Nabeel AlRuwaidhi has long loved the cascading canyons of his native Oman. A year and a half ago, he decided he wanted to share what he knew about the country’s desert dunes and gorges with travelers. “What I noticed is that a lot of the things that we see as a local are not accessible to the tourist,” he says. He acquired a license through Oman’s tourism ministry and set up a company, Extreme Tours, that sells camping trips that introduce travelers to Oman’s diverse ecology and its local food. To get the word out, he tried listing his adventures on Airbnb Experiences, but he kept getting rejected by the site. Airbnb would only take daylong trips for its Experiences marketplace, and AlRuwaidhi specialized in multi-day excursions. But the company eventually reached out with an alternative proposition: Did AlRuwaidhi want to become one of its launch partners for an entirely new marketplace?
Today, Airbnb is introducing Adventures, a collection of three- to seven-day trips that allow travelers to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations around the world. The all-inclusive trips include guides, meals, on-the-ground transport, and accommodations, along with any necessary gear.
To list their trips on the platform, operators need to apply, much like they did for Experiences. Because the program is so new, Airbnb doesn’t have an official acceptance rate. However, the company has said in the past that it turns away more than 80% of applicants for Experiences. For Adventures, Airbnb says it ensures that all the operators it lists on its platform have the necessary certifications and licenses to run their tours. “We look for things like if they have the right experience when it’s a higher-risk activity,” says Joe Zadeh, head of Experiences at Airbnb, who launched the new vertical. “We also want to make sure the host is connected to the community, so that the community that you go and spend time with as part of the adventure is really welcoming.” Currently, Airbnb Adventures includes more than 200 trips in 40 countries, with more on the way.
Think of it as the skipped-a-year-of-college-to-WWOOF-in-Belize older sister of Experiences. Airbnb Adventures include tracking tigers in Kenya, kayaking in Sweden, and living in an American ghost town. They range from culinary exploration to more physically demanding treks. AlRuwaidhi’s tours, for example, are designed for the beginner, but can be ratcheted up for more experienced clients. While a novice might enjoy a coastal hike, advanced climbers have the option to abseil down a rocky cliff. His company provides meals, camping equipment, transportation, sleeping bags, lighting, water, and other necessary provisions. Travelers need only bring a backpack and appropriate attire.
Over the past three years, Airbnb has been expanding into new kinds of travel experiences, part of its larger effort to position itself as an all-in-one travel company. First came Experiences, its version of day tours, then it bought Canada-based Luxury Retreats to expand into full-service accommodations. It even it integrated Resy’s reservation booking tool into its platform. Airbnb has since extended into Airbnb Plus, a collection of verified, high-quality house rentals. A move into adventure travel might not seem like a stretch, but Adventures signals Airbnb’s first real attempt at offering end-to-end travel, as it involves everything but flights. (Though Airbnb has its sight set on flight booking, too.)
Adventure and activity-based travel is a booming business, with online travel agents, hotels, and other platforms racing to grab a piece. A 2018 survey of tour operators conducted by the Adventure Travel and Trade Association (ATTA) and Travel Leaders Group, found that 86% percent of respondents had experienced growth in their adventure travel sales over the past three years. According to the ATTA, the worldwide adventure travel market has grown from $98 billion in 2009 to $683 billion in 2017.
Airbnb thinks it can set itself apart from the typical adventure fare by coming up with unique trips. Most of the operators on the platform are regional and not widely known, and many are offering trips that are exclusive to Airbnb. Adventures will range from $79 to $5,000, depending on the length of the trip and the complexity of the journey. On average, Airbnb says these trips will cost $750 for seven days, or $110 a day, which is on the more affordable end.
Zadeh says he began looking into more ambitious tours after his own travels left him wanting more. Two years ago, he went horseback riding to a medieval town a few hours outside of Barcelona, one of Airbnb’s Experience excursions. “It was one of the most amazing transformational experiences I’ve ever done,” he says. The guide leading the trip told Zadeh that he typically prefers to include even more medieval cities in his rides, but he needed a few days to do the trek properly. That inspired Zadeh to come up with a way to give independent tour operators—both newbies and more seasoned players—a chance to reach its 2 million-plus nightly guests.
