Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, talks about about opportunities in this fast-growing segment of the industry
Mingling with whales is just one of many tour options that fall under the
category of adventure travel, a market that holds huge growth potential.
The adventure travel industry has experienced a major boom in recent years,
with hundreds of new tours popping up and more operators and companies entering
the lucrative business.
“The growth pattern in adventure travel is extremely high,” says Shannon
Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). “It’s
because people want more from their vacation, they want something
transformative, they want it to be memorable.”
ATTA, a global organization formed to grow and promote the adventure travel
market, has some 800 members, from tour operators to travel agents to media
providers. One of its goals is to encourage more people to get out and explore
Since the term adventure travel elicits a variety of images and ideas for
each person, ATTA tries to help define what exactly it is and establish an
understanding among customers and businesses. Stowell says a trip must have
three elements to categorize it as adventure travel. First, it has to have some
sort of physical activity, not necessarily extreme. In fact, hiking is probably
the most common pursuit on adventure tours. Second, there has to be some kind of
connection to nature, such as a wildlife tour or a trek through the forest or
mountains. Third, it has to include some kind of cultural experience.
“It can be extreme or it can be quite mellow,” Stowell says. “A walking tour
in Scotland can be an adventure tour for somebody, and for somebody else it
could be hiking in Nepal. There is some variation in the definition in the
As adventure travel has become more popular, the selection of tours has grown
substantially, making it tough to know where to begin for travelers who have
never done an adventure trip.
“The beauty of adventure travel is it’s so broad and varied that I think if a
person has a fascination with a place or an activity, it is what they should
pursue,” Stowell says.
A seasoned traveler, Stowell has journeyed to some off-the-map destinations.
One of the most interesting, he notes, was a trip to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq,
mostly because it is lightly traveled by people from the West. A destination
such as this is certainly a possibility, though few novice travelers may want to
Classic destinations include Machu Picchu in Peru, or any city in Brazil, a
personal favorite of Stowell’s. In fact, South America is a current hotspot,
according to a survey of some 400 ATTA members. Norway, one of the few places
where travelers can ski to the ocean, is also popular, offering activities from
dog sledding to horseback riding and hiking.
One trend is a boom in soft adventure travel, a mellower category that can
include anything from walking and biking tours to sightseeing and boating.
Custom itineraries are also popular, and tour operators are getting into the
action by creating programs with activities that have rarely been done on
certain trips or in specific locations.
Part of ATTA’s mission is to educate tour operators on the best practices of
adventure travel and help them boost their reputations as quality companies.
Stowell recommends listening to what customers want and experimenting with a few
different itineraries to gauge interest. Many companies may have a current
experience or trip that could be changed or given a new twist, he says.
Consumers should check companies’ qualifications to make sure they meet
specific standards. For example, it is essential for the company to have
experienced, well-trained guides with proper certifications, as high-quality
leaders make for a more personalized experience. And ATTA is there to lend a
hand to companies. The organization will be launching an educational program
aimed at the trade to increase knowledge about adventure tourism. The program
will include skills training, such as certification for rafting or mountain
guiding. The idea is that ATTA will have an educational offering that increases
the professionalism and opportunities for travel companies and destinations.
“We exist to try to grow the sustainable side of the adventure travel
industry,” says Stowell. “We’re really serious about trying to help companies
increase their adventure tourism businesses and to do it responsibly.”
A large part of that initiative is the Adventure Travel World Summit, which
gathers hundreds of tourism industry professionals in one exciting location to
learn and invest in adventure travel, which many consider to be the future of
tourism. This year’s summit will be held in Namibia, marking the first time the
event will take place in Africa.
So why Namibia?
“The core reason for Namibia is it is one of the shining stars in Africa now
for wildlife conservation,” Stowell says. That has been achieved over the last
20 years through “community conservancy.” These are basically plots of land with
a tourism-interest site composed of one or many lodges. The owners and local
communities sign a legal agreement whereby the communities benefit from what the
lodges earn from tourists. The lodges, in turn, succeed by having incredible
wildlife for customers to see. It puts everybody in charge of protecting the
At the summit in 2012, Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the World
Tourism Organization, left the crowd with an insightful observation: “Adventure
travel is what travel should be today and will be tomorrow.”
Adventure travel, with its strong focus on nature and culture, has the
opportunity to be a preserver of human and natural capital, according to
Stowell. He, along with Rifai, sees adventure travel as a way to explore the
world more responsibly.
As for where adventure travel can go, it seems unlimited.
“I think adventure travel is an expression of the creative interest of
humans,” Stowell says. As long as humans remain curious about the world, the
adventure tourism industry will continue to thrive.
“The interesting thing about adventure tourism is that it’s about people
exploring, so the directions it can go, I think, are incredibly diverse,” says
Stowell. “We haven’t even thought about some of the things that will be offered
as tours five years from now.”
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