist biologists with wildlife surveys on jungle primates and cats. peru.travel/en-us
There’s growing demand to see Antarctica’s colossal icebergs and gleaming glaciers. While some travelers come to tick the seventh continent off their bucket list, most are drawn by the large numbers of whales, seals and penguins. ASTA member Yorba Linda Travel believes the frozen wilderness is popular not only for its stunning beauty, but also its expedition-style visits. Cruises take place in the summer, from November through March. Small ships are typically used as only 100 passengers are allowed to disembark at a time. Most ships offer onboard lectures by experts such as ornithologists, marine biologists and historians. Passengers are taken on land excursions via rigid inflatable boats to see penguin rookeries or spot rare birds. More adventurous itineraries can include skiing, camping and trekking — as far as the South Pole.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Marsha Dolbow, CTC, of Yorba Linda Travel, reports a 9% rise in tourism to New Zealand. Overlooking Lake Wakatipu amid majestic peaks, visitors can soak up the scenery in various ways, including in a helicopter and — for an adrenalin rush — via a bungee jump or tandem sky dive. Top activities include jet boating along the Kawarau River or whitewater rafting on the Shotover River. For something slower-paced, cruise Milford Sound, take the Skyline Gondola or enjoy Maori songs, dances and legends at the Kiwi Haka Show. Gibbston Valley Winery produces some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Here you can tour the wine caves, enjoy wine-tasting and sample a jazz brunch or degustation dinner. queenstownnz.co.nz
While visitors in search of adventure will want to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa’s largest mountain, Mt Meru is considered a great warm-up, as most climbers can handle its 14,977ft without suffering altitude sickness. Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake, is a popular spot for fishing and bird-watching. The Serengeti is also famed for its riding safaris, where you can gallop among wildebeests, zebras and gazelles. Walking safaris are also offered, and at the volcanic Ngorongoro Crater, where lakes attract large game animals. Some tours are led by the local Hadza people, while others provide the opportunity to spend time in an authentic Maasai homestead. Meanwhile, Tanzania’s coast attracts snorkelers and divers, with Pemba Island and Mafia Island among the favorites. tanzaniatouristboard.com
Other adventure travel hotspots
Bhutan: This compact kingdom offers numerous hikes, including the famous Taktsang Palphug Monastery, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex located in the cliffside in Paro. Other more challenging hikes enable visitors to spot rare birds in Bhutan’s virgin subtropical forests and to visit traditional farmhouse. tourism.gov.bt
Queensland: Cairns/Port Douglas is a great base from which to visit the Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation where you can fly through the forest canopy on a zip-line, jump on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway, or take a 4WD safari. queensland.com
Indonesia: Search for proboscis monkeys and orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, on Kalimantan, before boarding a liveaboard boat and cruising volcanic islands to meet Komodo dragons, the largest lizards on Earth.
Italy: Butterfield & Robinson is among the operators offering cycling tours in regions such as Tuscany where you travel under your own steam around villages and medieval towns experiencing wine-tastings and long lunches with a support van transporting your luggage ahead of you. The region’s tourist office has a dedicated page on cycling. turismo.intoscana.it