In this month’s Leisure Insight, Ben Barker, Managing Director – Extreme Destinations takes some time out to discuss the rise of adventure and extreme sports, how the last few years have been a catalyst for the market and that now it is time to capitalise.

The movement towards an active lifestyle has surged over the past few years, globally, with overwhelming growth identified within the extreme and adventure sports sector as opposed to mainstream sports.

Unlike traditional sports, extreme and adventure sports are not about uniforms, coaches or scripts. Expressing yourself through action is the key. It’s a passion, an attitude, a way of life and even a religion. Whether on land, air or water, extreme and adventure sports offer that freedom, individualism and pure physical expression with a high degree of risk compared to highly regulated and organised mainstream sports.

The key difference between extreme sports and adventure sports is that an extreme sport usually requires greater expertise, training and years of dedication to master, whereas an adventure sport can usually be enjoyed with little to no prior experience under the supervision of a trained professional with clearly communicated safety protocols.

As part of EXTREME’s vision to “Drive positive change through extreme and adventure sports”, we ensure that we keep abreast of the shifting landscape of trends across the adventure sports and adventure travel sector. Mindful that not everyone in the industry or with an interest in adventure sports have the time or often even the capabilities to sift through all the research, we recently gathered the trends and insights from the past few years into a brief document which we shared with our partners in the industry, to guide us as we design, develop and operate outdoor and indoor adventure sports offerings.

One of the most stand-out trends was the demographic change in participants. There was a time when extreme and adventure sports were associated with 25-35 year old ‘adrenaline-junkies’. However, recent trends have shown a drop in this perceived barrier to entry. Regardless of age, gender or physical ability, the uptick of such sports has surged, with an estimated 490 million participants worldwide in an industry now worth well over US$200bn per annum.

Having been physically confined and restricted in movements over the past two years, there is also now a notable increase in interest to be outdoors and to step out of one’s comfort zone. Previous fears have been set aside and age does not appear to be a limitation. The goal has changed with more people seeking to tick off those bucket lists, take on new challenges or simply enjoy a new hobby. Sales of extreme and adventure sports equipment saw a significant rise especially in the second quarter following the lockdown period as people sought new activities to keep them entertained. This was most remarkable in the outdoor individual sports and home workout sector.

Also growing exponentially has been the global adventure sports tourism market, predominantly amongst those adventurers seeking unexplored destinations and immersive, authentic experiences. Adventure travel globally is the fastest growing travel segment. Governments and destinations are strategising and developing initiatives to tap into this growth, paying attention to the various segments within this market be it soft adventure, land-based adventure, family segment and the 20-30 year old segment.

These increases in demand to explore, experience and be active has not gone unnoticed by governments and developers. Sites have been identified across all continents and plans put in place to add value to natural surroundings and urban areas. Whilst development is deemed vital for the growth of an economy, provision of employment and for the health and wellbeing of a country’s population, attention is also being given to the rising demand from consumers to ensure that the environment and its surrounding communities are treated with utmost respect throughout all development stages right through to the daily operation of an adventure sport destination.

During the 2022 Commonwealth round table session held in Kigali, over 120 Sports and Health Ministers, industry professionals and stakeholders, agreed that (at the time) the upcoming Birmingham Commonwealth Games would be an opportunity to leverage on the power and popularity of sport to drive social change, promote sustainable development and improve global health. This growing global sentiment has encouraged many governments and authorities to take action to provide the funds, facilities and services necessary to drive both mental and physical well-being, tackle the social issues and improve local communities.

Having said this, not all destinations have the expanse of land nor the steep budget requirements needed to dedicate to the development of large-scale adventure sports arenas, trails, pistes and more. The current economic climate and the risks involved in adventure travel whether it’s the increasingly unpredictable weather conditions or social dangers, may also have an impact on the adventure travel sector. For this reason, it is vital that authorities and investors also give importance to indoor leisure and entertainment adventure sports spaces, capable of bringing the outdoor environment inside. These allow visitors of all ages, capabilities and beliefs to have fun whilst learning and growing within their sport. Here complete beginners can feel undaunted to practice side by side with elite athletes and benefit from the support systems available that can take them from grassroots to professional. From skateparks and pump tracks to challenging climbing walls and mind-blowing surf pools, technological advancements in the development of leisure and entertainment spaces have facilitated the incorporation of those sports once deemed niche into creative centres now able to cater to the masses.

The trend is showing that the global market is no longer satisfied with the norm. With greater awareness of the need to place their mental and physical wellbeing at the forefront, the yearning for more happiness and social interaction, the ability to challenge oneself, to protect the natural playground the planet provides, to discover and to experience adventure, clearly shows that the market demands more and perhaps the only space that will be able to satisfy all of these will be the extreme and adventure sports leisure and entertainment sector.