Parisian cafes, Tuscan towns and Bavarian countryside will always be favorite destinations for travelers. But recent trends in world travel indicate that those who want to explore the roads less-traveled are choosing with greater frequency to see the minarets and madrassahs of Iran, the Northern Lights of Iceland and the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.
It’s called adventure travel. How popular is it?
Between 2009 and 2013, the industry’s annual rate of growth, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, has been 65 percent, and today the industry is worth $263 billion.
What defines adventure travel?
Three elements, according to the association: physical activity, cultural exchange and interaction with the environment.
This doesn’t mean that you have to climb Mount Everest, drag a supply sled across the polar ice or kayak the Amazon. But it does mean that you must step out of your comfort zone to see places-less-traveled, appreciate our place in the universe and perhaps raise your heart rate a bit.
The proliferation of adventure travel companies has also been great, and some aim for niche markets.
“We specialize (in taking people to) a part of the world most people consider adventurous — destinations at the crossroads of Europe and Asia,” explained Annie Lucas, vice president of MIR Corporation, in a phone interview from her Seattle office. “We focus more on cultural touring rather than hard-core adventure. People want to go to Uzbekistan, but they don’t want (to go alone).”
Some of MIR’s destinations include Mongolia, where visitors meet the locals and explore the Gobi Desert; Iceland, where visitors take in the dramatic landscape by bicycle; and Iran, where travelers discover that there is a difference between the country’s government policies and the hospitality of its citizens.
While adventure tourists want to go into the wild, they also like their creature comforts, according to surveys. This has prompted companies like Natural Habitat Adventures of Boulder, Colorado, to offer lodging in ultra-remote places.
Founded in 1985, the company offers “eco-conscious expeditions and wildlife-focused, small-group tours to … remarkable nature destinations.”
“There’s definitely a growing market for a novel experience,” said Wendy Redal, editorial director for Natural Habitat Adventures. “People are interested in going to places off the beaten path and be active, but they don’t necessarily want to sleep on the ground.”
That’s why Natural Habitat is offering a new tour called Base Camp Greenland, which offers sustainable “deluxe” accommodations just south of the Arctic Circle on the island’s east coast. The huts allow visitors to stay in the once-inaccessible area in relative comfort.
Travelers who want to explore remote islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence can enjoy the comfortable trappings of Adventure Canada’s ship, Ocean Endeavor, in between wildlife-viewing trips on Zodiac rafts. The recently upgraded 198-passenger ship, able to access isolated fjords, offers passengers a swimming pool, sauna, hot tub and gourmet meals in addition to fully guided tours by area experts.
Why are travelers choosing adventurous rain-forest treks and helicopter skiing over vegging out on a beach?
“ … some (want) to experience new things, see new sites and get away from the frenzy of everyday life,” said Fernando Salvador, general manager of Denali Park Village, the only lodging within the boundaries of Denali National Park in Alaska’s interior.
“Others crave adventure due to an insatiable curiosity for discovery. Adventure doesn’t have to be dangerous, but rather a reason to do something you haven’t done before … and Alaska is the perfect place to throw caution to the wind and test one’s sense of adventure.”
Denali Park Village visitors can take guided hikes, wildlife tours, raft trips and jeep safaris. Also available: biking, fly fishing, riding ATVs and perhaps most thrilling of all, helicopter rides for a bird’s eye view of the vast Alaska wilderness.
Other emerging destinations, according to the 2016 United States Tour Operators Association’s survey, are (in order of popularity): Cuba, Myanmar, Iceland and Colombia. Ethiopia and Japan tie for fifth place.
The association also reports that 55 percent of their members’ customers are 51 years and older — people who can afford these trips of a lifetime, which generally cost from $3,000 to $25,000.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.