WITH a pounding heart, Bill Mayville of Coral Gables, Fla., was allowed to take control of a howling MIG-25 jet in a blue sky somewhere over Moscow.
First, he slammed the jet plane through the sound barrier, then banked it in a maneuver that brought the full force of nine Gs on his body. "It was incredible," he says, "a dream fulfilled."
For the moment, overlook the staggering price he paid for his supersonic, Walter-Mittyesque adventure: $20,000 for a four-day package to fly three kinds of MIGs, all arranged by MIGS ETC., a Sarasota, Fla., adventure-travel company.
What motivated Mr. Mayville - the owner of several insurance companies - to ease himself into a MIG, is sheer adventure. He and the growing millions of Americans who raft down Chile's rivers, trek in the Himalayas, rock climb in Colorado, scuba dive in the Red Sea, or fly a MIG are turning the $416 billion travel industry upside down.
"I think the Cancun and Waikiki beaches of the world are in serious trouble," says Jerry Mallet, president of The Adventure Travel Society, a trade association based in Englewood, Colo. "Adventure travel will displace a lot of the surf-and-sand people who will grow frustrated from sitting on the beach," he says.
From explosive growth in the early 1980s, adventure travel and its cousin, ecotourism, continue to be the fastest- growing segments of the travel industry. The Ecotourism Society claims "40 to 60 percent of all international tourists are nature tourists." And The Adventure Travel Society says that, in years to come, "the real growth [in travel] is going to be in active outdoor recreation."
More women join the fun
Twenty years ago, the adventure traveler was typically a solo male on a shoestring budget. Today, says The Adventure Travel Society, women make up 51 percent of the market. And more couples, families, and seniors are heading out for adventure these days.
While most travel experts agree that relaxing vacations at plush hotels under designer beach umbrellas will continue to be popular, they predict the adventure market will continue to expand. More and more countries, encouraged by travel companies, are promoting adventure travel. Where big hotels tend to distance tourists from local sites and native people, adventure travel and ecotourism put visitors into different cultures.
"Just about every country in the world wants to get this kind of business," says Mr. Mallet, "because they know it doesn't take the heavy infrastructure of big hotels."
Travel companies with exotic, expedition-like treks and journeys have multiplied rapidly in the last 15 years. Outdoor magazines are flourishing with growing advertising support. Many travel books, like the Lonely Planet series, foster simple, adventurous travel anywhere.
The Adventure Travel Society estimates there are now 8,000 outfitters for outdoor adventure trips in the United States and 9,000 outdoor-equipment stores.
Access on the Internet
Adventure travel has hit the Internet, too. This month PIG Intertainment, a cyberspace magazine on the Internet, welcomes entries from the "been-there, done-that" traveler in a contest to find the "Top Ten Obscure Road Trips & Excursions in America."
"Much of society today is aware of the benefits of physical and mental well-being," says Steve Conlon, director of Above the Clouds Trekking based in Worcester, Mass. "These people see new options," he says. "They can walk the Alps and Himalayas and have a good time. No longer does it sound off-the-wall. While a lot of these trips don't come cheap, people want to enjoy their money now before they get too old."
For Baily Ruckert, who owns a bed-and-breakfast inn in Wellfleet, Mass., a trek to Nepal was a physical test as well as involvement with another culture. "We were climbing a monkey trail," she says, "a strenuous climb, and I said, 'Why am I doing this?' But we made it to the top, and felt proud of our accomplishment."
The increase in adventure travel launched ecotourism, an effort to protect fragile environments from thousands of eager tourists. But animal and natural habitats have been overwhelmed in parts of the world when tourist dollars are the only priority. In Nepal's Annapurna area, for instance, the number of trekkers rose from 14,332 in 1980 to 44,417 in 1992. The trekkers contributed to the deforestation there by raiding the forests for campfire wood.
Ecotourism is supposed to mitigate environmental abuse, sustain local wonders, and foster native well-being by using local guides and native-run accommodations. While some travel companies have been instrumental in responsible adventure travel, others promote the concept while continuing to abuse the environment.
"We define ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people," says Megan Epler Wood, executive director of The Ecotourism Society in North Bennington, Vt.
But ecotourism, the less physically vigorous of the two concepts, requires a balance between environmental and economic needs.
"Each country looks at this differently," Mr. Conlon says. "Costa Rica may be the only country where there is a genuine sense of what could be considered a modestly pervasive attitude to protect their natural assets," he says. "In most countries, the best you can hope for is that they say, 'If we can be more responsible, we will get more tourist dollars.' If they think that way, it's a victory."