Adventure travelers move up in age Trend: Baby boomers were first in line for trips to wild places and are still keen on them. But the younger generation doesn't appear to be following in their footsteps.

March 15, 1998|By Mike Steere | Mike Steere,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1967, tens of thousands of the young and idealistic converged on San Francisco, proclaiming the Summer of Love and doing everything they could to appall their elders and upend the status quo.

That same year, a tiny group left San Francisco on a trip that would do for Americans' travel habits what the grand gathering of hippies did for the world. The wave the trip started would, in a quiet and gradual way, blow the mainstream travel establishment's mind, expanding the range and intensity of human experience, pushing back the limits of the possible.

The revolution was called adventure travel, and it provides outdoor thrills in remote places to those who might never find such thrills on their own. The industry credits its beginnings in the United States to Bay Area travel agent Leo Le Bon. In 1967, Le Bon led the first American group trek in Nepal, then went on to found Mountain Travel, now Mountain Travel/Sobek.

But the '60s counterculture and adventure travel share more than a birth year and city. They share a generation -- the 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 through 1964.

Early boomers are largely responsible for the huge global success of adventuring. Ties between boomers and adventuring are, indeed, so tight that some pros fret that their business won't outlive the generation.

Adventure-watchers get close to despair about the current crop of young adults, dubbed Generation X, who seem to like cyberspace better than open space.

The good news is that the bad news won't arrive soon. The great mass of boomers have just begun to move into their peak earning years, when they have more money and time to indulge the urge they've always had -- to do wild things in wild places.

The clientele for adventuring's glamorous and far-flung experiences -- rafting Africa's Zambezi River, say, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro -- has always been predominantly middle-aged. These are, after all, expensive trips that take more free time than most younger people have.

Leading adventure travel companies report a distinctly gray-haired clientele. Mountain Travel/Sobek puts its demographic sweet spots in the 45-to-55 age bracket. Average age of Overseas Adventure Travel clients is 61.

Tom Hale, president of Backroads, a bicycling outfitter that has grown into a multimillion-dollar worldwide active travel company, says 45 is the peak age for his company's clients.

As middle and late boomers move into prime trip-taking years, the pool of adventurer travelers -- and trip sign-ups -- should increase. Indications are that older boomers will still want new adventures when they're senior citizens.

"They promise to continue their outdoor activities now and into their senior years, more so than any previous generation," writes outdoor activity authority Derrick Crandall in his report, hTC "Recreation in the New Millennium." Crandall heads the American Recreation Coalition in Washington.

"I can see this being attractive to people in their 60s," says Hale of his company's active travel offerings.

But one generation willing to adventure -- albeit more slowly and carefully -- all the way to the grave does not a long-term future make.

What happens after the boomers?

The problem isn't the lack of twentysomethings signing up for today's guided group trips. When boomers were in their 20s, they didn't have the money and time for such things, either.

The problem is that Xers don't do what boomers once did, which prepared them to seek big-dollar, lifetime experiences in the wild. On the whole, today's young adults don't work at staying fit, enjoy strenuous fun outside or seem to care about intimacy with the wild world.

"With virtual reality on the way to satisfying their lust for visual stimulation, and the development of a less active lifestyle, Generation X represents a challenge to the future of outdoor recreation in America," Crandall writes.

"They tend to exercise their eyes more than their bodies," Crandall says in an interview. About Xers' favorite open-air sports, like snowboarding, skateboarding and extreme cycling, he says, "It doesn't seem to be the environment that pulls, but the adrenalin rush."

Others see examples in the field of what Crandall discusses theoretically.

John Poimiroo, California's tourism director, who once worked in Yosemite National Park, says that backpackers in the wilds of his state and the rest of the country are older and fewer than they used to be.

"The numbers have been declining since the '70s," Poimiroo says, adding that the much-publicized crowding of national parks and other wild areas has been in the front country, on or next to paved roads.

There may be much more at stake than adventuring companies' future balance sheets.

Poimiroo, for one, sees peril to the natural environment that adventure travelers love to explore. "As use is dropping off, is there support for the wilderness?" he asks.

As Crandall says, "If you don't experience it personally, you don't appreciate it and you don't fight for it."

There are, on the other hand, optimists who believe that adventure travel is destined to last.

Backroads' Hale, for one, sees hope in the boomers' offspring, increasing numbers of whom are joining their parents on family adventures.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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