ATTA President Shannon Stowell interviews Adventure Travel World Summit keynote speaker and award winning author, Pico Iyer.
Shannon: So Pico, you are here at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Swakopmund, Namibia and it is your first adventure travel industry event. And I’m just curious how your experience has been and what you think.
Pico: I’ve been having the most fantastic time and it’s really the gathering of the tribe, as I quickly understand. Its very different from the kind of place I usually find myself which is wonderful – that’s what every traveler wants to be in a foreign land. And I think especially traveling across this country with other members of this tribe it really struck me how genuine people are and also how appreciative. I thought if I was stuck in a desert for three weeks these are the kind of guys I want to be with. Very positive, never complaining, however many bumps or dust there is in the road, nobody is rattled, I’m really learning a lot from that spirit I think.
Shannon: That’s great to hear. So what sorts of adventures did you experience on this trip?
Pico: My first day in Namibia, I was standing probably 30 meters from a rhino. Then two days later I was watching five elephants more or less walk pass my car. Seeing baby cheetahs nursing maybe ten meters away from me. Baby leopards. So it’s been an animal trip, but I think the people are the real surprise. I knew the landscape would be beautiful, I knew the creatures would be extraordinary. But I remember my first morning in Namibia we rolled up to this desert camp in the middle of this absolute emptiness and ten women, the staff of the camp, came out and started singing and dancing a welcome song to us, so I’ve never had that in my 40 years of travel. And I thought this was just for the welcome, but then we went on a drive and we came back a couple of hours later, they were singing a new song to us and I think there’s just that spirit of warmth and a balance in this country that goes perfectly with all of us who are visiting and are bringing our own excitement to it.
Shannon: Do you feel like after being here and speaking with all the delegates of the Summit, do you feel like you’ve gotten some new insights to adventure travel?
Pico: Yeah, because I didn’t know much about it before. I haven’t been an adventure traveler myself. So I think I have a new respect for the kind of things people do and especially for the spirit that they bring to it. I get the sense that with most the people here, whatever trip they set off on, they’re not going to come back disappointed. Even if their car breaks down, even if they avalanche comes down, they’re going to come back with that same smile on their face. And I think many travelers of any kind can really learn from that. I’m more used to East Coast/European travel where people are always complaining (laughter), and I think we can learn from this kind spirit of openness, and responsiveness and delight. You know I think the word, I spent five days traveling across this country with five other different members of this group, this Summit, and the words that were constantly coming out were wonderful, beautiful, fantastic, never a negative comment and that’s really refreshing so I would hope to learn something about that. In terms of specifics, I’ve learned so much from getting to see the movies that various sponsors screen and just learning about destinations that I wouldn’t have thought of. As I talk to you, I see behind you an ad for Ecuador which I went to many years ago when I was a kid. Everywhere I turn, there are these wonderful ads reminding us of how much is to be seen in Chile, Ireland, Ecuador, Switzerland all the other places. It’s like having the whole world brought to you in one space.
Shannon: If you would have defined adventure before you came here. What would have come to mind? Maybe activities or how would you have defined adventure before you attended?
Pico: I would have thought in terms of climbing mountains, riding mountain bikes, surfing. And I still would, but now I have a better sense of what people are bringing to those activities and that it’s not really that activity that’s so important as the enthusiasm and excitement and openness you bring to them and I think that so in that way the people that I’ve met at the Summit have really brought Adventure Travel to life and given a human face to it that maybe it didn’t have so much before as it’d be something I see in a magazine, now there’s these new friends that I’ve met who, that I can imagine doing these amazing things.
Shannon: When you look at the entire business of travel, the giant market of travel, what role do you think adventure could and should play in that market place?
Pico: Well, I’m really excited that adventure travel is the biggest growing section in the travel industry, I believe. And in that sense I think the world is not going to get used up. Because I think those of us who spend time in cities quickly find that pretty much any where you go you’re surrounded by the Golden Arches and Starbucks now. When you’re in Namibia or Colorado or Alaska, Chile, that’s not what you’re going to see. And these landscapes that have surrounded us and I think that always surround the Summits here, are so pristine and so kind of untamed that I think adventure travel is going to have a bigger and bigger place in the world as people start, when they go to Venice today they notice everyone around them is another tourist, when they go to Kyoto, 50 million tourists every year, but a place like Namibia and the other places that the Summits’ highlight, exactly the opposite, they’re not crowded, they’re not polluted and therefore they make for a kind of reinvigoration of the soul, I think you feel clarified and opened up and innocent again when you’re in places like this so I think adventure travel is only going to grow and grow. Of course there is traffic jams on Everest and Antarctica now, and even Adventure Travel is getting more popular but I think there is more space to expand, literally here we are in one of the emptiest countries on Earth, and its going to be a long time until this huge desert is over crowded.
Shannon: If you were to give an aspiring travel writer any advice at this point, what would it be?
Pico: Leave your assumptions at home. Doesn’t really matter what you take but its important not to bring your expectations with you. And not to assume in advance what’s going to be interesting or moving or transporting. So I’m a victim of that myself, ten days ago before I set foot in Namibia, I would have been able to talk about the sand dunes and the desert and maybe the wildlife but when I leave Namibia, that’s not the first that I’m going to carry away with me it’s much more the human interactions, the surprises, kinda the spaces between the sites really I think what most travelers are effected by. And so when I think of the landscape here a bit of it is similar to for example Arizona, another bit is similar to the Australian outback, but when I think of the people, they are not similar to any, they’re absolutely individual.
Shannon: Unique, yeah.
Pico: I was calling up my wife in Japan, trying to reproduce the song from the desert rhino camp the women were producing every time we came back. And I was telling her, where else in the world have you seen that kind of thing.
Shannon: Well, I have to say it was a real pleasure traveling with you and with the other people with the Adventure Travel World Summit. We had an amazing journey didn’t we?
Pico: We did, it’s such fun. I’ve got to say, I’m the kind of person, I nearly always travel by myself and, nearly always, as I said, in city environments. So, this has been a new experience on every front and yeah I think one of the real revelations for me was what fun it could be in a group because we were traveling 17 hours a day on long empty roads together day after day and that could be grueling in certain circumstances. But you’re right, that’s one of the things I will, it’s a good thing for a solitary guy like me to be reminded of. And, I think adventure travel, although its often about one person scaling a mountain or doing something, has that community quality but the kind of travel I do doesn’t. I think the Summit is a perfect commemoration and celebration of this community. And, its as if all 650 delegates are going around the world, doing amazing things but regrouping every year here to share their adventures so that everyone can enjoy the adventures everybody has taken and that’s a wonderful thing. It’s not as if we’ve all been going to these same destinations these past 12 months.
Pico: And to create a community out of people doing independent things is a joy I’d say.
Shannon: Absolutely. Well it’s a pleasure, always. And, I’ll look forward to our next adventure together.
Pico: I hope so, its been a real joy to get to know you, all of you. Thank you very much.
Shannon: Our pleasure. Take care
Pico: Thank you