Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

So ... no Magellanic penguins. Or rather, no close encounter with Magellanic penguins. They were there, about a half-mile away and, like our small group, standing in high-gusting winds and pelting rain. Through binoculars, they appeared as little more than white dots in tall grass.

Between us, a very rough sea, so choppy that the local captain wasn't willing to put us in an open boat for a 10-minute ride past the small islet where the penguins nested.

A dozen of us humans had come to Chiloe Island in southwestern Chile from as far away as New Zealand, Turkey, India and Ireland; we turned and retreated down the wide stretch of beach, hopping over narrow streams that were forming before our eyes as the rain -- now mixed with sleet -- penetrated our clothing to the skin.

This occurred on the official Day of Adventure, ominously abbreviated to DOA by the organizers of the Adventure Travel World Summit, an annual event put together by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). About 700 attendees -- adventure travel buyers and sellers, journalists, guidebook authors, outdoor equipment salespeople and destination marketers -- had spread out among dozens of DOA outings in the region.

Some hiked foggy trails up volcanos. Others were on mountain bikes, in kayaks or on the nearly sheer faces of allegedly climbable rocks. Some were rained upon, some saw rainbows.

Adventures in Chile

For those seeking a more relaxed adventure, there were visits to local markets, salmon farms, native people's homes and neighborhood restaurants. Whatever cultural, natural or physically challenging attraction was within four or so hours of Puerto Varas, Chile, was fashioned into an excursion by local operators. The DOA brought to life the topics to be discussed during the next four days of meetings.

My excursion, organized by Birds Chile and led by a cheery local guide, Alex, was actually wonderful. We saw plenty of the other promised birds at close range, including a flightless duck, black-necked swans and a red-billed oyster-eater. We learned about the mythology of the Chiloe natives, came to understand why German architecture prevailed in the region and spoke with residents about local political controversies, from a proposed island/mainland bridge to the impending development of a wind farm within spitting distance of the penguins' nesting area.

And best of all, we met the irrepressibly cheerful Maria Louisa Maldonado, a 60-year-old farmer-turned-agritourism operator who prepared, in an outbuilding on her farm, a traditional clam bake that was so delicious it became a convincing argument that it's entirely reasonable to live in a region where it rains 300 days a year.

That was Monday. On Tuesday, I moderated a panel that followed a plenary address by Elizabeth Becker, author of "Overbooked" (Simon & Schuster, 2013), a best seller both critical of some aspects of the travel industry and complimentary of countries and enterprises that she feels are, in essence, doing things right ­-- by the planet, by the communities where they operate and by measures of business practices and ethics. (Some companies she criticizes dispute her allegations.) In her speech, as in her book, she described a mammoth, impactful industry that needs to be self-aware, responsible, regulated and subject to public scrutiny and criticism.

My other panelist was Shannon Stowell, the ATTA's president. Originally, there was to have been a third: Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra, a foundation that operates projects in many of the communities where its founding company, G Adventures, brings guests.

Prior to that, Sweeting had worked for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., as the line's environmental strategist.

As an industry insider, he was to play foil to some of Becker's positions (she saves her greatest criticisms for the cruise industry), but a broken collarbone prevented him from flying to Chile.

The four of us had spoken by phone earlier, and I had taken copious notes. Both Becker and Stowell agreed that the adventure travel community should be held to high levels of responsibility. Stowell generally feels that the ATTA's members have a natural affinity for environmental and community stewardship.

Sweeting played devil's advocate.

"The big guys have spent 15 years getting better, spending a lot of time and resources minimizing their footprint," he said. "They have a long way to go, but even though the adventure travel business is growing rapidly, nothing has really progressed in terms of quality management of these issues. The vast majority [of adventure travel companies] aren't addressing the basic fundamentals of responsibility."

He continued: "Tourism by its nature is rather parasitic, and if you don't work and manage it to be empathetic, it will be only parasitic. Most [adventure operators] think they're ecofriendly, but they're not. They say they're helping local people, but they're not."

I think Sweeting's parasite analogy is generally accurate, though I would point out that some parasites and hosts develop healthy symbiotic relationships. In the absence of symbiosis, empathy helps.

Adventure travel does have an advantage: A traveler's desire for, and expectation of, authenticity fosters a less-is-more approach, described by Stowell as travel "with no artificial sweeteners."

Despite, or because of, its unpredictability, ATTA members' unprocessed and organic adventure travel does have a natural sweetness. I tasted it myself recently, standing in the pounding rain, watching the surf swell and feeling the wind blast in from sea. And, of course, eating Maria Louisa's smoked clams.

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