Israel, Chile, Slovak Republic among countries with highest adventure travel potential

A new study conducted by George Washington University, Vital Wave Consulting, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) shows that Israel, Chile, and the Slovak Republic led the way in adventure tourism in 2010. The study, which resulted in the third annual Adventure Tourism Development Index, uses a mix of quantitative data and expert surveys to rank nations from around the globe on their approach and commitment to sustainable adventure travel.

The study examines what researchers call the “ten pillars” of adventure tourism. Those pillars include such things as infrastructure, cultural resources, adventure activities, entrepreneurship, and more. When those factors were all examined and ranked accordingly, for each country, a score was calculated that resulted in rankings for both developed and developing nations.

So exactly which countries earned high marks in the latest Adventure Tourism Development Index? The top ten developing countries included the following: Israel, Slovak Republic, Chile, Estonia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Jordan, Romania and Latvia.Conversely, the top ten developed nations included: Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Austria.

The ATTA is quick to point out that these lists are not an indication of how well visited these countries currently are as adventure travel destinations, although some are already popular amongst travelers. Instead, it is a general rating on the climate that exists in these places that make it possible to support sustainable tourism now and into the future.

Judging from the list, it appears that Europe is well ahead of the game in terms of promoting sustainable travel. Both lists are dominated by countries from that continent, which could come as a surprise to many travelers.

To read the entire report click here.

Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!

Japanese call off whale hunting season — end of Whale Wars?

Despite the seemingly good news from the Southern Ocean – that Japanese whalers have stopped hunting – activists and governments alike are waiting on formal word that they have truly stopped for the season.

There is concern the “suspension” could be some kind of stalling tactic or publicity stunt.

From Australia, Environment Minister Tony Burke, admits to hearing conflicting reports. “At this point, we do not have any statement from the Japanese government to us confirming that this season of whaling is at an end.”

The Japanese Fisheries Agency is only saying that whaling operations have been “suspended” since February 10 “to ensure the safety of the crew.”

For the moment the Sea Shepherd‘s “Bob Barker” is still trailing the Japanese processing ship, the “Nisshin Maru,” on a meandering route that has led both ships away from whaling grounds.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this season the Japanese have taken very few whales, thanks largely to the constant harassment of the Shepherd’s. Traditionally the Fisheries Agency holds off until season’s end to announce exactly how many whales were taken in the name of science; this year’s goal was between 800 and 900. The best guess right now is that they’ve taken fewer than 100.Sea Shepherd spokesman Peter Hammarstedt, aboard the “Bob Barker,” explained the success the group has had this season: “Every day we prevent them from whaling we’re costing them millions of dollars in lost profit. And we speak the only language that these poachers understand, the language of profit and loss.”

Hammarstedt also reported that the Japanese ship had made a U-turn just before entering the Drake Passage, slowed and headed back to the west.

“The turnabout could mean one of two things,” said Hammarstedt. “First, they may be on a great circle route back to Japan, or second, they may be returning to the whaling grounds in the Ross Sea where the three Japanese harpoon vessels may be waiting to continue their illegal slaughter.”

From the Shepherd’s mother ship, the “Steve Irwin,” Captain Paul Watson was his typical bold self in reaction to the suspension of hunting: “The Japanese Fisheries Agency had no choice but to suspend whaling operations. Sea Shepherd had already enforced a suspension of operations by blocking all whaling operations since February 9th and blocking 75% of all whaling operations for the month of January. We will not allow the Japanese whalers to kill another whale down here in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.”

To celebrate its successes this season, Sea Shepherd’s website today announced a “10 percent off” sale on all its merchandise (beanies, hoodies, baby bibs, tank tops, tote bags and more) – a so-called “No Compromise Sale” – in gratitude to its loyal and growing list of supporters around the world.

[Flickr image via gsz]

Adventure travel market grows to $89 billion

According to a new study commissioned by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), Xola Consulting, and George Washington University, adventure travelers spent more than $89 billion on tourism in 2009, demonstrating the strength of the adventure market in the travel industry. That number doesn’t include the money that those travelers also spent on airfare, nor new gear.

The study questioned 850 travelers from North and South America, as well as Europe. More than 70% of all international travel originates in those locations with the highest number of travelers coming from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain. Researchers hoped to get a better understanding of the adventure tourism market, which they defined as travel, either international or domestic, that included physical activity, nature-based options, and cultural experiences, in hopes of getting a grasp on this fast growing industry.

While the full study won’t be published until later this fall, some of the findings have already been made public. For instance, the ATTA says that the typical adventure traveler is 36 years old and spends between $450 and $800 per vacation, excluding their airfare. They are also more likely to hold a passport, and are generally more educated and affluent than the “typical” traveler.

They also don’t seem to mind spending money on their travels, as in addition to the $89 billion spent on the trips themselves, adventure travelers spent an additional $53 billion on related gear, apparel, and accessories. That brings the total market value for adventure travel to $142 billion in 2009. In comparison, the cruise line world market share is estimated to have a value of about $27 billion.

As you can imagine, many travel companies are scrambling to get a piece of the pie, with more exotic treks and cultural excursions to far flung places being planned all the time. Adventure travel clearly isn’t a niche market any longer, and what was once the purview of dare devils and thrill seeker, is becoming all the more appealing to mainstream travelers too.

Adventure Tourism Development Index rates top adventure destinations

The Adventure Tourism Development Index is a study put together by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, in conjunction with George Washington University and Xola Consulting. The joint effort examines 192 countries and ranks them based on their commitment to sustainable adventure tourism, as well as a number of other factors that influence their ability to host an adventure travel market and offer unique experience to travelers.

The ATDI uses what it calls the “10 Pillars of Adventure Tourism Market Competitiveness” to determine its rankings. Those pillars include Sustainable Development Policy, Safety and Security, Tourism Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, Adventure Activity Resources, Entrepreneurship, Humanitarian, Health, and Image.

The study used a combination of surveys, gathered from top adventure travel specialists from around the planet, and quantifiable data from each of the countries to establish a list of the top adventure destinations in both the developed and developing world.

The results of the research are quite interesting, offering up some destinations that might not have seemed like viable options in the past. The top ten developing countries are as follows:

1. Slovak Republic
2. Israel
3. Czech Republic
4. Estonia
5. Slovenia
6. Chile
7. Bulgaria
8. Latvia
9. Botswana
10. Lithuania

And the top ten developed countries are:1. Iceland
2. Switzerland
3. New Zealand
4. United Kingdom
5. Australia
6. Luxembourg
7. Denmark
8. Ireland
9. Germany
10. Spain

A quick look at both lists offers some perennial favorites, especially on the rankings of the developed countries. For instance, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia have long been top destinations for adventure travelers. The list of developing countries is far more interesting however, with long time favorites Chile and Botswana making the list. But even more important is the emergence of the Eastern European countries as increasingly viable options. That region is quickly gaining a reputation for great hiking, backpacking, and paddling destinations, with amazing scenery and fantastic cultures to explore. It doesn’t hurt that they travel in the region is very affordable and not yet over run with tourists too.

To download and read the full ATDI report, click here.