The adventure travel market is alive and kicking – and it’s growing faster than mass tourism worldwide
Sick of run-of-the-mill, same-old itineraries, experience-seeking Asian travellers are snapping up action-packed holidays that deliver on novelty and give them bragging rights.
At the recent PATA Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference and Mart 2012 in Bhutan, the US-based Adventure Travel Trade Association reported that international adventure tourism was valued as a US$89 billion industry in 2010, growing at an estimated 17 per cent a year versus just four per cent for mainstream tourism.
Europe and the US still constitute the bulk of adventure travellers globally, but there are clear indications that a small but mushrooming number of seasoned Asian travellers now desire such trips.
“There is certainly huge potential in the Asian market as we’re currently seeing double-digit growth in the region,” said G Adventures Canada managing director Australia and New Zealand, Pete Rawley.
One reason is the rise of a media- and travel-savvy generation that needs to be kept excited, said Cathy Thang, managing director, Green Island Tours Singapore.
She explained: “Exposure to traditional media and other new media creates a multiplier effect, motivating experienced Asian travellers to look for new, exciting destinations to explore, particularly where they can recharge their batteries and reconnect with nature.”
While Asia still remains the most popular for such ventures, there is also demand for destinations farther afield.
According to Rawley, 40 per cent of the firm’s Asian clients travel within the region, with Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia being particularly popular; another 30 per cent head to Latin America; and the rest are spread equally across Europe, Africa and North America.
A spokesperson for Intrepid Travel Australia added that the top three choices for Asian adventure travellers were India, Nepal and Peru.
Sunil Sakya, chairman, KGH Group of Hotels, Resorts and Travels Nepal, told TTG Asia that Asians preferred “softer activities such as hiking, canoeing and visiting cultural or religious sites, although some might opt for short treks lasting one to two days and easy river rafting”. Stays tend to be in luxurious properties at one fixed location, with an average duration of seven days.
He added that business volume from Asia grew by 15-20 per cent in 2011 compared to just 10 per cent for both Europe and the US.
Willem Niemeijer, co-founder and CEO of Khiri Travel Group Thailand, underscored that in order to nurture a love for adventure holidays among Asians, educating customers about new destinations outside the main tourist trails was essential.
Operators should also develop itineraries that offer “a combination of sightseeing to religious and cultural sites and soft adventures like zip lines that give Asian customers the adrenaline rush, but without the worry (of safety hazards)”, he said.
Clients need to know that adventure travel is not just about extreme activities such as long treks and bungee jumping, added G Adventures’ Rawley.
Eco Adventures Worldwide Singapore managing director, Timothy Tan, noted that a big plus point about the market was its general immunity to economy fluctuations. Decisions are based on “the potential and ability of a destination to ignite positive, emotive connotations”, he explained.
Said Tan: “Adventure travellers are a psychographic group and thus cannot be defined by demographic parameters alone. (Travel providers should focus on) a brilliant portfolio of products that captures the romance of travel.”
Who’s up for an adventure?
Emerging as a key market for adventure travel in the 90s, Japan remains a major Asian source today.
Freme Travel Services Brunei’s manager-inbound & MICE division, Sugumaran Nair, said the company handled 3,000-4,000 Japanese visitors every year and this was expected to grow by 20 per cent this year, as there had been talk of new flights between the two countries.
“Soft ecotourism, encompassing trekking and rafting are high on the agenda for Japanese adventure travellers to Brunei, and most prefer mid- to high-end accommodation,” he explained, saying that they favoured customised itineraries.
Masaru Takayama, president, Spirit of Japan Travel said he sends out some 200 pax on such trips each year, with last year seeing a 25 per cent jump, driven partly by the appreciation of the yen.
He explained that because Japanese-speaking guides were necessary for such trips and not all destinations were able to provide this, itineraries were limited.
“By and large, the Japanese prefer Asian destinations including Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, Borneo and Indonesia. Their stays last for about four to five days on average, and most prefer upmarket accommodation. Activities carried out (by the Japanese) are overwhelmingly soft, such as short treks and rafting.”
A growing interest in authentic adventure holidays among Singaporeans has caught the attention of even mass-market outbound travel companies.
Opening its first self-owned franchise last year selling an array of adventure-oriented itineraries, Chan Brothers Travel has seen brisk business so far, said its director of business development, Mary Kheng. Sales are expected to rise by 50 per cent this year.
