Travellers turn to cheap adventures amid downturn

Cheaper airfares are compelling increasing numbers of people to book African safaris, Vietnamese bike tours, and Moroccan desert trips as a way to escape news of the depressed - and depressing - world economy.

Adventure travel companies have witnessed an unusual bump in demand in the midst of the global crisis that in recent months has devastated stock markets, slashed jobs and gouged savings.

Many travellers are booking trips at the last minute that are typically planned months ahead of time.

"Beyond belief, we had a record month in January," said Tim Greening, director of KEI Adventure Travel, a British-based trekking, climbing and mountain biking specialist. "It's not all doom and gloom out there," he said.

Canada's GAP Adventures, whose most popular trips are to Peru, China, Egypt, Costa Rica, and Vietnam, benefited from a 40 per cent increase in business in the first two months of 2009.

"Our numbers are up," GAP chief executive Bruce Poon Tip said by e-mail from Australia. "The mid-range and lower-end product is very strong. We are seeing that the younger professional market is still travelling."

Several operators said airline seat sales have spurred quick holiday decisions on the part of professionals whose employment is not at direct risk from the recent economic fallout.

"People who still have jobs have a lot to take advantage of at the moment, with cheaper gas and cheaper mortgages as a result of the recent interest rate cuts," said Jeff Willner, the head of Kensington Tours, which also recorded higher bookings in January and February.

"For those still in the workforce who view their portfolio as a long-term investment, these are actually quite good times."


KEI's Greening described demand for trips to Southeast Asia including Borneo and Laos as "fantastic, brilliant at the moment," and said Africa remains a major draw, though interest in European trips such as Mont Blanc trekking slowed somewhat.

"Everybody wants somewhere exotic that doesn't cost too much," he said.

Others said escapism was the major driver of the unexpected rise in adventure tours amid a broad slowdown for the travel industry, which the World Tourism Organization has projected will experience a 0 to 2 per cent decline in business this year.

Will Weber, director and owner of Journeys International, based in Michigan, said that while many households are likely to cut back on resort trips to save money, out-of-the-ordinary trips will keep attracting people with a passion for travel.

"We are fortunate in that many of our clients are retired or professionals whose jobs are not threatened," he said. "We are using this time to check with our best customers and let them know that we are ready when they are ready."

GAP Adventures is also banking on the positive bent of their clients, who are mainly in the 25-to-45 age bracket.

"These are people who are less affected by the present economic climate. They are educated and professional people who, up to until this point, are still confident that they will be employed in the future," Poon Tip said.

Montana-based Austin Lehman Adventures is also counting on off-the-beaten-track trips retaining allure in tough times ahead. "Our customer base is still going to travel," said company director Dan Austin. "People will need to get away."