"Your Pentagon has been attacked, 50,000 dead. World War III has started. You must leave the country."
Boarding pass: armed security at Boston's Logan International Airport
Talk about strange ways to receive bad news. On September 17, at an 11,000-foot base camp in Pakistan's Hindu Kush RangeÂ—20 miles from the Afghanistan borderÂ—Colorado-based alpinist Chad McFadden was handed a scrawled note by a Pakistani guide who was telling him, in effect, that the world had turned upside down. Deeply shocked ("I felt sick to my stomach") McFadden didn't fully grasp what was happening back home until he fired up his laptop and read an e-mail from his father, who accurately described the terrorist attacks on the United States. After that, McFadden and two other Americans who were in Pakistan to climb 15,360-foot Mount Kampur acted fast. Once they broke camp, they boarded a van for a 340-mile ride through the nation's Taliban-influenced countryside. After a tense day of lying low in Islamabad, they caught a night flight to Oman, abandoning $10,000 worth of alpine tents, expedition sleeping bags, ice tools, and other equipment. Five days later, the team arrived safely in Denver.
McFadden's thoughts were all about getting home, but back in the States, as fear gripped the traveling public, members of the travel industry turned to the future of going abroad: Who would want to fly, and where? The early prognosis for the $582 billion North American travel industry was alarming. In the first days after the attacks, the American Society of Travel Agents reported reservation cancellation rates as high as 50 percent. Travelers were especially leery of nations spotlighted in the State Department's worldwide alert about countries known to harbor radical Islamic groupsÂ—including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
The industry's adventure-travel sectorÂ—serving about 20 million Americans who spent $240 billion last yearÂ—took its share of hits as well, but showed signs of greater short- and long-term resiliency. Since no comprehensive statistics exist for bookings in the active-travel business, Outside canvassed 36 outfittersÂ—from industry heavyweights such as Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson to smaller companies such as Ultimate Ascents, out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Based on this informal survey, it appears that the attacks' immediate aftermath saw roughly a 10 percent cancellation rate, predominantly affecting trips to Central Asia, East Africa, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Pakistan's traditional travel season ended at the same time as McFadden's escape, but Nepal's fall trekking season, which normally runs from October into November, suffered its share of these immediate cancellations.
In a handful of cases, jittery clients forced the cancellation of entire trips. Mountain Link, a California-based outfitter, backed out of a Kilimanjaro expedition scheduled for late October when seven of its 11 clients begged off. Butterfield & Robinson eventually dumped fall trips to Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt. And Explore Inc., located in Colorado, canceled its October trip to Ethiopia after the museum sponsoring the visit to Christian holy sites bowed out. In sum, there were signs of understandable nervousness about countries where U.S. foreign policy and the looming threat of war could create dangerous tensions. "Any Islamic country is going to be a difficult sell in the near-future, especially to more mainstream travelers," says Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society, a trade organization that represents more than 700 adventure outfitters. "In fact, any country with a religion that Americans aren't familiar with will suffer lost business."
Even so, the number of cancellations could have been much greater, and the high retention rate heralded a quick return to normal for adventure travel. As the weeks wore on after the attacks, companies reported that a rising number of clients called to confirm that their Asia and Africa trips were still on. And new reservations for the remainder of this year and early 2002 suggest a national appetite for active travel that remains strong, though it has been redirected toward less volatile parts of the world.
Mountain Travel Sobek, for instance, reported that three-quarters of its new customers were bound for destinations in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific; in response, the company is already adding trips to Patagonia and Peru, confident that demand will stay healthy. "They traveled during the Gulf War, and they'll travel now," says marketing director Robyn Gorman. "We expect to see a surge of interest in Latin America, North America, and the Pacific."
Even after U.S. and British war planes attacked Afghanistan in early October, two outfitters did not back down from planned expeditions to neighboring Pakistan in 2002. While the air strikes prompted Mountain Madness to cancel its planned spring trips to K2, Mountain Travel Sobek and KE Adventure Travel both remained committed to a combined 13 trips to the Islamic nation next year.
Could adventure travelers really be more inclined to sticking to their plans than other travelers? Robert Link, chief guide for Mountain Link, thinks so, and says this is true partly because they plan and prepare more meticulously. "They're not people hopping on a cruise ship; they're buying the proper equipment and training for six months." In addition, he believes, such travelers are not easily cowed. "If you had a herd of animals, adventure travelers would be the ones living on the edge of the herd, where they face a little more danger but also get first crack at new experiences."
This pattern held with high-profile adventurers, who seemed set on pursuing their to-do listsÂ—though with a few detours. While Ed Viesturs postponed his spring plans to return to Pakistan's 22,291-foot Nanga Parbat in his quest to summit all the world's 8,000-meter peaks, he's not staying home. Instead he shifted his attention to the south face of Nepal's 26,504-foot Annapurna.
"It was a toss-up between the two peaks anyway," says the Seattle-based alpinist. "The events this past fall decided it for me." Seasoned high-alpine climbers Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler remain committed to summiting both Everest, in Nepal, and K2, in Pakistan, next yearÂ—though further military action in the region could force them to postpone.
Should Pakistan's Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges drop off the adventure map entirely, the news might be most welcomed 900 miles east, in Nepal. Though this past spring Nepal's Tourism Ministry announced it would open nine peaks that had previously been off-limits to climbers, by September the nation allowed that the number of fall expeditions had plummeted from the usual 50 to 22. However, with a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's first summiting of Everest set to begin in June, industry watchers suggest that the kingdom might enjoy an uptick in travelers. "Nepal is our biggest destination and 40 percent of our business, and we're pleased that we haven't seen a drop in bookings for 2002," says Andy Crisconi, owner of KE Adventure Travel. With new peaks to attempt and thinner crowds, the spring climbing and trekking season might well prove an unbeatable bargain. Says Lhawang Dhondup, partner at KathmanduÃ•s Nomad Expeditions: "There'll be a lot more competition among the trekking companies for a lot less clients."
Just as surely as the Big E will still draw backpackers and alpinists, terror or no terror, adventure travel is poised to continue the steady 6 percent per annum growth the market has seen for the last three years. Only the destinations have changed, not the desire. Just ask Chad McFadden. Assuming he can recover his gear from Pakistan by January, he hopes to head off on a climbing trip to Patagonia that same month. To him, the moments of gripping anxiety, such as those he felt while ducking Taliban sympathizers in the northern regions of Pakistan, are the reason he went to the Hindu Kush mountains in the first place. "The trip to Pakistan was cheap, awe-some, and at other times terrifying," he says. "And that's adventure travel."
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Additional reporting by Jason Daley and Jannifer Villeneuve