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Adventure travel is climbing back from post-9/11 slump

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Ishbaljir Battulga, left, talks with Javier Cangiano and Audruy Bennett during the Outside Travel Expo in Chicago.

Ishbaljir Battulga, left, talks with Javier Cangiano and Audruy Bennett during the Outside Travel Expo in Chicago.

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

CHICAGO — Adventure travel can involve a thrill ride into uncharted territory — and that's just the business end of it.

Archaeologist-turned-tour-operator Charlie DeLorme learned that the hard way. Riding high after back-to-back banner years, DeLorme loaded up his Utah-based business with new staff and an extra $150,000 in equipment inventory in 2001, only to have adventure travel fall off a cliff.

Now the market is slowly starting to bungee back up, boosted by families and by a growing niche called "adventure education" that mixes exotic travel with astronomy, geology, natural history and other -ologies.

The extent of the comeback won't be known until the summer travel season is fully booked, according to industry insiders attending a recent trade show in Chicago. But, as an adventure travel marketer might say — safari, so good.

"The business of adventure has truly been an adventure over the last couple of years," said Sean Greene, founder and CEO of the Away Network of adventure travel Web sites. "It's been a tough time, . . . but inquiries are up and the trend toward bookings is encouraging as well."

DeLorme, 50, who leads river expeditions, is an expert on Mexico's ancient Olmec culture and guides tours to archaeological digs in Siberia. But he and his fellow adventure-travel business operators were rendered virtually helpless by the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001.

Combined with a recession and a stock market swoon, the attacks sent the industry into near-collapse. It was just starting to recover when war in Iraq and a far-reaching epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, struck last year.

"People took a big hit in this industry from 9/11, and we're still in a state of recovery," said DeLorme, president and general manager of Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff, San Juan County. His company was founded in 1947 and had never experienced a decline in yearly revenues until 2001, when business dropped by 30 percent.

On the upswing again, adventure travel businesses — which comprise only a $1 billion to $2 billion segment of the half-trillion-dollar travel industry market — now face a reshaped marketplace because of all the recent global turmoil.

"From selling the world, it became selling the Western Hemisphere," said George Deeb, CEO of iExplore Inc. in Chicago, which specializes in off-the-beaten-path travel.

They must also cope with more uncertainty because of wary travelers' tendencies since Sept. 11 to book big-ticket trips only two or three months or less ahead of time.

The good news for operators: Adventure travelers have higher-than-average incomes, and they are willing to spend them, thanks in no small part to baby boomers and the growing tend toward creature comforts.

"They are still interested in active travel, but they tend to want a glass of wine and a shower at the end of the day," said David Brown, director of America Outdoors, a trade group for outfitters and guides based in Knoxville, Tenn.

Those "maturing" consumers have spurred the rise of adventure education, which Brown said has emerged in the past five years. Such excursions range from star parties for amateur astronomers to Siberian digs and Mayan trips focusing on rock art in the caves of Baja California.

"We've been able to hang in there better than our friends in the tour and travel industry who cater to the drink-a-beer, bash-a-wave crowd," said DeLorme, whose firm has evolved from a whitewater raft outfitter to educational adventure travel to meet changing demand. "It attracts a little bit more of a well-informed, cerebral traveler" — one who is less likely to be "freaked" about increased security and other post-2001 challenges, he said.

Kirk Hoessle, president of Girdwood, Alaska-based Alaska Wildland Adventures, said his 28-year-old firm's nature safaris and Alaska camping adventures are doing more business lately because they are taking in a younger clientele, not just an older one. "Family travel is on the increase, and more people are traveling with their children," he said.

An improved economy and the relative lack of recent world disasters to spook travelers has companies thinking consumers just might stick to their intentions, as expressed in surveys, to do more adventure travel in 2004. January and February, in fact, were the strongest months for the industry since 1999, according to Deeb.

"There's huge pent-up demand," he said. "People feel the time is finally right."