By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Chuck Carpenter's passport looks more like an exotic guidebook than an official document.
He's walked the old stone streets in Gdansk, Poland, wondering at the beautiful architecture; he's sat in the Decemberists Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, admiring the monument to the city's founder, Peter the Great; he's savored sunsets in Zihuatanejo, a quaint Mexican fishing village on the Pacific coast.
And he's just getting started.
In January, Carpenter and his partner plan to travel to southern Thailand, a nation jolted in September by a bloodless coup.
"The coup makes it more exciting," he said. "I don't think of political situations before we go ... that's part of the experience."
Carpenter isn't alone in his desire to visit unusual destinations far from tourist crowds and souvenir-filled shops.
"In the last two or three years there's been a major transformation from a small [adventure travel] niche market to one that's growing," said Trevor Saxty, president of Adventure Center, an international company offering adventure travel packages.
According to Saxty, global travel has always been more affordable than people perceived it to be, but prices have come down a little in the last few years, and the trips themselves are tailored more to the average worker with a familiy and limited vacation time. (Watch how some enjoy yacht travel without the big price )
"More travelers are getting sophisticated about what they can do around the world," he said. "It used to be seen as elitist to go to Morocco, but now it's one of the best deals in terms of adventure experience for the money. There's just such a hunger for more experimental vacations, and [people's] time is limited, so [a trip] has to be a good quality vacation with active alternatives."
Industry numbers show the popularity of the exotic/adventure travel niche.
According to the Travel Industry Association of America, half of U.S. adults reported that they had experienced an "adventure" vacation. And a 2005 AARP study found that baby boomers have doubled the number of international trips they have taken compared to 20 years ago, and about three-fourths of those said they considered themselves more adventurous travelers than their parents.
A new collaborative study between Michigan State University and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) that tracks this niche travel market is scheduled for publication next year. But Chris Doyle, director of ATTA, says he can already attest to the growth.
"In 2006, nearly all of the [adventure travel] providers had booked out for the year or had to add more trips to meet demands," he said.
"Adventure" vacations can take place anywhere including the United States, and are defined by the study as an experience that is "physically, culturally or environmentally involving."
Early data from an ATTA survey shows that most adventure travelers plan to take the same number or more trips in the next five years.
The growth seems to fly in the face of impediments that might have slowed the trend: natural disasters and the threat of global terrorism.
"These are extraordinary times, and yet people are challenging their own lives," said Doyle. "People are grabbing life by the throat and deciding to engage with other people around the world," he says.
The mystique of exotic travel
But not everyone is hankering to catch the next plane to Peru. Some folks still like their adventure in familiar territory.
"The average American isn't choosing to leave the United States when they go on vacation. In fact, only 23 percent of Americans have passports," said travel expert Pauline Frommer, founder/creator of the Pauline Frommer guidebooks.
So, while exotic/adventure travel is on the rise, it is a growing trend within a group of Americans who already travel regularly, she explained.
Peter Francese, a demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather in New York, agreed with Frommer, and pointed out that an even smaller percentage of Americans who have passports actually use them -- 10 percent or less last year.
"Is there a boom in exotic travel? You bet, and it is driven by the fact that ... there is increasing wealth at the top of the income scale," Francese said.
"Exotic travel is the most discretionary item you can buy. It's totally discretionary. If you have money that is completely left over after you buy a car, pay for your child's college education, buy a house, etc. then you go on a trip to see the Great Wall of China," he said.
And the boom may have something to do with the polite chatter at dinner parties, too.
"It is my belief that ... very wealthy people, when they go to those inevitable social gatherings ... they have to have something to talk about. So there is social pressure to say that we went to save the seals in Labrador ... (that you had an adventure) where you don't act like a tourist or feel like a tourist," he said.
Breaking new trail
According to Frommer, those hearty, young backpackers who have never been afraid to rough it a little are still the travelers who find the coolest untapped places to visit.
"They discover the destination, tell their parents about it and five or six years later their parents follow. That's what happened with Prague and Peru," she said. "Prague was this castle-filled destination that backpackers discovered and it was very inexpensive, but once The Wall fell, it was inundated with travelers."
Frommer said Slovakia, which remains fairly inexpensive and boasts lots of culture, along with Nicaragua and Ecuador are the next exotic travel hot spots.
Even the allure of Africa, a continent bursting with natural beauty, can be an affordable trip for most travelers.
"I've done all kinds of safaris from fairly inexpensive to five-star. It just depends," said Pat Quinn, founder and director emeritus of The Zoo in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He's been leading safaris to Africa, Peru and the Galapagos Islands for 33 years.
"Do you want to buy a Yugo, Ford Taurus or a Rolls Royce? If you're interested in animals and interesting people, Africa is a great place to go no matter how you get there.
"You go to Europe when you're old where they have handicapped ramps and such," Quinn said. "You go to Africa when you're young and you can go on a night drive to see the animals."
The Zoo offers safari packages to Kenya for about 10 days that cost between $3,500 and $5,000 per person. To venture to Tanzania for the same type of experience, a traveler will pay about $6,000, and a 10-day trip to Botswana, including a tour of magnificent Victoria Falls, costs between $7,000 and $8,000 per person. All packages include airfare.
"I think everyone dreams of seeing an elephant out in the wild, or your first lion," said Janie Switzer, a safari guide affiliated with The Zoo. "Air travel has made it so easy for us ... and people are finding out that these trips are more affordable."
Switzer sees more families going on exotic safaris than ever before, and she has even brought her 16-year-old son along on treks through Africa six times.
"A ski trip to Aspen is not appealing anymore because I've seen the other side," she said.
Other international hot spots on the exotic travel circuit include the Trans Mongolian Railway, the Antarctic, Peru and Egypt, according to Saxty.
And the prices for some of these adventures won't leave travelers penniless.
For instance, Adventure Center offers a10-day Galapagos family trip that includes a naturalist leader and tours of all the islands for about $1,600 per person, including most meals and transportation.
For his 50th birthday, world traveler Carpenter is eyeing another adventure destination: Africa.
"The joy of travel is being exposed to other cultures," Carpenter said. "The world is getting smaller and none of this will stay. For me, it's a race to see it before it's gone."
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