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How Adventure Travel Works

Imagine yourself paddling a kayak through the dense belly of the Amazon rainforest. Can you picture walking side by side with the mighty elephants of Africa? Maybe a bike trek along the Great Wall of China or a cattle drive through Patagonia is more your speed. How does traveling into outer space sound? If any of these wild trips sound like a great way to spend your holiday, then adventure travel may be for you.

One of the fastest-growing trends in the travel business is adventure tourism. Defining exactly what it means is a little tricky. For some, adventure could mean leisurely biking and hiking tours. For others, it might entail BASE jumping into an underground cave in Mexico. The main facets of adventure tourism usually include traveling to a distant location, interacting with different cultures and undertaking a physical activity of some kind.

Adventure travel is typically grouped into two categories -- "hard" and "soft" adventures. Hard adventures involve some kind of extreme and often dangerous sporting activity. Paragliding, rock climbing, surfing, spelunking and scuba diving in remote and exotic locations are some examples of a hard adventure. Soft adventures are leisurely, often educational and don't involve hazardous and strenuous adventures. Culinary and wine tours, bird watching, architectural tours and religious pilgrimages are activities that are likely to be found on a soft adventure.

The father of adventure travel is Leo Le Bon, c­o-founder of Mountain Tours, the world's first adventure travel company. In 1967, Le Bon and eight travel mates made the first commercial expedition to the Annapurna region of Nepal and founded their travel company after returning stateside. Now retired from Mountain Tours, Le Bon still consults for various travel entities through his aptly named firm, Wanderlust Consulting. The industry has grown by leaps and bounds since Leo went to Nepal, with thousands of companies offering adventure vacations to every corner of the globe.

In this article, we'll look at who might be likely to go on an adventure tour and how you could benefit from taking one yourself. We'll also look at some of the more interesting adventure vacations that are on the market today.

Some adventure travelers seek spiritual enlightenment.

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Profile of an Adventure Traveler

If lying on a beach with a pina colada in hand is your idea of a great vacation, then adventure tourism probably won't appeal to you. The growing numbers in the market indicate that it appeals to an increasing amount of vacationers, however. A study by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) shows that roughly 20 percent of adult travelers are adventure tourists. The same report finds that 10 percent of all Americans have already embarked on an adventure vacation. Revenues have skyrocketed, with The Wall Street Journal reporting in 2003 that the adventure market topped $245 million dollars [source: Xola Consulting].

Just who is most likely to embark on an adventure tour may surprise you. While "hard" adventure tourists are typically college-educated, single males in their 20s, "soft" adventurers are made up of a wide range of people. Baby boomers and seniors help to make up the growing number of soft travelers. But it's adventure-seeking women that make up the fastest-growing segment of the industry.

Two-thirds of divorces for couples between the ages of 40 and 60 are initiated by women, and many of these women turn to adventure travel as an exciting transition into their new lives [source: Time]. The cliché male midlife crisis typically involves a sports car and hair replacement surgery. The midlife crisis women are experiencing takes the form of a spiritual journey. A new breed of travel agency specializing in adventure travel for women is a large part of this rapidly growing industry. Traveling in groups with women of similar backgrounds and experiences is proving to be very appealing for women in their 40s. While about half of these adventurers are divorced, the others have husbands that don't mind separate vacations to meet their individual needs [source: Time]. Many men aren't interested in going on a culinary or wine tour, so their wives are going it alone or with a group. Adventure Women, in business since 1982, says that 70 percent of their guests are repeat customers [source: Adventure Women].

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal produces a powerful and life-changing "peak experience."

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For both men and women, the benefits of adventure travel can be great. The more physically strenuous vacations have obvious health benefits and can help build self-esteem through accomplishing difficult tasks. The "peak experience" you have when reaching the summit of a mountain can be achieved by accomplishing any physical goal. Physical challenges require intense concentration and focus, which is a great mental workout.

Aside from building self-esteem, there are other psychological benefits. A sense of danger and stepping into the unknown can be a mentally stimulating experience. Many adventurers say that they encounter a heightened sense of self and feel more alive during their journey. A sense of calm and clear headedness also contributes to the psychological gains of adventure tourism [source: Swarbrooke]. Emotional and spiritual discovery are important elements of adventure travel. Some may find it at the top of Mount Everest, while others can gain it through a calming bird-watching tour.

In the next section, we'll learn about some of the more interesting adventure vacations being offered today.

A mountain climber ascends a rock face in Alaska.

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Adventure Tours

Deciding which adventure vacation is right for you can be an intimidating experience. There are thousands of options, and it's hard to know where to start. One way to determine what's a good fit is to get in touch with a travel agency that provides or specializes in adventure tourism. They can help steer you through the myriad choices that you'll face.

Aside from seeking help from a travel agency, the first thing you should do is determine exactly how adventurous you want to get. Many adventure tours can incorporate dangerous and thrilling activities like paragliding, river rafting and big game hunting. Others require you to be in top physical shape -- mountain and rock climbing, surfing monster waves and snow-shoeing across frozen tundra are a few examples. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities.

A giraffe stands in the cool dusk of the African savanna.