Chan’s World Holidays has introduced a 13-day Trans-Siberian Experience featuring three nights onboard the longest railway in the world; a 10-day Antarctica Adventure, which includes a cruise, and a range of cycling packages in Taiwan, Cambodia and China lasting from six to eight days.
Timothy Tan, managing director of Eco Adventures Worldwide Singapore, said cycling, diving and gentle rafting topped the wish list of travellers. Singaporeans, he said, were heading to the Himalayas, Indonesia and Christmas Island.
His company has gone from fewer than 50 bookings five years ago to around 300-400 bookings annually now.
“The majority of my clients are well-travelled. For them, going on (adventure) trips is not about cultivating status at all. Singaporeans who seek adventure simply want to immerse themselves in new experiences that they can take back with them,” said Tan.
Chinese travellers are increasingly opting for adventure packages, although the trend is still in its infancy.
Jens Thraenhart, president of digital marketing agency Dragon Trail China and PATA China Board chairman, observed: “Unlike Western adventure travellers that are motivated by the cultural and activity possibilities in a destination, Chinese adventure travellers are still overwhelmingly motivated by status. That is, travel that bestows bragging rights.”
However, he added that individuals from the top-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou were becoming “more aware of adventure and ecotourism”, making them potential sources of future adventure tourists.
In a report published by Xola Consulting in 2008, the firm suggested that travel consultants should consider developing itineraries incorporating food- and shopping-related activities, led by Chinese-speaking guides.
Despite its mammoth potential, India continues to lag behind more mature markets when it comes to taking adventurous journeys.
Willem Niemeijer, co-founder and CEO of Khiri Travel Group Thailand, said: “There is some demand from Indians, but this is growing at a slow pace. Overall, about 20-25 per cent of our Indian market goes for an adventure-type activity during their trip. However, this is often only for a day.”
Undiscovered places offer sense of adventure, novelty
The exclusive Kingdom of Bhutan is working towards transforming itself into a year-round destination, while encouraging tourists to venture beyond the well-worn trails surrounding Thimpu, Paro and Punakha, especially to rural areas in the south and east.
Star-rated hotels and more airports are being developed across the country, making the kingdom more accessible. Two domestic airports – Yonphula in Tashigang, east of Bhutan, and Bathpalathang in Bumthang, central Bhutan, have opened. They are served by national airline Druk Air and the country’s first private airline Tashi Air, both of which commenced operations to the airports last December. Tashigang is known for it traditional arts and crafts, while Bumthang Valley is the spiritual hub of the nation and is home to its oldest Buddhist temples and monuments.
International visitors currently arrive during a five-and-a-half-month period, with the US and European markets more interested in Bhutan’s treks and Asian ones attracted by its cultural offerings. Most tourists arrive in Paro, a small frontier town lying in Paro valley dotted by quaint villages. Paro is also the gateway to Bhutan’s most prominent structure, Taktsang Monastery (pictured), which is perched on the side of a cliff 900m above the valley floor.
The Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) in enigmatic Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, is another must-visit. This imposing building, decorated with elaborate carvings and Buddhist symbols, now houses the offices of the king. – Linda Haden
Once a backpackers’ retreat, infrastructure improvements and a recent award achievement have helped the province find its way into travel guidebooks.
Three areas are popular: Busuanga, known for its limestone formations and shipwreck diving; Taytay, with its beach resorts; and Puerto Princesa, home to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed underground river (pictured), which created a buzz when it was named one of the New7Wonders of Nature in January.
Palawan’s main airport in Puerto Princesa now has a dozen daily flights – up from one previously – while plans are in the pipeline to turn it into an international airport. The city also received its first four-star hotel last year, and more inventory will be added soon.
The area around the Puerto Princesa Underground River is a protected national forest park with a mountain-to-sea ecosystem of its own. Visitors will encounter a thick mangrove cover, karst limestone formations and emerald crystalline waters.
Up to two hours away is Sabang town, where the 8km-long river is located. The cave offers views of stalactites and stalagmites and a rich eco-habitat with unique living species. Trips to the underground river are increasingly in such high demand that advance bookings are required due to a newly-imposed cap of 1,000 visitors a day.
Puerto Princesa offers supporting attractions such as a crocodile farm, a butterfly garden and zip lines. Honda Bay, with its unspoilt white sand beaches, six islands and dolphin watching possibilities, also deserves a day tour. – Marianne Carandang