Hot air balloon crash: Despite risk, adventure tourism on the upswing

Hot air balloon crash in Egypt leaves 19 dead. A woman on a hiking trip in Hawaii swept away and drowned. Adventure vacations have serious consequences, some like the balloon crash and hiking trip happened recently, but the industry is growing. 

By , Associated Press

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    Like the hot air balloon crash in Egypt, seen here after the hot air balloon burst in a flash of flame, tragedy can strike while tourists seek thrills. But the adventure touring industry is growing despite its inherent risks.
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When Carole Rosenblat was growing up in the 1970s, her parents' idea of an adventurous vacation was "driving cross-country from Michigan to California in a non-air-conditioned car with three kids."

Her idea of adventure is a little different: "Jumping out of planes — things like that. Parasailing, hot-air ballooning. These things make you know you're alive!"

And the balloon accident in Egypt that killed 19 people Tuesday is not likely to deter her from future adventures. "It does not give me pause at all," said Rosenblat, a freelance writer and occasional tour guide based in Gilbert, Ariz.

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Rosenblat's attitude is part of what's fueling worldwide growth in adventure travel. It's an $89 billion industry, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and it has grown 17 percent in each of the past two years, according to the association's president, Shannon Stowell. That's four times the rate of the overall tourism industry, which grew about 4.6 percent in 2011.

But while travelers may think nothing of bungee-jumping or whitewater rafting as the perfect way to bring home bragging rights, these types of activities are not risk-free. Indeed, while statistically rare, accidents involving adventure vacations happen on a regular basis. To cite just a few recent headlines: This past weekend, a woman was swept away and drowned in Hawaii on a hiking trip with 55 people. Recreational diving deaths have been reported this month in both California and Florida. A woman parasailing in Florida last summer died when her harness gave way, one of 70 parasailing deaths in the past 30 years. And 54 skiers and snowboarders died in accidents on US ski slopes last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

A family of four went missing at sea this weekend, though the US Coast Guard suggested it could be a hoax after calling off their search yesterday.

The industries that promote these activities are quick to note that driving is by far the most dangerous thing you're likely to do at home or on vacation. An estimated 36,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the US in 2012.

In contrast, in the past decade, only 15 people have died in ballooning accidents in the US, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Glen Moyer, spokesman for the Balloon Federation of American, noted that balloon operations in the US are heavily regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, including licensing and training for pilots, plus balloon inspections for every 100 hours of commercial flight time.

"When we hear about a dramatic event like a balloon exploding, it plumbs the depths of our fears, whereas when we hear about an automobile accident — not so much," said Stowell, the Adventure Travel Trade Association head. "The reality is that with adventure travel overall, if you're going with a good operator who knows what they're doing, you are as safe or safer than when you're on your own in a vehicle."

Hot-air ballooning has been around for centuries, but many travelers still consider it as exciting as parasailing or bungee jumping.

Christopher Elliott, an editor at large for National Geographic Traveler, has spent the past year traveling with his kids for a project called AwayIsHome.com. He said that planning their itinerary every day involves asking, "Is this an acceptable risk?" — most recently when snowshoeing on a frozen lake in Canada.

"It's a judgment call," Elliott said. "I would not have hesitated to get on that balloon and put my family on the balloon. It's not something ridiculously dangerous like feeding the lion raw meat with your hand from a Jeep. That's what makes it so troubling: We could see ourselves on that balloon and we'd be dead now."

But he added that sedentary vacations are, for many people, a thing of the past.

"People expect more from their vacations, and that sometimes involves high-risk activity," he said. "We want all our friends to think we took the most exciting vacation. And maybe some of it is driven by reality shows or the Travel Channel. Everyone wants that extreme experience."

A blogger from The Christian Science Monitor recalls a time period where her family, including two young sons, sailed around the country. She writes in "Missing at sea: Hoax or no, a lesson to foolproof family ventures": "At one point my husband was nearly swept overboard when a hatch cover he stepped on gave way beneath him and he hung by his fingertips to the life rail because he hadn’t secured his lifeline."

Is there any way for consumers to protect themselves from unnecessary risks? For one thing, Stowell said, do your homework. Before signing up for an adventure, look on websites like TripAdvisor for consumer reviews, contact industry associations to learn about safety recommendations, and ask for referrals from trustworthy sources like travel agents, cruise operators, or hotel concierges.

Experts also recommend travel insurance. Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor, says most Americans don't realize their health insurance does not protect them overseas. Make sure any travel policy you buy covers medical treatment, as well as evacuation and transportation to the facility of your choice, Greenberg said.

Pauline Frommer, the travel guidebook writer, noted that "many insurance policies specifically exclude injuries that arise from these sorts of adventure activities, which can be an ugly surprise for travelers. So, if you're planning on bungee jumping or canyoneering or some other type of adventure activity, be sure to get a policy that will actually cover you should something go wrong."

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Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the US Travel Insurance Association, said standard policies may cover ordinary recreation like hiking and skiing, but you can also buy policies for extreme sports. In either case, consumers should double-check what's covered.

While many of these types of activities require consumers to sign a waiver of liability in case of accident, as Elliott put it, "you sign that piece of paper and you don't even read it."

"People assume they're entitled to have the best of both worlds: Extreme adventure and complete safety," he added. "That does not align with reality."

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