Reimagining adventure travel would mark a return to what it is fundamentally about, Susan Houge Mackenzie writes

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised fundamental questions about the value of discretionary travel for personal wellbeing. However, as a nation with a rich history of adventure and exploration, this crisis also begs the question: is it time to reimagine ‘adventure’?

Prior to lockdown, adventure travel experienced significant growth globally. We have largely viewed this growth as positive, due to both individual benefits and economic benefits for our tourism industry. In addition to promising personal growth, adventure travel has been promoted on the basis of triple-bottom line benefits: bolstering local economies, preserving pristine environments, and empowering communities.

Nevertheless, it has been increasingly accused of contributing to the very environmental, social and economic issues it seeks to mitigate. This resource-intensive travel, largely undertaken by well-off Westerners, has been associated with a host of environmental and social justice issues, such as cultural commodification, destruction of fragile ecosystems, and modern-day colonialism.

In response to these dilemmas, the ‘microadventure’ movement recently emerged in Europe and North America. Founder Alastair Humphreys describes microadventures as “adventure that is close to home, cheap, simple, short, and … effective. It still captures the essence of big adventures, the challenge, the fun, the escapism, the learning experiences and the excitement”.

Rather than adventure being ‘out there’ (remote, time and resource intensive), this movement reimagines adventure as being ‘right here’ (local, attainable). Microadventures involve short distance, low-carbon travel that retains financial and social capital in our local region.

This approach addresses three main hurdles to traditional adventure travel (access, time, money) and reduces economic leakage (when money ‘leaks out’ of local communities). While it presents a climate-friendly antidote to fast, high-carbon ‘superficial’ travel experiences, microadventures requires us to shift our attention from distant, exotic places to our own backyards.

Adventure in the age of Covid-19

Lockdowns exponentially accelerated this attentional shift. Whether we liked it or not, lockdowns forced many of us to embrace microadventures on the most micro level. Many of us sought adventure in nearby nature using human-powered transport, such as walking and biking. My family discovered trails around the corner, practised outdoor skills, and focused on ‘pre-school paced’ adventures at the local stream.

More energetic parents were found rigging backyard climbing walls and ski lifts from treehouses. Ironically, we also saw adventure pursued in ways that threatened public health the world over, as exemplified by a Government Minister flouting strict prohibitions. These initiatives and incidents reflect the value we place on nature-based adventure for our wellbeing and the need to identify sustainable ways of adventuring.

This pandemic urges us to reimagine adventure. As our mobility and access to adventure travel increases, we cannot forget these important lessons. Microadventures are not a stop-gap novelty ‘for (global) emergencies only’. Rather, post-pandemic adventure can reflect a new vision of adventure, based on microadventure philosophy and practices. Post-pandemic adventure could emphasise simplicity, personal skill development, immersion in nature, curiosity, and personal insight.

This would reflect a return to the core of what adventure is fundamentally about, elements increasingly lost in modern-day adventure travel. Rather than pursuing ‘more, further, faster’, adventure can be built around the challenges and uncertainties inherent in self-supported human-powered travel, such as biking, paddling, walking, exploring. Going ‘deeper’ not further can also enhance connections to local places and communities and retain social and financial capital, something that is lost when people invest their resources in faraway places.

Globalisation has taught us to view our ‘ordinary’ neighbourhoods as far less worthy of our attention and resources than distant destinations. However, the consequences of exoticising far-off lands while neglecting to invest in our own communities and places has never been clearer. This pandemic may have helped unveil the natural wonders in our everyday environments. During lockdowns, small trails or green spaces we never made time to explore, because we were seeking grander things, became centre-stage for many of us.

Traditional travel must change

If the pandemic has done nothing else of value, hopefully it has revealed that our own regions have much to offer and that fulfilling adventures can be found closer than we thought. Equally, it underscores the need for greater investment in local natural areas, particularly for disadvantaged neighbourhoods and populations, in a post-pandemic world.

While this pandemic may be resolved with a vaccine, climate change will not. Even if we disdain the microadventure approach, traditional travel must fundamentally change. The pandemic makes plain the need to embrace domestic and regional travel more than its more glamorous cousin, international tourism. The momentum of economics had prevented this shift in many popular adventure destinations, such as Queenstown, which has suffered terribly in the wake of Covid-19.

The pandemic has done what communities across New Zealand and the world over could not: stop economic momentum and unlock the time and space to redesign adventure destinations. Our industry is now calling for a “serious rethink” of tourism with an aim to regenerate communities and environments.

In a post-pandemic world, people may adventure closer to home for many reasons. Operators and governments will be more cautious, while many travellers may be restricted by health and finances. Many people have reprioritised how they spend their time, money, and energy.

Our (enforced) opportunities for reflection may foster greater appreciation of our immediate surroundings, of slowing down, of travelling at ‘human’ speeds. In turn, these perspective shifts may mean that we may actually prefer microadventures to traditional adventure travel in a post-pandemic world.

French novellist Marcel Proust long ago noted the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes. If we shift our thinking, we can enhance wellbeing and reduce environmental impacts by focusing on microadventures that are nearby, low-carbon, low-consumption, and result in deeper connections to local people and places. If we start seeking adventure closer to home, rather than faraway, post-pandemic adventure can be a key part of a regenerative, restorative travel system.

Susan Houge Mackenzie is an Associate Professor at the University of Otago who combines degrees in psychology and tourism with 10 years' experience as a white-water river-boarding guide in the United States,...

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