The first order of business for many vacationers used to be drinking margaritas on the beach. But now, it might look more like zooming down a zipline, marveling at molten lava, or tracking an elusive wild animal. After over a year of being cooped up inside, vaccinated travelers are ready to venture outside of their comfort zone.
It’s not entirely surprising: If history tells us anything, it’s that pandemics can give rise to thrill-seeking behavior. Spanish flu led to “increased expressions of risk-taking” during the Roaring Twenties, according to Yale professor Nicholas Christakis’s recent book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. The adventure travel industry’s own mad decade could be on the horizon, with tour operators already seeing a recent uptick in interest. One operator, Intrepid Travel, has reported a 33 percent increase in bookings from North Americans since March, with its newest and most popular trips including treks to see gorillas, glaciers, and active volcanoes.
It’s a natural evolution of the rising interest in the outdoors over the past year—and a reflection of the shift in thinking that surviving a pandemic can bring. “Go see a volcano, go trek through the Malaysian jungle—these experiences will likely see an increase because now danger has become relative,” says Nuno F. Ribeiro, a senior lecturer, and tourism and hospitality research cluster lead at RMIT University Vietnam. “But people want to be assured—regardless of whether the activity is risky or not—that they’ll be able to return home confidently.”
As a result, new adrenaline-pumping activities are popping up in relatively safe and controlled environments, inspiring more people to actively embrace their inner adventurer this year. Here are a few trends that are standing out among it all.
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Elevated outdoor experiences
With the pandemic driving more of us outside, it’s no surprise new sky-high walks are picking up buzz. In northern Portugal, the 516 Arouca bridge—now the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,693 feet—invites daredevils to traverse an open metal grid floor with a view of the Rio Paiva river below. In June, Canada’s highest suspension bridge, the Golden Skybridge, debuted in British Columbia. Hanging 426 feet above a canyon framed by views of the Rocky and Purcell mountain ranges, the knee-buckling bridge and trail system will soon be joined by a 1,500-foot zipline for those that want to up the ante.
This summer, the first “zip biking” experience in the U.S. will arrive in Kauai, Hawai’i, where local operator Koloa Zipline challenges guests to strap in and zoom across harrowing heights on a bike.
Luxury hotels are also introducing spine-tingling height experiences of their own. Amangiri recently added the Cave Peak aerial stairway—a 120-step sky ladder suspended 400 feet above Utah’s rugged rock formations—to its offerings. Meanwhile, guests of W Costa Rica can zipline directly from the infinity pool to the beach for their next swim. So far, these kinds of experiences are working to boost occupancy. According to Virtuoso’s managing director Misty Belles, the number of bookings for hotels with in-house adventure experiences in 2021 has nearly reached the same level as 2019, a year considered to be a high-water mark of travel.
Even those with little to no outdoor adventure travel experience are signing up for extreme activities. Case in point: Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano just south of Reykjavik, which began seeing more than 6,000 visitors a day when it erupted in March, is quickly becoming one of the nation’s top attractions for 2021. Visiting the volcano is not without its risks—including exposure to dangerous gasses—but this hasn’t deterred travelers from wanting to witness a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of spewing lava.
“I would say at least 70 to 80 percent of tourists arriving now are including the volcano in their itinerary,” says Jón Haukur Steingrímsson, a geotechnical engineer who has been working to improve the site’s trails and safety infrastructure to prevent injuries. “The vast majority of the people coming here are not experienced hikers…but when something like this is happening, people want to see it. Now with social media, it’s becoming even more popular.”
In some destinations, volcano excursions are the lifeblood for local communities that run tours and nearby businesses. Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano began erupting again in February, leading new hotels like Villa Bokeh, a sister property to Lake Atitlan’s award-winning Casa Palopó, to offer guests guided treks to see the lava flows.
Visitor numbers to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spike each time Kilauea erupts—supporting thousands of local jobs on the Big Island. COVID-19 and park closures recently took a toll on the tourism industry but officials are finally seeing visitation numbers creep back up to previous levels. While charter flights over the area have yet to bounce back to pre-pandemic volume, Paradise Helicopters, which operates flights over the area noted a 186 percent spike in the number of guests flown during the height of the recent eruptions between December 2020 and May 2021, in comparison to 2019-2020.
Wildlife encounters have always been a draw but the pandemic has ignited a desire to connect more viscerally with nature. In Florida’s Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, clear kayak tours during periods of bioluminescence—when organisms cause the surface of the lagoon to glow bright blue at night—are in demand. Here, it’s not uncommon for mullets to fly out of the water and land in your kayak or pods of dolphins to shoot glittering blue water out of their blowholes. Local operator Get Up And Go Kayaking saw the number of paddlers increase by nearly 250 percent in summer 2020 in comparison to summer 2019—a phenomenon owner Justin Buzzi links to people’s newfound interest in “wilderness therapy” to combat the pandemic blues.
Others are turning to exciting wildlife experiences with a conservation bent. Take &Beyond’s new 7 Wonders in 7 Days trip in South Africa, where intrepid guests can join a rhino-darting mission that involves racing through the Phinda Private Game Reserve in a 4×4 vehicle and helping a team of veterinarians track, anesthetize, and tag or dehorn a rhino before releasing it back into the wild. The excursion is much more intense than your average safari but its impact is undeniable: the dehorning process helps reduce poaching incidents, while ear-notching helps researchers identify rhinos on the reserve. Other awe-inspiring journeys like GeoEx’s Shadowing Mongolia’s Snow Leopards expedition provide alternative employment in tourism for former and would-be poachers, while travelers are treated to the adrenaline rush of stalking a big cat.
“These close-up interactions that our guests have with wildlife—especially large wildlife—are always a moving, inspiring, and life-changing event,” says Nicole Robinson, &Beyond’s chief marketing officer.
As the world reopens, that seems to be just what travelers are looking for.
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