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A BASE jumper exits Kuala Lumpur’s 1,099-foot KL Tower during an annual event that attracts dozens of daredevils.
Swimming with sharks, running with bulls, skiing down active volcanoes: The definition of a good time is changing.
Your Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of it: People on vacation pushing themselves to extremes by diving off rocks, skiing dizzying backcountry drops, walking rickety paths above death-assuring canyons. This is “danger tourism,” a trend that we furrow brows in the general direction of, for it is a very bad thing. Although maybe not for the reasons you’d think.
The rise of the guru
There have always been certain people who do very dangerous things exceptionally well: big wave surfers, cave divers, bullfighters. For most of them, these daredevil passions were hobbies, the sort of activities that only the very rich or the willingly impoverished could truly afford. In the era before “brand ambassadors,” being the best at something both dangerous and unnecessary would get you a prize or a club sponsorship at best and a few free rounds at the local pub at worst. Well, dead was always worse, but it didn’t seem to be an everyday occurrence.
But then, someone figured out how to sew a sponsor logo onto a windbreaker, and everything changed. Biggest and fastest (and recklessly stupidest) attracted the most dollars to fund the passions and pay the hospital bills. Those who made it big defying danger could suddenly make a real living at it, and a small battalion of also-rans followed in their wake. These second-tier experts—and good on them—figured out ways to do what they love for a living, and that often included teaching others to do that crazy thing that they loved. That, in turn, yielded a whole army of third-tier, “amateur experts,” the class of people for whom the maxim “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” was most certainly written.
(Outside Online columnist Marc Peruzzi recently spelled out the dangers of this phenomenon in a wonderfully curse-laden column. This is a guy who wears a helmet in his author bio, so you know he understands the horrors of the pursuit of betterfasterhigher.)
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From the ranks of this army of experts came the social media star. Suddenly, not only would a big following in the channel of the moment gain you free gear and sponsorship dollars, but fractions of cents per eyeball would accrue in your bank account—and eyeballs add up. Big stunts could make big dollars, and that was great for a lucky few.
But there are other ways that stunts paid off, and that was in social currency. Exoticism, fear, and originality are the dead presidents of the brag economy, and no adventure today is completed without multiple photo ops. If you haven’t Instagrammed it, have you really done it? Consciously or not, active travelers felt the need to fill their feeds with death-defying derring-do.
And that is the rub. If an adventure’s primary appeal is its shareability, then how dangerous can it truly be? Outside of a few actual daredevils, most “danger travelers” are doing nothing much more than a global version of hanging by their fingertips from the dizzying heights of Pedra do Telégrafo. The first rule of running an adventure tour company is “Don’t kill the tourists,” since doing so could result in damaging lawsuits, or even worse, bad reviews on TripAdvisor.
Bungee jumping and ziplining are inherently dangerous activities, of course, as are diving and scuba and pretty much anything that could result in a fall or drowning. But statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die unbuckled in a bus on the way to your adventure than while adventuring. (And no, I don’t have those statistics, because no one seems to keep them, but hang with me here.) And that means that, as I said earlier, your Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of it. Full of posed shots, in forced perspective, taken in slightly sketchy conditions. Full of exaggeration. Full of shit. (Fistbump, Mr. Peruzzi.)
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Surely, this is more than mere social media vanity. Surely, when we travel to do dangerous-looking things, we must be telling ourselves that they are actually dangerous. We want to laugh at death, stare into the abyss, to push our bodies and minds to the absolute limits. We want to be scared, and scared shitless, even. We want to be better, stronger people than we were before we faced danger. For most of us—the wine train/cathedral tour contingent possibly excepted—it is the reason we travel.
Perhaps this manufactured danger is a quest for something we’ve lost in the past millennium. Once upon a time, all tourism was danger tourism. At first, a journey didn’t even come with an expectation of return. Later, it came with the expectation of bad maps, hostile natives, deadly diseases, brigands, and thieves. We read the stories of the great adventurers (most of them wealthy gadabouts; see above) and long for the romance of that kind of travel, yet find that the closest we can come is booking the Three-Hour Manta Ray Experience when our cruise ship is in port.
But hey, this is a travel magazine, and we are not about to tell you to actually do anything truly dangerous without expert guidance. We are, however, going to tell you that you’ll never know the true romance of travel with canned experiences. (If you can apply an Instagram filter to it, it probably didn’t happen.) We’re going to tell you that if you spend your day on a zipline flying at freeway speeds, only to lock yourself behind the walls of an all-inclusive resort in the evening for fear of walking into a dangerous neighborhood in a quest for some authentic food (which, secondarily, could give you cramps), you have missed the entire point of travel.
We are going to tell you to get out of your comfort zone in a way that doesn’t involve a carabiner and a harness. Walk away from the beach. Speak in another language. Travel alone. Eat something with more legs than you are strictly comfortable with.
You might even do something so daring as turn off your camera.
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