Anatomy of an Adventure

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

Anatomy of an Adventure

As you sift through the multitude of trips out there, it's wise to know exactly what you're paying for
By David Noland

Flip through the pages of this year's Trip-Finder, our annual directory to the world's best adventures that follows, and you'll come across trips costing $210 to $18,000--a daunting range for the uninitiated. Figure out the per diem for a safari in Africa or a sea kayaking trip in Greenland and you're looking at an average of $225--up there with a four-star hotel. Are you paying luxury rates to sleep in a tent and eat beans and rice? Not exactly, but we can't blame people for puzzling over the high cost of roughing it in the far corners of the globe. Where's all the money going? Not, it would seem, into outfitters' pockets. "Nobody's making huge sums of money in this business," says Ben Wallace of Himalayan Travel. Indeed, industry stalwarts like Overseas Adventure Travel have suffered financial turbulence in recent years.

To provide some insight into the economics of such trips, and help you become a more astute trip-shopper, we chose a 22- to 30-day Annapurna circuit trek in Nepal, offered by a number of outfitters at prices ranging from $1,325 to $3,390. (Despite unseasonable avalanches and landslides, which killed dozens of trekkers and Sherpas and caused extensive evacuations last season--see Dispatches--all these outfitters plan to run treks in Nepal this year.) Here, we've broken down the costs of the Annapurna trek operated by Geographic Expeditions (formerly InnerAsia), a well-established San Francisco-based outfitter that charges $2,190, roughly in the middle of the price spectrum. The trip runs with anywhere from six to 16 members; the numbers below are based on a group of ten, the point at which the trip begins to make a reasonable profit.

Study the numbers below, learn the right questions to ask, know thyself, and then decide what you're willing to pay for--and what you're not.

What's included before and after the actual trek? In this case, Geographic Expeditions includes four nights in Kathmandu at the top-drawer Shangri La, which accounts for $244 per person. Cut-rate outfitters can shave costs here: The British company Explore, represented in the United States by Adventure Center, puts up its clients at the quite decent Yellow Pagoda for about $25 a night per person. Which is one reason Explore can offer its Annapurna trip at $1,630, nearly 25 percent below Geographic Expeditions. At the other extreme, Mountain Travel-Sobek, whose Annapurna trek is the dearest of the lot at $3,190, puts its people up at the Yak and Yeti, a $180-a-night palace. Take your pick.

While in the city, virtually all outfitters provide local tours for roughly the same cost; Geographic Expeditions allots $20 per person for two half-day van tours with guides. To get to and from the town of Pokhara, the jumping-off point for the Annapurna trek, most outfitters bus their clients; Geographic Expeditions flies, a semi-extravagance that costs $154 but takes a half-hour each way, versus nine hours on the bus. Airport transfers at both ends add another $18.

Are you paying for a Western trip leader? In a major cost-cutting move, Geographic Expeditions dispenses with a Western leader on this trek, which leaves the Nepalese Sherpa leader, or sirdar, in charge. His prime concern is to get you from A to B safely and to keep the trek staff cracking. In doing double duty, however, he may not have the time or the language skills to regale you with stories or lecture on local history, geology, and wildlife. "At one time we thought it was essential that all our Nepal trips be led by Western leaders," explains Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions. "But on well-trodden classic routes like Annapurna, documented by plenty of maps and guidebooks, many of our clients prefer a more economical approach."

The sirdar earns about $12 dollars a day (a handsome salary in a country where the average per capita income is $172), which costs each client $30. A Western trip leader, paid $100-$125 a day to schmooze and educate the customers full-time, would increase the price of Geographic Expeditions's Annapurna trek by $4,600 (for salary plus expenses), which would add $460 per person. A third alternative, a Western-educated Sherpa who hangs out with clients while the sirdar takes care of logistics, would earn about $75 per day and add about $350 to each participant's cost. You decide.

What are the actual camping costs? There's little fat to cut when it comes to the rest of the trekking entourage. Salaries for camp helpers and cooks--$6 to $10 per day--are pretty standard and tack on about $135 to each client's cost. The going rate for porters is $5.50 per day; some 30 or 40 are required for the Annapurna circuit, which (including insurance) comes to about $438 per trekker. As for camping equipment, Geographic Expeditions amortizes the cost of its tents, kitchen equipment, and sleeping bags over three years. Your share: $65.

Food allotment per client costs about $210 for all meals on the trek. Despite competition among outfitters to throw in frills like freshly ground French roast coffee and birthday cakes, cuisine doesn't vary much from lamb curry, roast chicken, and potatoes.

