Transforming the World Through Adventure Travel

01/05/2017 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2017
photo taken by the author on a transformational trip in the interior of Antarctica,

Writers as diverse as Pico Iyer, Henry Miller, and Paolo Coelho have long recognized that travel can transform our lives, work, relationships, and even the world in which we live. This is especially true for adventure travel, which is usually embedded in wild, rugged and remote destinations, where activity levels and challenges can be unpredictable and significant, as well as in exotic destinations and unfamiliar cultures characterized by unsettling sights, sounds, tastes, and conditions. These challenges, both physical and psychological, push us out of our comfort zones and convert “travel” into “adventure travel.”

Adventure is intrinsic to the human psyche. At the very least, it makes life interesting. Many would even argue that we need it, especially in this modern era where civilization buffers us from the existential threats that used to lurk behind every bush and over every hill. Others go even further by claiming that it is essential to our development, as individuals and as a society.

Mystics, shamans, and religious figures have long recognized the transformative power of adventure in the development of the human spirit. In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 2007), philosopher and theologian Beldin Lane, makes the point that “[d]esert and mountain places located on the margins of society…are locations of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are.” Examples are many: Moses wandered in the desert with the ancient Hebrews, then climbed Mt. Sinai where God handed down the tablets of the Ten Commandments; Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to wrestle with the devil to prepare for his ministry; Mohammed went into the mountains to experience direct revelations from God. Sometimes the landscapes are less fierce or more cultural in nature – Buddha retreating from his palace to the forest to meditate; Lao Tzu wandering among different tribes in China to acquire wisdom.

And its not just charismatic religious visionaries who look for enlightenment in the wilderness. Retreats, walkabouts and other spiritual rituals “located on the margins of society” play an essential role in the beliefs and practices of indigenous people around the world.

Central to all of these spiritual quests is the notion of separation from the social order and everyday world to focus, meditate, and reflect in a search for revelations and “magic.” Joseph Campbell touches on this theme in his classic book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1968) when he describes the ubiquitous myth of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder…[and] comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The psychological and sociological literature also abounds with theories and research to explain why we seek adventure and what happens when we find it. For example, theories on risk-taking, sensation-seeking, competency and mastery all point to the critical role of physically and psychologically challenging experiences in human development. Cross-cultural psychology shows us that engaging deeply with other cultures can change how we think about these cultures and even transform our view of the world.

Clearly, adventure is intrinsic and unique to the human experience. We have an innate need for adventure. We seek it willingly, most of the time enthusiastically, and it often changes us in the process. The question is, how does it change us?

To answer this question, several years ago I interviewed over 35 people whose lives had been transformed by adventure travel. Most of the interviewees were identified via a request sent to the membership of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, an organization with a world-wide membership of over 2000 tour operators, travel agents, public relations professionals, travel media and convention and visitor bureau representatives.

This was not a formal scientific study with random samples, strict interview protocols, and systematic analyses of data. Instead, I viewed it as an exploratory study for the purpose of generating hypotheses for further research and anecdotes and stories for a proposed book.

Despite the lack of systematic data analysis, several consistencies emerged in the responses to my interview questions, especially to “how has your life been changed or transformed by adventure travel?” All of the responses fall into one of four ad hoc categories:

  • Self – changes in self-perception, self-image, self-reliance, sense of mastery and competence, and interests and priorities; heightened commitment to personal growth and self actualization.
  • Relationships with Others – strengthened relationships and bonds with significant others, children, parents, and colleagues.
  • Attitudes Toward Other Cultures, Nature and the World – increased empathy and interest in other cultures, changed attitudes toward the natural world, heightened concerns about the impact of development and tourism on the environment and other cultures, changed social values (e.g., more spiritual and less materialistic).
  • New Callings and Careers ― a couple of interviewees reported that they left well-paying corporate jobs to create a charitable foundation to raise money to educate children in SE Asia; several others left jobs as lawyers, consultants, executives and academics to start adventure travel companies.

The interviews also revealed insights about the antecedents of transformation – i.e., the conditions that increase the probability that a traveler will have a profound, transformative experience. This issue was later explored in depth by Michael Bennett who used the interviews as the basis for his doctoral dissertation, “An Exploration of Transformational Learning in Adults as a Result of Adventure Travel Experiences.” His findings closely follow Joseph Campbell’s work by identifying several steps in the process of adventure-driven transformation, including “entering a zone unknown,” “being open to experiences and transformation,” “reconnecting to self and creating the vision,” and “taking purposeful action.” (a condensed version of the dissertation is available on line)

Apparently this work has struck a chord in the adventure travel industry, attracting attention from travel journalists like Everett Potter of USA Today and Norie Quintos, former editor of National Geographic Traveler and tour operators including Kurt Kutay the founder and CEO of Wildland Adventures, and Jake Haupert, the founder and CEO of Evergreen Escapes.

Interest in transformational travel is snowballing in the industry. In September of this past year, a panel session on the topic at the annual meeting of the Adventure Travel Trade Association – which included this writer as well as Bennett, Kutay and Haupert ― attracted standing room only crowds each of the two days the session was offered. Social media traffic following the panel suggested that interest in this topic has touched a nerve among adventure travel professionals.

What does the future hold? Are trips intentionally designed and facilitated to produce life-changing experiences the next wave in travel? Will travelers embrace this concept and convert budding interest into a long term trend?

The bottom line is that transformational travel may change the industry and how travelers view their trips. Most important, it might even change the way we think about ourselves and others and ultimately change the world.

(for more information on transformational travel, check out the website for the Transformational Travel Collaborative)

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