Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, talks about opportunities in this fast-growing segment of the industry

Imagine snorkeling off the Norwegian coast, floating in the chilly Atlantic Ocean as a group of killer whales swims just a few feet below the surface waiting to capture their meal. Tourists can witness the orca’s unique feeding behavior only a few times a year, making for a truly rare experience.

Shannon Stowell

Shannon Stowell

Mingling with whales is just one of many tour options that fall under the category of adventure travel, a market that holds huge growth potential.

The adventure travel industry has experienced a major boom in recent years, with hundreds of new tours popping up and more operators and companies entering the lucrative business.

“The growth pattern in adventure travel is extremely high,” says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). “It’s because people want more from their vacation, they want something transformative, they want it to be memorable.”

ATTA, a global organization formed to grow and promote the adventure travel market, has some 800 members, from tour operators to travel agents to media providers. One of its goals is to encourage more people to get out and explore the world.

Since the term adventure travel elicits a variety of images and ideas for each person, ATTA tries to help define what exactly it is and establish an understanding among customers and businesses. Stowell says a trip must have three elements to categorize it as adventure travel. First, it has to have some sort of physical activity, not necessarily extreme. In fact, hiking is probably the most common pursuit on adventure tours. Second, there has to be some kind of connection to nature, such as a wildlife tour or a trek through the forest or mountains. Third, it has to include some kind of cultural experience.

“It can be extreme or it can be quite mellow,” Stowell says. “A walking tour in Scotland can be an adventure tour for somebody, and for somebody else it could be hiking in Nepal. There is some variation in the definition in the traveler’s mind.”

As adventure travel has become more popular, the selection of tours has grown substantially, making it tough to know where to begin for travelers who have never done an adventure trip.

“The beauty of adventure travel is it’s so broad and varied that I think if a person has a fascination with a place or an activity, it is what they should pursue,” Stowell says.

A seasoned traveler, Stowell has journeyed to some off-the-map destinations. One of the most interesting, he notes, was a trip to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, mostly because it is lightly traveled by people from the West. A destination such as this is certainly a possibility, though few novice travelers may want to start there.

Classic destinations include Machu Picchu in Peru, or any city in Brazil, a personal favorite of Stowell’s. In fact, South America is a current hotspot, according to a survey of some 400 ATTA members. Norway, one of the few places where travelers can ski to the ocean, is also popular, offering activities from dog sledding to horseback riding and hiking.

One trend is a boom in soft adventure travel, a mellower category that can include anything from walking and biking tours to sightseeing and boating. Custom itineraries are also popular, and tour operators are getting into the action by creating programs with activities that have rarely been done on certain trips or in specific locations.

Part of ATTA’s mission is to educate tour operators on the best practices of adventure travel and help them boost their reputations as quality companies. Stowell recommends listening to what customers want and experimenting with a few different itineraries to gauge interest. Many companies may have a current experience or trip that could be changed or given a new twist, he says.

Consumers should check companies’ qualifications to make sure they meet specific standards. For example, it is essential for the company to have experienced, well-trained guides with proper certifications, as high-quality leaders make for a more personalized experience. And ATTA is there to lend a hand to companies. The organization will be launching an educational program aimed at the trade to increase knowledge about adventure tourism. The program will include skills training, such as certification for rafting or mountain guiding. The idea is that ATTA will have an educational offering that increases the professionalism and opportunities for travel companies and destinations.

“We exist to try to grow the sustainable side of the adventure travel industry,” says Stowell. “We’re really serious about trying to help companies increase their adventure tourism businesses and to do it responsibly.”

A large part of that initiative is the Adventure Travel World Summit, which gathers hundreds of tourism industry professionals in one exciting location to learn and invest in adventure travel, which many consider to be the future of tourism. This year’s summit will be held in Namibia, marking the first time the event will take place in Africa.

So why Namibia?

“The core reason for Namibia is it is one of the shining stars in Africa now for wildlife conservation,” Stowell says. That has been achieved over the last 20 years through “community conservancy.” These are basically plots of land with a tourism-interest site composed of one or many lodges. The owners and local communities sign a legal agreement whereby the communities benefit from what the lodges earn from tourists. The lodges, in turn, succeed by having incredible wildlife for customers to see. It puts everybody in charge of protecting the wildlife.

“It’s an amazing model and it’s working,” Stowell says. “We wanted the tourism professionals to come and see how this works, and possibly apply a version of it wherever they can.” This fits with ATTA’s commitment to responsible and sustainable travel because “tourism should be a protective force, not a destructive force,” Stowell adds. And he is not alone in this mentality.

At the summit in 2012, Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, left the crowd with an insightful observation: “Adventure travel is what travel should be today and will be tomorrow.”

Adventure travel, with its strong focus on nature and culture, has the opportunity to be a preserver of human and natural capital, according to Stowell. He, along with Rifai, sees adventure travel as a way to explore the world more responsibly.

As for where adventure travel can go, it seems unlimited.

“I think adventure travel is an expression of the creative interest of humans,” Stowell says. As long as humans remain curious about the world, the adventure tourism industry will continue to thrive.

“The interesting thing about adventure tourism is that it’s about people exploring, so the directions it can go, I think, are incredibly diverse,” says Stowell. “We haven’t even thought about some of the things that will be offered as tours five years from now.”