Airbnb is going up against some big players, though most are on the softer side of adventure. Expedia has offered tours and activities on its platform for years. In 2014, TripAdvisor bought activity-booking platform Viator and peer-to-peer tour marketplace Tripbod. Venture capitalists are also keen on tours these days. Klook, a Hong Kong-based marketplace for travel activities, announced a funding raise of $425 million in April; Berlin-based tour booker GetYourGuide recently raised a $484 million round.
They’re all tracking growing interest in adventure, especially among millennials, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their travels. “When people begin traveling, they want to be on a bus together and see the sites,” says Shannon Stowell, CEO of ATTA. “Now, that they’ve done that, the world is their oyster.” Social media also plays a role, says Casey Hanisko, president of the ATTA. Instagram not only introduces people to what their friends are doing, but inspires them to discover new experiences—and be the first to post about them.
The adventure industry has also undergone something of a makeover in recent years, making it more approachable. The word “adventure” used to be associated with skydiving and cliff jumping. Now it refers to hikes, food tours, and yoga retreats under the umbrella of cultural immersion.
Even with this softening of adventure, coordinating weeklong treks is complex, especially when it comes to safety. Even if the guide is adept and practiced and has the necessary license, experiences can go awry. On Easter Sunday this year, suicide bombings roiled the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, a county where tourism accounts for $4.4 billion of the GDP, according to Reuters. Nearly 300 people died; 37 were tourists.
Australia-based Intrepid Adventures, a leading adventure company that has been in the adventure tours business for 30 years, had 282 travelers in the country at the time of the attack. CEO James Thornton says that because the company has offices on the ground in Sri Lanka and a team in the area, it was able to quickly track everyone down, move them to safety, and inform their families. “It’s difficult to do, it’s physical—you have to have on-the-ground expertise,” says Thornton.
As it was building up its roster of Experiences, Airbnb sought out Intrepid’s expertise to help it source quality tours. However, Airbnb’s Zadeh says that for Adventures, the company is working directly with small, independent local operators. Airbnb says it has a team monitoring for international emergencies, which will get in touch with hosts and guests in the event disaster strikes. The company has a 24/7 support hotline and has contracted with International SOS in case its guests need emergency medical services. There is also the company’s million-dollar liability insurance that covers both guests and hosts.
Over the last several years, Airbnb developed a process for vetting the short tours, workshops, and small performances it offers through Experiences, which now features more than 30,000 activities. However, appraising guides for hikes through the Amazon or diving coaches for snorkeling in Thailand requires a more strenuous assessment. Airbnb is using a third party to verify certifications, but declined to name the organization. The company also closely monitors reviews on its platform and has tapped the Adventure Travel and Trade Association for guidance on how to make sure its adventures are safe for travelers.
“Our role is to help them understand the market, understand the complexity of it,” says Hanisko, adding that ATTA will also be sharing best practices and tips for how to operate. She and Stowell both say they’re excited about Airbnb’s foray into adventure because of its ability to make these trips more mainstream.
For Airbnb, moving beyond the lighter fare of wine tastings and into more daring forms of travel could be lucrative. Thornton says Intrepid made $397 million in annual revenue last year—and that’s poised to rise. In its 2019 trend snapshot report, the ATTA found that 60% of operators expect profits to grow this year. “I love it when technology companies talk about experiences, because experiences are what we’ve done for 30 years,” says Thornton.
Nabeel AlRuwaidhi, too, is feeling optimistic. He just made Extreme Tourism his full-time job. “So far it’s been two months,” he says. It’s been an emotional start. During tours he often brings travelers into his home to meet his wife and daughters and share a meal. He says the biggest difficulty has not been in getting certified to run his business, but in making sure that his clients are having a good time. “It’s hard when the guests are shy or not expressing interest [in one another],” he says. “But with time I have learned how to do the ice breaking and really connect them.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect GetYourGuide’s recent funding figure.