Arnie WeissmannSWAKOPMUND, Namibia -- She's 29 years old, working for a well-known adventure tour operator. Her job description would put her above entry level but well shy of management.

She chose to work for an adventure operator not only because she loves the outdoors, but because she feels the category aligns with her concerns about conservation.

But last week, bumping down an unpaved road in a Toyota Land Cruiser, headed toward Sossusvlei dunes in Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park, she said, "I sometimes think our industry does a lot of harm. To the environment, to cultures. I don't always feel good about what we do."

She voiced what many, inside and outside the industry, have also thought. For the most part, those who stay in the industry conclude that the benefits of organized travel outweigh its shortcomings and push forward, with enlightened self-interest, taking care not to abuse the landscapes and cultures that provide their livelihood.

She, however, has yet to overcome misgivings.

I met her on a "pre-adventure" before the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS), where she was one of 700 delegates, who included tour operators, travel agents, destination managers, suppliers, Namibia government officials and members of the media. They had all come to Namibia not only to discuss trends in adventure travel but to experience a bit of it.

Organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), the ATWS attracts those who focus earnestly on the watchwords that more traditional travel companies embrace with varying degrees of sincerity, marketing acumen or cynicism: Sustainability. Authenticity. Responsibility. Adventure.

This 29-year-old, for the most part, fit in with the ATWS crowd. One sensed that if she could not come to terms with her unease, she'd start a company that more closely reflected her beliefs.

During one ATWS session, I sat next to Karina Furst, a German who founded the Norwegian incentive house Authenticore, which provides, she said, "trips that make a lasting impression."

After discovering ATTA, she said, "For the first time, I felt proud of my trade. Norwegian is, I think, the only language that has a word, a noun, for passionate people: ildsjel. Literally, it means 'fire soul.' On the whole, the industry is focused on consumption, but here, it's different. Here, there are a lot of fire souls."

The summit offered a day of "peer-to-peer" discussions, and I was asked to help facilitate. One of my assigned topics was "how to grow a company without losing its core values."

I began by asking group members (owners of small tour operations, for the most part) to, in a sentence, articulate the values they most wanted to preserve as they scaled up. To my surprise, it proved to be a difficult exercise for most.

Perhaps the difference between traditional travel companies and ATTA members is that the former have mission statements and the latter have missions. I sensed that, frequently, the seed of their mission was emotion-based, and not everyone has the facility to translate feelings into language.

Present at the conference, however, was someone who is extraordinarily good at doing precisely that: the writer Pico Iyer. In his keynote, he articulated what, perhaps, my group could not.

After admitting that his wife laughed upon hearing that he would address an adventure travel association, he defined the interior journey that inspires attendees and attracts their clientele.

Adventure, he said, is not necessarily about shifting where one's body is but about shifting one's perceptions. It is about "going through the empty spaces of our imagination."

Even conservation has meaning beyond the physical preservation of species. "Humanity preserves the wild," he said, "but also, the wild preserves humanity."

Iyer's coupling of conservation with the places where the wild things live within us, as well as linking adventure and imagination, resonated with the audience. But he did not directly address what happens when these aspects of our psyche are monetized by an industry. And when that occurs, it can develop in ways that might make an idealistic 29-year-old uneasy.

But not completely uneasy. During the pre-adventure, she climbed Sossusvlei's highest dune. Once at the top, she asked if I would photograph her as she ran along its side. As I did so, I saw from her expression that she was not only crossing the face of the dune; for a few blissful moments, she transversed those empty spaces in her imagination.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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