Risky Business: The Growth of Extreme Tourism

Risky Business: The Growth of Extreme Tourism

This June, we all held our breath as the five occupants of a commercial submersible on their way to see the remnants of the Titanic lost contact with the outside world. When it became clear that their vessel, which lacked certifications from regulators, had imploded on descent — killing those inside – we felt a collective sense of shock, fascination, and sadness. But who were these ‘citizen explorers?’ And why did they pay $250,000 and risk their lives to travel to the ocean floor?

The passengers of the Titan submersible, like other wealthy tourists, were in pursuit of the thrills of extreme tourism, also known as ‘adventure tourism,’ a niche industry involving travel to dangerous places or activities that entail a significant risk. For example, if you are wealthy enough, you can now pay $750,000 to visit the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, which is almost 7 miles down in the Pacific Ocean. More than 20 people have successfully made the trip. 

Or if you prefer the sky to the sea, you can purchase a $125,000 ticket to ride on a massive hot-air balloon 100,000 feet in the air to the edge of space with the company Space Perspective. And of course, there are other forms of space travel. Jeff Bezos traveled to the edge of space on a Blue Origins flight with William Shatner, who portrayed Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic will offer a monthly trip to space on a rocket plane for $450,000, starting this August.

Status and bragging rights seem to be a major source of motivation for those who pay to take these risks. London-based travel agency Brown and Hudson, which offers heli-skiing, mountain climbing and trekking in remote locations, said its global clientele ranges from investment bankers to Silicon Valley tech bros and “the kind of people that would go to Davos or the Sun Valley Conference.” With billions of dollars in the bank, material goods become less attractive to this clientele. Risky trips offer the cache once provided by big, expensive toys.

According to Scott Smith, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at the University of South Carolina: “You can’t understate, especially with social media now, the attraction of social status when engaging in these activities. The inference is that I can afford to do these things, and I’m successful in life. Therefore, I’m able to dive down to the Titanic or go up in space.”

To earn true extreme tourism status, you must take life-threatening risks. OceanGate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush, who was on the submersible when it imploded, spoke for a certain portion of the industry when he said that safety was a “pure waste.” Industry experts have since harshly criticized his approach to sea exploration and his ignoring of industry safety standards.

But as we learned with the Titan tragedy, there is a price to be paid for being in this exclusive club. Rocket rides, treks to mountain summits, and voyages to the ocean floor have claimed lives and caused major injuries. Seventeen people have already died in 2023 trying to reach the top of Mount Everest in Nepal, and many more have needed rescue. And it is not just the participants who encounter risk. When adventure tourism trips go wrong, and tourists need emergency aid, first responders are the first in line to risk their lives.

Yet even as losses are suffered, tourists continue to be intrigued by the possibility of breaking another barrier. Just two days after a volcano erupted on White Island off New Zealand in 2019, killing 22 people, several tourists wanted to go there. The deadly 2021 winter season on K2, a mountain that is more dangerous than Everest, only increased demand for attempts. Last summer, about 200 people reached the summit of K2, more than triple the previous record. And it is not only natural disaster that appears attractive to adventure tourists. Brown and Hudson are now planning a trip for 12 US investment bankers to go off-road biking in war-torn northern Syria.

So, are such risks worth it? For many, the answer is a definite yes. But if you do choose to take a gamble, experts advise that you ask a lot of questions about safety procedures and what the contingency plans are if a trip runs into serious trouble. If you don’t feel comfortable with the response you get, keep researching! Do not simply take the word of the companies involved. It could be the difference between life and death.