Ten years ago, adventure travel was defined by vigorous activities like mountain climbing, rafting and trekking in places like North America and Western Europe.

A decade later, hiking now tops the list of most typical adventure travel activities, and adventure travelers have their sights set on a wider variety of destinations, according to a new report from the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), its first in a decade.

After completing an extensive adventure travel study in 2006, ATTA joined with Outside magazine and East Carolina University to carry out a follow-up study in 2016 to see how attitudes toward adventure travel had changed in the past 10 years.

The 2016 study, released last month, is titled "North American Adventure Travelers: Seeking Personal Growth, New Destinations and Immersive Culture" and was based on a random sample of 8,000 Outside magazine subscribers, predominantly based in the U.S.

Perhaps the most striking change over the past decade was the destinations adventure travelers had in their future plans. In the 2016 survey, the top five destinations that adventure travelers planned to visit were New Zealand, Australia, South America, South Pacific and Western Europe.

In contrast, North America was far and away the top choice in the 2006 study, followed by Western Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and New Zealand.

"Based on this comparison, North American adventure travelers' dreams of where they would like to travel appear to be expanding," the new ATTA report stated.

Not only did New Zealand and Australia take over as the most popular adventure travel destinations, but South America moved from ranking seventh in 2006 to third in 2016.

Another interesting evolution was in the types of activities respondents felt belong in the adventure category.

In 2006, the top five were rock and mountain climbing, rafting, trekking, sea and whitewater kayaking and canoeing, all considered to be somewhat strenuous adventure activities.

Although many of those same activities remained at or near the top of the list, 10 years later the definition of adventure travel appears to embrace a wider range of both hard and soft adventure. In 2016, hiking, backpacking, trekking, sea and whitewater kayaking and rafting topped the list of activities.

Canoeing dropped in rank from 2006, and mountain or rock climbing dropped from the activity most associated with adventure travel in 2006 to sixth place in 2016.

What motivates adventure travelers?

As for what motivates adventure travelers, many of the same top motivations were reported in 2016 when compared with 2006, including transformation, obtaining an expanded world view, nature and discovery and the opportunity to learn. The most notable shift in motivation over the past decade, however, was prioritizing mental health over fun and thrills.

According to the 2016 survey, the most important components of an adventure experience are being in a natural environment (94.2%), learning (90.4%), meaningful human experiences (86.4%) and experiencing a new culture (82.4%). Only 44.7% of respondents felt that risk and physical danger were important components of adventure travel, and only 35% felt that either real or perceived danger were important.

"Even though respondents do not rank risk as highly as other factors, such as culture, in playing a role in adventure experiences, they cannot describe adventure travel experiences without mentioning it when given the opportunity in an open-ended question," the report stated. "The theme of challenge is very present in adventure travel, with keywords such as limits, risk, rush, dangerous, action and reward used."

Ultimately, the intent of the study was to help those in the adventure travel industry better hone in on the needs and wants of one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry, according to ATTA, which values the adventure travel market at $263 billion annually.

The association emphasized that there are also other advantages in supporting and selling adventure travel. For example, adventure travel companies estimate that 67% of the trip cost per guest remains in the local region, and ATTA maintains that adventure travel companies tend to encourage sustainable tourism practices due to their emphasis on wilderness and wildlife conservation.

"Continued growth of this sector creates net positive impacts not only for tourism but also for destination economies, their people and their environment," the report stated.

"It is attracting attention from national governments around the world for its emphasis on rural areas and local culture and because it can often be developed within the constraints of existing infrastructure. In an effort to capitalize on this growing market segment, understanding adventure travelers is important to the adventure industry."


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