September 19, 2011
Risky business: Adventure tourism increasing in U.S. and overseas
Nearly 20 people have died at Yosemite National Park in California so far this year, an increase from previous years. While accidental deaths happen at this and other parks every year, this number represents an increase that could cause would-be travelers to stick to their own backyards.
Or maybe not.
Despite this increase, a growing trend in the U.S. is adventure tourism, which Kansas State University's Ryan Bergstrom defines as tourism combining physical activity, cultural exchange and interaction with nature. Bergstrom, an instructor who teaches the Geography of Tourism course at K-State, said this type of traveling is typically broken down into two categories: soft and hard adventure tourism.
"Soft adventure tourism takes tourists beyond the typical travel itinerary and brings them to places that are rewarding to the spirit but without excessive physical demands," Bergstrom said. "Hard adventure tourism is also rewarding to the spirit, but adds additional physical challenges, higher risk and often pushes people outside of their comfort zones."
Soft adventure tourism includes familiar activities like camping and hiking. Hard adventure tourism includes higher-risk activities like mountaineering, white-water rafting and rock climbing. However, some adventure seekers take their adrenaline rush further, like Ted Cable, K-State professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources. Cable has gone on trips worldwide, including African safaris and a potential upcoming trip to Iraq.
"There is always some sort of risk with international travel, whether it be disease or accidents," he said. "Adventure tourism involves risk."
Adventure tourism can take place inside the United States as well, Cable added, including national parks.
"There are groups that don't want to be rescued, no matter what; they love that rush," Cable said. "They don't even want signs on the trails. To accommodate everyone, there are national wilderness areas from the Bureau of Land Management. Such agencies struggle with the question of how much do they protect people from themselves without ruining their wilderness experience."
Whether it's staying one step ahead of a bear in a national park or climbing a mountain in Afghanistan, Cable said tourists are turning up all over the world in places that many would not expect. National parks in Kenya, for instance, are popular tourists destinations. Cable recalled an instance on a safari in Kenya when 34 vehicles raced to one spot at word of a lion sighting, resulting in 200 pairs of eyes gawking at the same lion in the wild.
"Some adventure tourism is becoming more mainstream," he said. "But then in other places, such as many African parks, tourists aren't allowed to even get out of their vehicles because of the potential danger of a large predator lurking in the grass."
With risks like wild animals and rough terrain lurking around every corner, one might wonder where the appeal is in adventure tourism. Bergstrom said people might be inherently drawn to places that are unknown to them -- the terra incognita.
It's not hard to quickly and easily transpose oneself anywhere in the world, Bergstrom said. While most people are content to watch a show on the Discovery Channel to keep them engaged, a segment of the population is not satisfied with their tourist experience being defined by high-definition streaming content.
"They actually take the next step," he said. "They purchase a plane ticket, pack their bags and end up sipping tea on the shores of the Band-e Amir in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. The danger is not so much the actual or perceived physical threats of these places, but rather never knowing what awaits them."
These adventure lovers might also be hard-wired to seek out an adrenaline rush. Jane Hansen, a psychologist with K-State counseling services, said the Enneagram personality model labels individuals as being one of nine personality types. An adventure tourist may be a type seven: the adventurer, a person who does not want limits, is active and believes the experience is more important than success.
"This kind of person asks themselves, 'What lights me up, what makes me feel like life is worthwhile?'" Hansen said. "Individuals have different resilience levels and tolerance of stress, some thrive in it."
To many -- such as war veterans with elevated levels of cortisol -- it may feel normal to have lots of action or uncertainty around them, she said. Others may be looking to get out of the structure and monotony of a desk job. However, this could be a cause of increased accidents at parks and nature sites around the world.
"There's a certain likelihood of an accident if you're free-climbing rocks, and people spend more time at their computer and at home than they do practicing those skills," Hansen said. "People with certain jobs, such as farmers, are engaged physically and have a different body awareness, as well as an ability to more accurately read and understand the cues in their environment."
To prepare for an adventurous trip, Hansen suggested asking some self-reflective questions, including honestly evaluating expectations for the trip and determining if they can be met. Cable also suggested visiting the U.S. State Department's website to look for travel warnings, and doing homework on the destination before traveling.