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Some adventure vacations involve performing a dream job you never had a chance to experience. The movie "City Slickers" had Billy Crystal go on a spiritual journey of sorts as a cattle driver in the rugged West. Perhaps due to that film, cattle drives are one of the more popular adventure vacations today, offered everywhere from Utah to Patagonia. Sports-themed vacations are popular for athletes that never realized their dream of becoming the next Cal Ripken Jr. or Dale Earnhardt. Baseball fantasy camps let your average Joe compete against former major leaguers, while NASCAR driving schools allow you to release your inner speed demon.

Safaris are exciting soft adventures that draw people of all ages. A host of travel agencies offer driving and walking tours led by experienced guides through the African plains. The big draw of a safari is the chance to come into close contact with the "big five" -- lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. You can even go on a "working safari" and contribute to a variety of primate and elephant projects that make a lasting impact on African conservation. Participating in such a project can increase the feeling of reward and accomplishment.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise is a stunning sight for an adventure tourist.

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Many times the destination itself is the adventure. The Seven Wonders of the World have long been popular tourist destinations -- adding biking and hiking tours to these locales adds an adventurous edge. The adventure tour Web site iexplore.com has an ongoing list of the most popular adventure vacations. In December 2007, the list had the following top ten destinations, including several world wonders:

  • Pyramids of Egypt
  • Safari in South Africa
  • Expedition to Antarctica
  • Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Adventure in Costa Rica
  • Cultural Tour in Japan
  • Adventure in Chile
  • Taj Mahal in India
  • Great Wall of China
  • Cultural Tour in Ethiopia

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In the next section we'll look at some more adventure tours.

A woman stretches in the early morning of Joshua Tree National Park.

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More Adventures

Just because you aren't an experienced outdoor enthusiast doesn't mean you can't participate in a "hard" adventure vacation. There are many that allow you to learn a new skill while you're there. From surfing camps to rock climbing schools, there are plenty of options if you want to learn the ins and outs of a new and exciting sport.

The Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School will educate you in safety and technique by starting you out on small boulder faces. With personal instruction from experienced climbers, you'll get turned loose on mountain faces by week's end. A basic four-day course can run as low as $430. Many people that enroll in these vacations come in as a novice and leave with a new passion.

Scuba schools can certify you at your destination, many times for much less money than a pre-vacation course would cost. The Cairns Dive Centre in Australia offers a four-day certification course that lets you dive the Great Barrier Reef by day three. After training in a swimming pool, you can choose among several day trips or actually live aboard an 80-foot catamaran where you'll make supervised dives during the daylight and at night.

If you love dogs and cold weather, then a dog-sledding adventure tour is right up your alley. There are many outfitters that offer dog sledding tours, but one of the least expensive is in Minnesota. The Wintergreen Dog Sledding Lodge has several overnight trips to choose from. After some lessons in cold weather camping and dog care, you'll set out on adventure of a lifetime through Minnesota's north woods. You'll trek by dog sled during the day and sleep in warm cabins along the trail at night. This trip is one that attracts many animal lovers as well as adventure seekers. The basic four-day, three-night tour goes for a little over $700, depending on when you book your vacation.

The Dome of the Rock at sunrise in Israel, Jerusalem

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For an enlightening soft tour, a religious pilgrimage may interest you. Many travel companies sell tours that allow you to visit the birthplaces of many different religions. From Buddhist biking tours in India to Holy Land hikes in Israel, you can walk the very steps that many religion's leaders have. Walkways is a tour operator in the Middle East that lets you trace the steps of Christ or take a bike ride to the Dead Sea for some salty swimming. You'll end up with some free time in Jerusalem to do your own exploring.

For more information on adventure travel and vacation destinations, please look into the links on the following page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • adventuretourism.org, 2007. http://www.adventuretourism.org/
  • "ATTA Membership Soars; 2007 Adventure Travel World Summit Attendance, Sponsorships, Exhibitions Reach Capacity." ATTA, October 1, 2007. http://www.adventuretravel.biz/releases/sponsorship_2007_ATWS.pdf
  • Bangs, Richard. "War is Hell (on Adventure-Travel Destinations)" The New York Times, February 4, 2006. http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/02/04/sports/othersports/04outdoors.html
  • Feltner, Molly. "The 10 best adventure travel bargains of 2007." USA Today, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/travel/deals/inside/2007-07-11-adventure-bargains_N.htm
  • Gibbs, Nancy. "Midlife Crisis? Bring It On!" Time Magazine, May 16, 2005.
  • Heyniger, Christina. "Adventure Travel Industry Growth Statistics: A Compilation of Secondary Research." Xola Consulting, 2007. http://www.xolaconsulting.com/Adventure%20Travel%20Industry%20Growth%20Statsv2.pdf
  • "Instant Adventure." National Geographic, 2007. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/
  • Jackson, Kristin. "Going Semi-Wild on Adventure Tours." Seattle Times, May 20, 2005. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/PrintStory.pl?document_id=2002279907&zsection_id=2002113000&slug=kristin22&date=20050520
  • Karp, Hannah. "Adventure Tours Lighten Up." The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2007. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118472407857869805.html­
  • Neill, James. "Adventure Travel." wilderdom.com, 2007. http://wilderdom.com/adventuretravel/
  • outerquest.com, 2007. http://www.outerquest.com/
  • Swarbrooke, John. "Adventure Tourism: The New Frontier." Elsevier, 2003.
  • "What is Adventure Travel?" adventurelink.com, 2007. http://www.adventurelink.com/WhatisAdventureTravel.aspx

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