Adventure Challenges Make for Good Stories

Rolling through Spanish villages on motorcycles, Richard Berg and his friend were unaware that behind them in a battered, slower car the local police were in hot pursuit.

Mr. Berg, a veteran motorcyclist and windsurfer from Boston, was riding through Europe on a classic adventure trip. "I love challenges on a trip that force you to discover new capacities and qualities in yourself," he says, echoing some of the reasons millions of travelers want increased adventure these days.

When the angry police finally snared the errant twosome, the outcome of the escapade gave Berg another reason for adventure travel: great stories to tell when you get home.

"We didn't know it was the police," says Berg. "Every time the little car got closer, we returned their waves and sped away. When they finally stopped us they were all wearing guns and furious at us. They said we had to pay $800 on the spot for speeding. When we refused, they took us to the local station."

Behind closed doors, the two cultures tried for understanding with only sign language to help. The tide turned somewhat when Berg said they were willing to spend a night in jail, but, "Hey, you guys want to take a ride on the motorcycle?" Later Berg and his friend were released and roared away as the police waved cheery goodbyes.

Whether traveling well away from the beaten path like Berg, or in small, organized groups on rafts churning down a Chilean river, the increasing numbers of adventure travelers today continue to profoundly impact the travel industry worldwide.

For many adventure-travel providers, like Outer Edge Expeditions in Walled Lake, Mich., business has never been better. "We nearly doubled our sales in l997," says Brian Obrecht, co-founder of Outer Edge with his wife, Lisa. "Let's face it, travel is a luxury." he says.

"The economy is good, and more and more people are willing to leave the Club Med experience for something more challenging," he adds. Estimates by some travel experts put the number of adventure travelers today as high as 50 percent of all United States travelers.

One indication that interest in such travel runs high in the US lies in the use of national forests. According to The Adventure Travel Society, use of US national forests has increased in the last seven years from about 250 million to 857 million recreation days. (A recreation day is defined as one person spending 12 hours in a forest.)

"I predict strong growth in adventure travel for the next 40 years," says Jerry Mallet, president of The Adventure Travel Society, a trade association based in Englewood, Colo.

"The huge growth is going to come in other countries," he says. "Right now many of the countries are learning the idiosyncrasies of providing service to Americans. A lot of the inbound operators from countries are training in the US to learn what we are looking for. Canadians and Europeans are a little easier to deal with."

Adventure travel has more than one definition, not just an exotic brush with danger. Adventure travel embraces subcategories such as "ecotourism" where trips specialize in interpreting the natural world, and not necessarily at the end of a 10-mile hike.

To most backpackers in their 20s, the only pure adventure travel comes from experiences like trekking in Nepal. These trekkers want few comforts. They eat the local foods, sleep in the open, bathe in rivers, and like unpredictable encounters.

In another variation, for the 50- to 60-year-olds on a planned trip with Overseas Adventure Travel based in Cambridge, Mass., for instance, the slogan "active days and comfortable nights" captures their sense of adventure.

"This is a softer kind of adventure," says Marybeth Bond, author of "Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road (O'Reilly & Associates), "It doesn't have to be hiking 12 miles a day," she says, "or rafting down a Class IV river.

"It can be riding in a Land Rover in the Sahara and coming across Bedouin tribes who invite you to have tea. But the overall trip won't be three nights without a shower."

In addition to "softer adventure," Ms. Bond cites two more trends in adventure travel. "More women are doing adventure travel," she says, "and the average age of the adventure traveler is moving up." According to Backpacker magazine, some 53 percent of US backpackers are now women.

Pamela Logan, who has traveled alone deep inside Tibet and China on foot, bicycle, and horse, says that increasing numbers of women are experiencing adventure travel because it is empowering. "To me adventure travel implies some discomfort," says Ms. Logan, author of "Among Warriors: a Martial Artist in Tibet" (The Overlook Press).

"But once you realize you can handle it," she says, "and you can get around, and eat the food and find ways to communicate, you are empowered and want to do more."

Adventure travel comes in for some criticism as a possible strong factor in westernizing other cultures. "We did some studies in the Amazon for the Nature Conservancy," says Ms. Wood. "Other factors such as oil companies, TV, and the telephone had a greater impact on the culture, and the changes in cultures are happening so fast that tourism is not the dominant factor."

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