The rise of ‘adventures on our doorstep’

Kayaking in Albania: a three-hour flight from the UK  (Much Better Adventures)
Kayaking in Albania: a three-hour flight from the UK (Much Better Adventures)

In The Independent’s travel trends column, Trendwatch, we dig into the types of trip, modes of transport and top buzzwords to watch out for.

The word “adventure” usually conjures up an image of far-flung landscapes. Trekking through wild South American valleys; boating through Amazon rainforest; or scaling peaks in Nepal. Binoculars, backpacks and mozzie bites optional. But it’s possible that since the events of 2020-21 – when our horizons shrunk around us practically overnight, and took the best part of two years to widen once more – our definition of an adventure has changed.

Adventure as a nearby opportunity piqued my interest recently when G Adventures sent me details of its new “On the doorstep” range of active, intrepid trips. Characterised by the traditionally long-haul specialist’s love of hiking, biking and kayaking, these trips switch the setting to showcase neighbours we know and love: Italy, Croatia, the Canary Islands. They’re rugged and ambitious, in genuinely wild and craggy-feeling settings, but all a short train, plane or ferry from the UK. Moreover, many are doable in four or six days, rather than demanding multiple weeks.

Managing director Brian Young says the new range is partly in response to traveller demand for cost-effective trips, and partly down to a surge of bucket-list aims and challenges dreamt up by Britons during pandemic months cosseted at home. “It’s all about seeing a different side to these ‘holiday’ places: Tenerife, Corfu, Madeira,” he tells me.

Madeira is known for older customers but has incredible hiking. Same with the Canary Islands

Brian Young, MD of G Adventures

While the likes of Japan, Samoa and Taiwan have recently ditched their remaining tourist restrictions, travel companies have seen more interest in nearby shores than journeys across the globe. For G’s UK audience, “Europe would have ranked about 15th/16th on our destinations before the pandemic,” says Young. “Coming through the other side, it’s now more like sixth or seventh.” Pre-2020, he says, Europe was mainly a focus for its US customers, not its UK fans. But the tables have turned.

The abundance of short-haul flights into places such as Italy and Morocco makes an adventure there a more affordable reality in cost-conscious times, he adds. But G is also hoping to reinvent a few European spots that had gone off the boil in recent years. “Madeira is known for older customers but has incredible hiking,” he says. “Same with the Canary Islands – we take clients and hike through the north, away from the main resort areas.”

A bike ride through Campo Imperatore, Italy (Much Better Adventures)
A bike ride through Campo Imperatore, Italy (Much Better Adventures)

“People don’t necessarily think of Morocco,” he adds. “Yet four or five hours’ flight away, you can climb Mount Toubkal, visit waterfalls, meet local families and make bread with them.”

Tour-booking platform Much Better Adventures (MBA) has supported close-by adventures since its launch in 2016. Prominent on its main tours page are kayaking-and-camping expeditions through Norway; Mont Blanc treks in Switzerland; Montenegro and Spain hiking itineraries; and intrepid ways to see Scotland, including canoeing, wild camping and climbing.

The start-up champions “epic weekends” and smart adventure tours, which pack a lot into a short time frame. “The original idea was that you’d leave your desk on Friday and have a real adventure over a handful of days,” co-founder Sam Bruce tells me. And this territory was ripe for rediscovery in late 2021, once Britons could travel again. “Our rebound started a bit sooner than others. While companies specialising in longer-haul adventure struggled to bounce back, we’re at over 100 per cent growth from 2019,” says Bruce.

Morocco is one of G Adventures’ top nearby adventures, less than four hours’ flight away (G Adventures)
Morocco is one of G Adventures’ top nearby adventures, less than four hours’ flight away (G Adventures)

In recent years, MBA’s customers’ tastes have shifted from extended weekends to more in-depth stays in their top destinations, Norway and Morocco. “The predominant feedback was that they wanted to stay longer,” says Bruce. “You know, we’re getting out into these amazing places and people felt like there was more to see.” These days Spain’s national parks and rural swathes as well as Italy and Switzerland are all popular with customers. Turkey and Egypt, he tells me, are the two places most typed into their website’s search bar.

The original idea was that you’d leave your desk on Friday and have a real adventure over a handful of days

Sam Bruce, Much Better Adventures

In terms of what’s next, MBA is about to launch 25 new destinations; “60 per cent of those are in Europe”, says Sam. It’s unveiling a new tour a week, with a week-long “peaks challenge” in the Balkans and a cross-island Madeira hike among the line-up. That many of these destinations are reachable by train, as well as by flying, is an added sustainable incentive, he says.

And these are far from the only two operators delving into the intrepid possibilities of the UK, continental Europe and the Mediterranean. Self-guided walking and cycling specialist Macs Adventure points me towards the Fife Coastal Path, a trail from Edinburgh to St Andrews, as a popular choice for 2023, as well as Spain’s 66km (41 miles) Camino Lebaniego pilgrimage route, with a spokesperson telling me sales for the latter are nearly up nearly 20 per cent in 2022 versus 2019. Meanwhile, escorted tour experts Titan Travel’s top destinations for active customers include Croatia and Slovenia, alongside the likes of Costa Rica and India.

In a way, says Brian Young, it’s not so much that people are feeling timid about embarking on adventures an ultra-long-haul flight away, but more that they’re choosing to be active, adventurous and experiential in nearby countries, ones where they might formerly have gone for a beach holiday or city break.

This kind of trip is also helping combat overtourism, points out Sam Bruce, taking groups out of peak summer seasons and directing them well off the beaten track in countries such as Spain and Italy. “We need to be kind to places throughout the year. We’re trying to extend the season as much as we can, going to places that are lesser visited or are still developing for tourism. So few people know about the Picos de Europa in northern Spain or areas of Italy where they’re reintroducing native species of wolf.”

So could a trek in Spain, a kayak through Albania or bear-spotting in Romania be part of your 2023 bucket list? We’re certainly browsing.