For most travelers, the risks involved with getting to the airport, boarding the plane, and arriving on time at our destination (with luggage) can be considered extreme tourism. These are the travelers who see a sign on the beach that reads, Swim at Your Own Risk, and refrain from swimming.
But for others, they dive right in. These risk-takers crave vacations that are all about storm chasing, heliskiing, BASE jumping, exploring the depths of the ocean, and the infiniteness of space in a capsule. Bragging rights for these travelers go way beyond a colorful pina colada posting on Instagram.
But why? Is it the thrill, the rush, the dare, the danger? Or, maybe it’s something else.
“Some say that for explorers ‘the risk is the point,’” says Philippe Brown, founder of luxury travel company Brown and Hudson which runs exclusive trips including Titanic tours in partnership with OceanGate, the sub-operator behind the Titan. “I disagree. Whilst this might be the case for an extreme minority, for most of the explorers I’ve spent time with, the risk is almost never the point.”
The point is the achievement, says Brown, it’s the story they’re telling, the challenge, the transformation or growth it brings, and usually the opportunity to inspire others or draw attention to a cause. “Risk is a fact of these endeavors, it might even be a point of some satisfaction after the event, one that is considered, evaluated, and mitigated but it’s not the objective,” he says. “If it were, anyone could heighten their risk stakes much more easily and at lower cost juggling chainsaws or befriending a Fer-de-lance.”
His clients run the gamut from retail, dairy farming, property development, investment banking, bitcoin, food processing, and distribution, and quite a few Silicon Valley types, mostly individuals but increasingly corporations, too.
“They’re often clients who will add expedition travel to a year of other more conventional forms of luxury travel we might design for them: road cycling in Mallorca, diving in the Maldives, hiking in Patagonia, or escapes to London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo.”
Interest in extreme tourism continues to grow, says Brown. “Based on the increased number of clients retaining our services it certainly seems like there’s an upward trend,” he says. “As the possibilities for near-space and deep sea exploration have grown, so has the interest. Adventurous, explorer visionaries have always embarked on these kinds of endeavors.”
Brown also points out that, as the number of billionaires increases—currently 2,700-plus—so does the number of people with the potential to undertake such experiences. “Advances in technology and social media make their exploits even more visible,” says Brown.
“Our approach is utterly bespoke,” says Brown. “Wow scenarios, plan Bs, rescues, etc. are discussed in advance of the expedition as part of the risk assessment process. This process turns the client from a passive participant into a conscious and personally responsible explorer.”
Whatever the reasons or excuses for seeking out dangerous travel experiences, extreme tourism to precarious places while participating in dangerous activities has a very willing and able audience eager to get at it. Here are some popular ideas for extreme adventures.
Photo: Tandem Base
BASE jumping is jumping off of a fixed object, such as a Building, Antenna, Span, or Earth, with a parachute. To learn how to BASE jump on your own can take years of skydive experience, and requires 200-plus skydives before learning to base jump solo. Tandem BASE, a company out of Twin Falls, Idaho, gives novices an opportunity to try.
Jumping all four objects in BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth) is rare—less than five people in the world have accomplished this so feat.
One of the most polar spots: Twin Falls’ I.B. Perrine Bridge, for the experience of leaping from the 486-foot bridge, free-falling and floating to the Snake River Canyon floor—this is the same river/canyon that 'Evel' Knievel attempted to jump on a customized rocket nearly 50 years ago.
The risks are outlined on the site. “BASE Jumping is not safe, but it can be done safely,” it reads. “BASE jumping is like any other extreme sport, there are inherent risks that require careful training and execution. Failure to follow that training can lead to serious injury or death.”
While the equipment used has improved by leaps and bounds over the old-style round parachute and is reliable when used properly (making BASE jumping as safe or safer than extreme sports) there is no perfect parachute, no perfect instructor, no perfect weather condition, and for that matter no perfect student, according to the site. All the more compelling reasons for risk-takers to sign on.
Most tandem base jumps are made at the Perrine Bridge but the company also offers exotic jumps in other locations around the world.
Photo: William Reid/Tempest Tours
“The view of a severe storm is one thing but the feel of the storm is only experienced firsthand,” says Kim George, guest relations manager, at Tempest Tours, Inc., a storm-chasing expedition company. “What makes it so compelling is that it is never the same, all the storms are unique so when you go out for the day, no one knows what you are going to get. Even on the days you do not end up seeing a storm or one that is not as good or as long as you would have hoped for, tomorrow there is always a chance of seeing that once-in-a-lifetime event.”
It’s the science and romance of storm chasing that appeals to storm chasers, and Tempest has a 50-plus percent return guest each year. “It becomes addictive,” says George. Aside from the chase, it is the friendships that are formed, she says. “Some guests return year after year on the same tour to reconnect.”
Safety first—all staff receive an annual orientation which centers around very strict safety guidelines, says George. “All guides must be approved by our insurance company prior to each season. Members of our team are responsible for creating materials for the National Weather Service to train storm spotter groups nationwide.”
And never are guests driven into tornadoes and other damaging storms, but close enough.
The chase is done in eight-passenger vans, and everyone gets a window seat with unobstructed sky views. “Our vehicles are equipped with state-of-the-art chase equipment including redundant weather radar and GPS systems,” says George. “They are built for safe and reliable travel including the highest-rated truck tires in the world (for wet traction, heat, and tread) and best-rated batteries and roadside safety equipment.”
Base cities are Arlington, Texas, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Denver, Colorado, thanks to their “proximity to the highest average risk of significant storms for the corresponding time period.” Trips span five-to-six days during peak tornado activity.
Storm chaser guests stay at “comfortable Tornado Alley style motels, usually in small, rural towns.”
It’s not just the chase. “An important part of storm chasing is just being on the Great Plains during the most beautiful time of the year,” says George. “Farms, ranches, wheat fields, wildflowers, friendly people, and good food are all part of the experience.”
Photo: Sheldon Chalet
This eco-conscious, remote luxury glacier outpost in Alaska hosts backcountry skiing, climbing, glacier trekking, and ice crevasse exploration opps. The five-bedroom chalet is perched on an exclusive five-acre nunatak (glacier rock outcropping) in Denali National Park on the southern flanks of North America’s tallest massif at a 5,818-foot elevation in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater of the Ruth Glacier—and is accessible only by helicopter.
At the end of the day, guests retreat to Sheldon Chalet for a sauna, gourmet dinner, and the glow of the northern lights. Stays include guides, gear, a chef who prepares Alaskan cuisine, concierge, and experiences at the only destination on the flanks of North America’s highest mountain; there are no roads, rails, or trails accessing the area, and the closest town, Talkeetna, is a 55-mile flight away.
Overland expedition specialist, Nomadic Road’s mission is about helping discerning travelers who are seeking meaningful experiences to make the leap from mere tourists to brave explorers with safe and guided extreme adventures.
These are not your grandparents' road trip experiences, but off-road journeys with often unscripted itineraries. Travelers are also able to take the wheel and explore with expedition vehicles, navigating remote and challenging terrains.
One of the most extreme trips this year is the Road to the Atacama Desert—a road trip to the driest desert outside of the polar regions, in Northwest Argentina and Northern Chile. It is an unknown territory that demands serious effort and is a landscape so parched that it cannot support animal or plant life at its inner core and has been likened to Mars.