SPOTLIGHT : OUT THERE : Adventurers Can Begin by Exploring New Frontiers at an Action Travel Expo

Rick VanderKnyff is a member of the Times Orange County Edition staff.

A dventure is a marvelous word.

It speaks of distant, exotic lands, of close brushes with mortal danger, of risk and romance intertwined. It is John Wesley Powell on a wooden boat braving the Colorado River to become the first to navigate through the Grand Canyon, and a Victorian Englishwoman named Mary Kingsley wandering parts of West Africa never before explored by a European. It's Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."

But our dreams of adventure, alas, run smack into the reality of the two-week vacation, and the risk that's part of the dictionary definition of adventure is hopelessly incompatible with careers, kids and car payments.

But that's where the travel industry is stepping in with increasing vigor. Many Americans, it seems, are tired of lying on the beach, sipping mai tais and reading pulp paperbacks on their vacations. Enough with this relaxing stuff. We want to do something.

Planned adventure, that apparent oxymoron, is the new niche that tour operators are rushing to fill. Call it adventure travel; call it eco-tourism, or call it--as industry types do-- soft adventure.

Whatever you choose to name it, it's now a commodity, packaged and ready for consumption. And one place to go shopping for ideas is the third annual Action Adventure Expo, in town Saturday and Sunday with about 100 tour operators and equipment manufacturers. Also included are a tank for scuba and kayak lessons and a wall for sampling the pleasures of rock climbing.

You want adventure? How about kayaking the wild shores of Alaska? Running white water on a wild river in Chile? Riding elephants on safari in Botswana? It's for sale here, at the WalMart of active travel.

Anyone who walks the aisles of the Action Adventure Expo--or browses the full-color catalogues of some of the larger tour operators--will find trips to just about every corner of the earth. Some are oriented around an activity, such as the ones mentioned above; some focus on wildlife; some observe indigenous peoples, and some do a bit of everything.

The expo came to Orange County last year on the grounds of the old Lion Country Safari but moved to a building at the Orange County Fairgrounds to get out of the weather and be in a more central location. Organizers say it is one of the largest such events in the country.

Unlike other forms of group travel, in which most people make arrangements through travel agents, adventure-travel clients tend to book directly with the tour operator. One of the expo's purposes, said producer Gigi Giraudo, is to give adventurers a place to comparison-shop and to introduce neophytes to the field.

The $8.50 daily adult admission includes free lessons in kayaking, scuba, rock climbing and a "ropes course" like those used at some outdoor leadership retreats--lessons that could otherwise cost $50 to $100, Giraudo said. It is recommended that participants sign up for the half-hour scuba and kayak lessons as soon as they arrive (for rock climbing and the ropes course, you stand in line).

The lessons won't make anyone an expert, but they will--organizers hope--give people the confidence to try one of these active vacations.

"People who have always dreamed of doing this type of trip, but don't feel they've been equipped for it, we'll teach them how to scuba dive and to rock climb," Giraudo said. "It helps people see that these kind of trips aren't out of their league."

Free seminars will be offered on a continuous basis, including primers on particular geographic areas, presentations on how to select a reputable tour operator and personal reminiscences from adventurers such as Royal Robbins, who was the first to climb Yosemite's El Capitan solo. There will even be performances by world music groups.

While the travel industry is growing at an annual rate of 3% to 4%, adventure travel--which started gaining steam in the late '80s--is expanding more than 30% a year, according to Greg Malver, director of Laguna Beach-based NatureQuest, one of a growing number of companies catering specifically to adventure travel (and one of the exhibitors at the Action Adventure Expo).

"There is definitely more of a desire on the part of the traveler to be more active, to learn more about the place they're visiting and the people, as opposed to sitting on a beach and getting a suntan," Malver said. "Our focus is on natural history, wildlife and the cultures of the places we're visiting. Most of the things we offer are considered soft adventure, where you don't have to have a special skill."

That doesn't mean the trips offered by NatureQuest and other operators are cushy.

Visiting the rain forests of Brazil might entail hiking in near-steambath conditions and sleeping in jungle lodges that (though they may be clean and even picturesque) aren't going to challenge the Ritz-Carlton on the creature comfort scale.

Some trips also require a level of physical fitness, even if technical expertise isn't a prerequisite. But the main thing to remember is that there are trips geared for just about every level of interest and age, every level of fitness and experience . . . and every level of price.

Tours can run from less than $1,000 up into six figures for elaborate outings. NatureQuest trips average $1,100, not including air fare, and its most expensive offering is the elephant-back safari in Botswana for $6,300.

And every year, tour companies are coming up with new adventures to new places to combat the been-there-done-that syndrome that infects some intrepid travelers. And if you still can't find what you want among the catalogue offerings, most companies will design a tour for you.

Though many people opt to travel on their own, tour operators can still help out for those hard-to-get-to places, particularly less-than-friendly or Third World nations.

Reputable companies can supply clients with reading material about the spots to be visited, along with a list of everything you might need, from visas and immunizations to the brand of bug repellent to bring. Once the trip is underway, organizers can provide local information as well as taking care of everything from accommodations to transportation to meals.

Mohamed Elawany runs International Journeys in Newport Beach and is among the first to offer package travel to Syria, which, along with Jordan, is not ready to handle independent travelers, Elawany said. Both have started welcoming foreign visitors only in recent years; travel is difficult, and accommodations are scarce.

Elawany also covers other spots around the Middle East, specializing in areas of archeological, historic and cultural interest and holy places.

"If you want to go shopping and get your picture taken in front of the pyramids, I can do that. If you want to go someplace far off and unknown, I can do that, too," Elawany said, adding that independent travel is possible but potentially difficult in Egypt.

Most responsible tour operators specialize in small groups--15 or fewer, in many cases--to keep the impact at sites minimal and to offer customers a more personalized experience.

Still, there are critics.

Some say that so-called cultural tourism is little more than cultural voyeurism, and that native cultures cannot help but be harmed by the constant contact with outsiders. Others argue that some of the most popular natural areas for eco-tourism are too fragile to withstand the streams of tour groups.

Giraudo and others respond that eco-tourism can provide native peoples a steady source of income and an incentive to preserve their natural attractions, at a time when rain forests and other habitats the world over are disappearing. When done responsibly, she said, such an approach to travel has little negative impact and is more than offset by the many positive side effects it generates.

Not surprisingly, she has an ally in Robbins, conqueror of El Capitan, who started his adventure career in a more ruggedly individualistic, prepackage era. Robbins, who operates an outdoor-clothing company, will offer a talk, "40 Years of Adventure," at the expo.

"I think it's a good thing for people to get out of doors, as a beginning," Robbins said in a phone interview from San Mateo.

"The main theme (of the talk) is the spirit of adventure, and that's something you don't have to climb a mountain to experience. It's a point of view; it's an attitude, something we can carry with us in our daily life.

"It gives us a little insight into the way we should feel all the time."

* What: Action Adventure Expo.

* When: Saturday, April 1, and Sunday, April 2, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

* Where: Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, head south on Fairview Road and turn left on Merrimac Way.

* Wherewithal: $8.50 for adults, $4 for children 5 to 12, free for children 4 and under.

* Where to call: (310) 471-6717.

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