And on the Final Day We'll Swim Naked with Aliens!

The latest word in adventure travel: If you've got a fantasy, we'll make it happen

Oct 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Mike Adams is baleful. Hoping to replicate the buzz he got when he shelled out $20,000 to fly a couple of Russian MiGs last year for his 40th birthday ("At five g's, I couldn't move," he says. "It was great"), the Anaheim, California, scrap-metal scion had signed up for an even more improbable adventure, a $32,000 journey in a three-man Mir submersible to the rusting hull of the Titanic. Alas, the trip was recently cancelled following a lawsuit brought by the company with salvage rights to the wreck. "I'm so bummed," sighs Adams. "How am I going to top that?"

How indeed? Adventure travel in the United States — a $200 million business that now accounts for about half of all tourism, according to the Denver-based Adventure Travel Society — has become such a staple of mainstream culture that its average client is a swashbuckling 50-year-old woman. "This is the Peace Corps generation," explains Richard Bangs, founder of adventure travel pioneer Sobek Expeditions (now Mountain Travel-Sobek). "People aren't afraid to get their fingernails dirty." What this all means for discriminating customers like Adams ("I get bored easily," he says flatly), and the increasing number of outfitters competing for his attention, is that there are only two ways to go to find something truly new: more extreme, or more arcane.

"There are a lot of eccentric people out there," says Charlie Gibbs, president of the Costa Mesa, California-based Creative Adventure Club. "And they have a lot of money." Which means that vacation planning has never been so ... entertaining. Gibbs, for instance, packages trips for just about any fantasy, from swimming with wild dugongs in the South Pacific to sleeping in Iban longhouses in Borneo beneath rows of human skulls, the heads of enemies formerly proferred by tribesmen to blushing prospective brides. There's even a semiannual directory, Specialty Travel Index, that lists trips by every conceivable geographic and personal interest, such as kosher tours of Yellowstone and nude whale-watching in Hawaii. Wanna see UFOs? Sign up for Magical Journey's Sojourn with Aliens in the Andes. Like your imaginary friends even more preposterous? Try taking the hallucinogen ayahuasca in Peru under the tutelage of former High Times editor Peter Gorman. Sex? A Sausalito company, InnerQuest Wilderness Adventures, offers tantric outings timed to coincide with meteor showers.

Meanwhile, trips pushing the edges of the adventure envelope are also becoming more prevalent. For instance, next spring a Utah-based outfitter plans to offer a $20,000-per-person descent of Tibet's Tsangpo Gorge, not just the deepest chasm on earth, but also one of the more dangerous. Scuba outfitters such as Costa Rica-based Undersea Hunters now feature "rebreathing" technology that allows divers to venture longer, and deeper, than ever before. Such coveted superlatives — highest, deepest, loneliest — are nice if you can get them, but they're also running dry.

Which brings us to outer space. Several travel firms are already taking reservations for suborbital flights. ("Be Bold, Question Gravity!" burbles one brochure.) There's just one glitch: No spacecraft has yet been designed, tested, or approved by the FAA. Seventeen aerospace firms are currently competing for the honor and a $10 million, privately-financed pot for the company that gets there first. "It's just a matter of time," says Chris Ostendorf, spokesman for Zegrahm Space Voyages, which has optimistically scheduled its first flight — 62 miles straight up, allowing clients to enjoy two and a half precious minutes of weightlessness — for December 2001. The price: $98,000.

Indeed, these days selling risk can be a very lucrative proposition, as evidenced by the niche carved by entrepreneur Mike McDowell. Even though one of his three companies, Adventure Network International, lost three sky divers at the South Pole last year, McDowell continues to book passages farther into the margins, offering both a suborbital trip through his Space Adventures and the aforementioned Titanic expedition — now optimistically being marketed for 1999, pending a ruling this fall — via his Deep Ocean Expeditions.

But how many vacationers will consistently choose risking their necks over a little well-deserved R&R? Some of the newly hatched specialty trips will undoubtedly flop, predicts Bangs. Mountain Travel's basket-weaving-in-Peru and psychic-hot-spots-of-the-world trips "didn't sell very well," he admits. "Gimmicks abound, but what will prove lasting?" he asks. "After all, rafting trips down the Grand Canyon are still selling out every year."