Trekkers on the Annapurna route are not permitted to burn wood because of deforestation. This means that approximately 200 gallons of kerosene, at about $4 per gallon, must be brought for cooking and boiling drinking water, which translates to about $68 per client. Add $25 per person for trash removal and recycling, $45 for mandatory trekking fees, and $25 for a contingency fund.

Some outfitters dispense with camping altogether and put their clients up in teahouses, very basic lodging along the route where room and board typically run only $15-$25 per day. Exodus, another British outfitter (represented in the United States by Safaricentre), operates its Annapurna circuit as a teahouse trek--a major reason it charges the rock-bottom price of $1,325. The downside is smoke, bedbugs, a lack of privacy, and unpredictable sanitation.

What medical attention can you expect in case of emergency? In addition to the standard first-aid kit, Geographic Expeditions takes emergency oxygen and a Gamow bag for treating altitude sickness; the cost is about $48 per client. It also claims to be the only company to include medical-evacuation insurance, secondary coverage that provides helicopter evacuation to Kathmandu and air ambulance transport back to the United States, in its standard trip price, at a cost of $25 per person; purchased separately it would cost about $100. (Without insurance, the tab for medical evacuation could run as high as $55,000.)

What overhead are you paying for? When you add it all up, the field cost for Geographic Expeditions's Annapurna trip is $1,550 per trekker. But then you have to consider overhead expenses.

The company's home office is in a beautifully refurbished old house in the heart of San Francisco, an expensive city. Your share of rent, utilities, and other operating costs comes to about $129, which could be easily undercut by leaner, smaller outfitters. The Kathmandu office, an old house in a modest district, adds another $27 per person.

Geographic Expeditions provides lavish pretrip services--reams of literature, medical advice, help with visas--all of which requires a big staff in a relatively high-priced job market. This costs you about $209. Because Geographic Expeditions does a lot of business with educational institutions, museums, and corporations, however, its per-capita marketing expenses, $70, are relatively modest (Himalayan Travel claims to spend about $150 to find one trek customer). About $50,000 per year goes to produce 35,000 copies of the company's plush catalog, and it costs at least that much to mail them. That's chicken feed by industry standards, though. One big outfitter spends roughly $350,000 a year on its catalog, a cost absorbed by 4,000 clients--almost $90 per head for the catalog alone.

A quarter of Geographic Expeditions's clients book through travel agents, who skim 10 percent off the top, and three-quarters use credit cards, which shaves off an additional 2 to 5 percent, so you're also paying for commissions, calculated at a cost of $95 per client.

The bottom line: It costs Geographic Expeditions $2,080 to take you around Annapurna. That leaves $110, a profit margin of about 5 percent.

What else makes a trip expensive? Fierce competition among outfitters on the Annapurna circuit assures reasonable prices and plenty of options. Unfortunately, that's not the case for every trip. Adventure travel in some parts of the world, such as Africa (perhaps because of its legacy of tented luxury in the bush) are inherently more expensive. In Botswana, for example, Elephant Back Safaris (U.S. representative: Esplanade Tours) offers six days of wandering through the Okavango Delta astraddle an elephant for the breathtaking price of $4,500 per person. That's because owner Randall Moore is the only person in the world who trained a herd of elephants from American zoos and transported them back to Africa. Ker & Downey now takes folks bushwalking for six days with tame elephants (though you don't actually ride them) for a still-whopping $2,820.

As the industry has grown and matured, however, trips that were once the exclusive domain of the rich have trickled down to the rest of us. For years, two cruise ships ruled Antarctica; a typical trip took 25 days and cost about $8,000. But a few years ago a fleet of Russian polar research vessels became available, and a number of new companies jumped into the Antarctic arena. Trips got shorter and prices plummeted. Quark Expeditions now runs 11-day Antarctic trips for $2,480 (for a four-berth cabin), plus airfare. Marine Expeditions and Overseas Adventure Travel, which books space on Marine Expeditions ships, have 11-day packages for as little as $3,490, airfare included.

Some trips to exotic countries are pricey simply because the host government charges high fees to all comers. Bhutan fixes field costs for outfitters at as much as $250 per day for hotel-based tours and $175 for treks. As a result, a three-week Himalayan trek that might cost $1,895 in eastern Nepal would sell for $4,200 in Bhutan, 50 miles away. But since hardly anyone goes to Bhutan, the few visitors find a virtually pristine countryside and culture. To some people, that's well worth the price of admission.

David Noland's book on adventure travel will be published by Vintage in early 1997.

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