Adventure travel takes off

Travel has been on my mind a lot recently. Like clockwork, the end of a Boston winter always has me thinking of warmer weather. I’ve been wondering, how many other people are traveling? Today, people are traveling in high volumes and with purpose. The National Travel and Tourism Office’s recent report shows the number of Americans traveling internationally climbed to all-time high of almost 67 million in 20161—almost 20% of the US population that year.2 And for those who traveled domestically, or international travelers coming to the US? They spent $1.9 million a minute on travel.3

Why? Travel lets us escape. It can help us disconnect from our day-to-day routine, or connect with others. It lets us unplug, or plug in. It can challenge us and widen our view, or release us of responsibilities and narrow our focus to the present.

I found my reason for travel on a backpacking trip a few years ago. I’d taken plenty of trips, but this was my first trip fully dedicated to exploring a place actively. The combination of fresh air and tired legs allowed me to take in the mountains with a heightened appreciation. I was hooked. I came home and started planning: treks up Rainer and Kilimanjaro, a mountaineering trip, and a destination marathon. There was something about challenging myself in a new location that made me feel like a kid again. It added a dose of curiosity and fun. I concentrated as we scrambled up rocks, and tried not to look down during the most exposed part of the ridgeline (I’m afraid of heights!). When we got to each peak, my friend and I would often run to the summit and high-five with what can only be described as childlike joy.

Research shows I’m not alone. For years, active and adventure travel has been one of the fastest-growing niches of the global travel market.4 While a mountaineering expedition might fit your expected definition of an adventure trip, the active travel market spans much more broadly than traditional high-adventure activities, and has enduring appeal.


Something for everyone


In a world where travel is continuously picking up momentum, adventure travel is taking off. Reports show the adventure travel market has experienced 65% growth each year since 2009. According to luxury tour provider Virtuoso, 42% of travelers cited an adventure activity as the focus of their last trip.4

At its core, adventure travel is about physical participation in your environment. It includes everything from highly physical “hard-adventure” trips—think paragliding, spelunking, ice climbing, or white-water rafting—to “soft-adventures” such as a snorkeling, sailing, a family bike tour, or a safari.

Not surprisingly, soft adventure is one of the quickest-growing sectors.5 It allows more travelers, including those less interested in high-active pursuits, to get on board. Tour operators and travel agents have responded with itineraries to broaden the definition of an adventure trip. These excursions cater to a range of travelers—such as couples wanting to travel together with different levels of enthusiasm (one adventuresome partner, married to someone less so) or multi-generational families traveling with grandparents and toddlers alike.6

Tour operators such as Butterfield & Robinson and Gray & Co., are renowned for designing customized trips in a certain area (in this case, luxury bike tours) that artfully combine the interests of those with varied fitness levels and activity preferences. Other trips couple adventure with cultural or culinary immersion. For instance, Whole Foods has launched a travel segment called Whole Journeys. It’s designed to combine wellness travel with immersive local culinary exploration. Within the running community in Boston, where I live, I know many people running the World Marathon Majors—six of the largest global races. But recently, I heard of a different kind of destination race. Two of my friends recently ran Le Marathon du Médoc, which attracts runners to France every year with 26.2 miles of winding through picturesque vineyards—plus wine stops, steak, ice cream, oysters and lots of cheering onlookers enjoying the festive atmosphere.7

Nancy Varney says the experience was a refreshing departure from the kinds of active travel she’s done in the past. “I’ve run marathons in ten states, from my own backyard to cross country destinations. This was by far the most memorable. We stepped outside the realm of a “normal” race, and loved every minute of it.”


From 1 to 100


Interestingly, the adventure travel trend touches almost everyone, proving just as strong among middle aged and even older travelers as millennials.5 Today, the average age of an adventure traveler is 48.8

A few demographics in particular are seeing notable growth:

  1. Millennials are soon to be the largest market in travel.8 Of all age groups, they are more inclined to spend on experiences (such as travel) as opposed to possessions.9
  2. Older travelers, including those aged 65+, have disposable time and wealth to travel as compared to other groups. What may surprise you is the rate at which this group, too, has been choosing active travel itineraries.10
  3. Women make up more than half of active travelers5—and control 80% of today’s travel purchasing decisions.8


For the right reasons


Why is adventure travel so pervasive? Research makes a compelling case.1

Experiences are key

People’s attitudes towards travel in general in the past decade have undergone a dramatic shift from wanting to see things to wanting to experience things. Increasingly, travelers seek to be participants, not just tourists, in their destination environments. By getting travelers out to physically engage in their surroundings, active travel accomplishes this quite effectively. Not surprisingly, the happiness that comes from spending on experiences also tends to be longer-lasting then gratification from material purchases.11

Physical and emotional positives

The explosion of the wellness industry and heightened awareness of the physical benefits of exercise have put activity front and center. With 50% of Americans now getting the recommended amount of weekly exercise, many want to continue their favorite activities (and try new ones!) while on vacation.12 From yoga and meditation retreats, to high-intensity tabata and circuit classes taught by celebrity instructors, travel focused on wellness and exercise, too, is a niche that can’t be ignored.  While the benefits of exercise have long been cited, the combination of activity with travel creates some new rewards. Several health professionals now recommend adventure travel as an effective way to cope with the mounting stress of today’s world.13 Not to mention that pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone can provide confidence and help you tackle personal goals.

A better trip

Moving—in any capacity—can increase blood flow to your brain, reduce cortisol levels, and elevate your mood.14 15 Chances are you’ve heard this, but when considered in regard to travel, it means active touring can make trip memories more lasting and improve your ability to stay present on your trip (you can’t check e-mail while you’re cycling through the Argentinian countryside!) Without realizing it, you may enjoy your vacation more thanks to its active component.

You may also find yourself closer to those traveling with you. One of the most common reason for travel is connection—it’s why we travel with our children, our parents, and our friends—and group exercise has been shown to boost social bonds.16


Part of the nature of travel is that it’s ever-changing—yet active travel is one trend I believe is unlikely to be a passing craze. While the newest adventure trend may hop from one activity to another, and the list of top destinations is certain to evolve, the act of traveling adventurously not only affords activities for all ages and interests, but taps the fundamental reasons of why we take off in the first place.

So on the grayest days in Boston, I’ve been planning a summer trip with my family. While we’ve been back and forth on the destination (everywhere from Seattle to Switzerland is still in play), we’ll be trying at least one new activity together. Lucky for me, they agree there’s nothing quite like a new location to make getting out of your comfort zone (even) more fun.

Emily Gumbrecht is a Marketing Analyst at Berkley One (A Berkley Company).