Titan Sub Implosion Highlights “Extreme Tourism” Boom, but Adventure Can Bring Peril


The death of five people on the Titan sub highlights the surge in what some are calling “extreme tourism,” in which generally well-heeled travelers scale remote mountains, paraglide into canyons, ski down slopes accessible only by helicopter and embark on other exciting — but potentially risky — adventures.

This summer, for example, a record 106,000 tourists are expected to set foot in Antarctica after crossing the Drake Passage, a stretch of violent sea between South America and Antarctica. The Nepalese government this year also granted a record number of permits to climb Mount Everest, despite concerns about overcrowding and a spike in deaths that put 2023 on track to be one of the deadliest for the world’s tallest mountain. 

For $2,500, adventurers in search of warmer climes can book a week-long survival trek in the Guyanese jungle or go on a 10-day trip to the remote Solomon Islands, learning to fish and forage from the locals and then being transported to a desert island to put those skills to the test (cost: $42,000 and up.) Pelorus, a luxury travel company that arranged the Solomon Islands trip for a mother and her son, also offers customized experiences like trekking in Alaska ($19,600) or a three-week private-jet tour of the world ($178,000.)

The adventure travel business was worth nearly $300 billion last year and is projected to hit $1 trillion in a decade, according to a report from consulting firm Grand View Research.

The price of experience 

Demand for adventure travel has shot up since COVID-19, according to Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a company that evacuates travelers in the event of a medical or other emergency. 

“As opposed to sitting in a hotel somewhere and going to a museum or two, people want experiential travel — they want to go and actually do something,” he said.

“I think we’re seeing people trading aspirational purchases,” Richards added. Where once people might have splurged on a Porsche, now “they’re saying, I’m not going to spend $100,000 on the car, I’m going to take five trips to Africa with my family.”

African safaris have seen the fastest growth, Richards said, with coverage for safari trips up 75% from last year. Hiking and camping trips are up nearly 50%, in a continuation of pandemic-era trends, and demand for motorcycle tours has also increased.

Along with rising disposable incomes and a growing desire for “authentic” experiences in an increasingly globalized and connected world, social media is also playing a role in the adventure travel boom, Richards believes.

“People are definitely going after the bucket-list experiences,” he said.

Carl Shephard, cofounder of Insider Expeditions, a boutique travel company, has also seen demand for his services skyrocket in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“We’ve never been busier as a company,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.

Shepherd described his typical clients as people in their 30s or 40s who “are tight on time and want to spend money in the most epic way possible.”

The company last year organized a cruise from South America to Antarctica with Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band; earlier this year, it brought 200 entrepreneurs on a spiritual journey up the Nile River. Clients frequently request space flights as well as trips to extremely remote islands.

“We like to push the envelope in terms of experience, not in terms of safety,” he added.

Still, the pursuit of adventure raises the risk that things can go wrong. 

On Friday, when he spoke with CBS MoneyWatch, Richards said that Global Rescue was in the process of arranging transport for a traveler who had crashed his motorcycle in a remote part of Mongolia to a hospital in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. 

A day earlier, the company also evacuated three travelers from a paragliding expedition in the Kashmir region of the Karakoram, the rugged mountain chain that spans five Asian countries — one man who had a heart attack, a companion who injured himself rushing to his aid and a third person with severe gastrointestinal distress. 

In a typical year, Richards said his company will help rescue between 2,000 and 3,000 travelers, most for medical reasons.

“If you dream it, you can do it”

The growth of extreme tourism also reflects the commercial opportunities in allowing the moneyed masses to engage in the kind of exploits once reserved for hardened professionals. 

Blue Origin, the commercial space exploration company started by Jeff Bezos, touts its mission to fly “customer astronauts” to space (at a price ascending into the tens of millions of dollars), with the Amazon founder himself among those exploring the final frontier. And Virgin Galactic, the company launched by British billionaire Richard Branson to enable commercial spaceflight, declares in its marketing materials that “space belongs to everyone: the adventurous, the audacious and the curious.”

OceanGate, the company that made the 21-foot sub that suffered what U.S. Coast Guard officials described as a “catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber,” charged $250,000 for an eight-day, seven-night excursion to see the wreckage of the Titanic. A three-day trip to “explore hydrothermal vents” in the Azores archipelago off Portugal also costs $250,000, according to the company’s website.

OceanGate’s site also invites prospective clients to “follow in Jacques Cousteau’s footsteps and become an underwater explorer,” enticing them to “join the adventure of a lifetime.” 

Such marketing pitches can attract customers unable to either properly assess the risks or withstand the hardships of what are by design often arduous, envelope-pushing journeys. 

“We’re certainly seeing an influx of people who are not well suited to do these things,” said Global Rescue’s Richards. “One would think there would be some kind of test.”

“A lot of the self-care and self-help message that people are receiving is, ‘If you dream it you can do it,'” he continued. “That kind of aspirational messaging is good for society overall but can be life-threatening if you take it too far.” 

Patrick Luff, founder of the Texas-based Luff Law Firm, expressed concern that the growing popularity of adventure travel would attract fly-by-night operators that might cut corners on safety or security. After all, a traveler drawn in by a slick website advertising once-in-a-lifetime thrills can’t easily judge the strength of the company’s equipment or the training and knowledge of its staff.

“If you have a huge demand for a risky behavior… you can get unsophisticated entrants into the market,” he said. “Whether that’s an inexperienced skydiving operation or a submarine company with a tin can and a dream, that’s what really becomes concerning.”

Source: CBS News