Anatomy of an Adventure
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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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
David Noland’s book on adventure travel will be published by Vintage in early 1997.