On Friday 16 June, the tourist Titan submersible descended into the ocean, taking a handful of billionaires on a deep sea expedition to view the wreck of the Titanic. Constant news updates began when communication with the sub was lost less than two hours into the dive. Following a widely publicised search and rescue effort, the US Coast Guard confirmed that all five passengers were dead, after the submersible imploded. Incredibly, the vessel wasn’t subject to safety regulations owing to it operating in international waters and not carrying passengers from a port. OceanGate – the parent company of the sub – reportedly warned that the submersible had ‘not been approved or certified by any regulatory body’. It has also been reported that passengers are required to sign a waiver that warns of possible physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death. Former Titan passenger Mark Reiss told news sources: “You just become a different kind of person. You even know you could die and it doesn’t bother you.” The passengers were aware that they may not make it out alive. And yet they willingly signed up to travel 12,500 feet down in the Atlantic Ocean. Why?
It’s unsurprising that extreme tourism is also known as ‘shock tourism’. It’s not for the fainthearted, but for those who do want to partake – typically ultra-high-net-worth individuals like those who boarded the Titan – the draw is seemingly irresistible. ITIJ spoke with Jonathan Frankham, General Manager, UK and Europe at World Nomads, about the unrelenting appeal of extreme tourism.
“The ultra-wealthy are, to a certain degree, driving extreme tourism to its limits both in terms of the activities themselves but also the publicity and hype generated around these activities,” he said. “The world’s wealthiest folks are splurging on these mind-blowing trips. The tragic recent Titanic expedition cost just under £200,000 per person. Space travel is even more eye-watering in terms of the cost – often costing millions per traveller. And with social media, these activities are well documented and primed to capture people’s attention and imagination like never before.”
The ultra-wealthy are, to a certain degree, driving extreme tourism to its limits both in terms of the activities themselves but also the publicity and hype generated around these activities
Red flag or humble brag?
Is social media influencing the uptick in extreme tourists? These gung-ho, wealthy individuals who are willing to stare death in the face for a new high? “The adventures are like trophies – difficult accomplishments with an aspect of danger,” Curt Carlson, Senior Vice President, Trawick International, told ITIJ.
Frankham agreed: “It’s like saying, ‘I’ve got the guts and the capital to do what most people can only dream of.’ It’s a status symbol.”
Travel sharing is prolific on social media apps, which are often used for travel inspiration – in fact, 2019 research found that 86 per cent of consumers have become interested in a specific location after seeing user-generated content. The story of the Titan submersible expedition was vastly disseminated online and, even with its tragic ending, is likely to spark interest in similarly dangerous voyages.
“Tragedies don’t necessarily deter people from travelling or participating in life-threatening activities,” Frankham pointed out.
“Think back to 9/11 and the initial forecasts of grave impacts on the aviation industry – despite the catastrophe, the industry rebounded pretty quickly to pre-attack levels. And, in some cases, tragedies such as the Titanic exploration actually amplify the pursuit of these activities and drive interest further.”
It’s not just digital media that is accelerating extreme tourism. Advancements in technology have facilitated this trend in the first place, making it possible. Describing the Titan sub, OceanGate said: “Through the innovative use of modern materials, Titan is lighter in weight and more cost-efficient to mobilise than any other deep-diving submersible. A combination of groundbreaking engineering and off-the-shelf technology gives Titan a unique advantage over other deep-diving subs.”
Frankham agreed that technological advancements are a key factor in the rise of extreme tourism: “We’ve got all these new technologies that are taking us places we never thought possible, whether that’s advanced spaceships that facilitate astronavigation or submarines that can dive to insane depths in the ocean. These technical innovations are opening up new frontiers for thrill-seekers and giving them opportunities to explore uncharted territories.”
Is extreme tourism uninsurable?
‘Adventure’ or ‘extreme sports’ travel insurance will cover those who wish to partake in sporting activities while they’re on holiday, but rock climbing is different from climbing Mount Everest, while skydiving isn’t the same as launching into space. As such, a whole new bracket of insurance is required for those wishing to go to the extreme, and this presents a whole host of potential problems and complexities.
“Insurers need to understand the specific risks of each activity and design and price coverage that actually makes sense. But that’s far from straightforward,” Frankham underlined. “Then there’s the issue of figuring out who’s qualified for coverage. Let’s say, for example, you want to climb Mount Everest. Are you an experienced mountaineer or just an office worker dreaming big? Insurance companies need to evaluate skills, training and experience to assess the level of risk they’re taking on.
When you’re off exploring the middle of nowhere, you can’t exactly dial 999 and expect an ambulance to magically appear. Insurers have to figure out how to provide emergency medical help and evacuations in these far-flung locations
“In some cases, that can be very difficult to get an accurate read on – and the situation is complicated further because of the rise in what we might term ‘unscrupulous’ tour operators trying to capitalise on increased demand. You only need to look at those infamous photos of people queuing to get to the summit of Everest back in 2019 and the high death toll that followed as inexperienced climbers were put in situations they should never have found themselves in.
“Then there’s emergency services. When you’re off exploring the middle of nowhere, you can’t exactly dial 999 and expect an ambulance to magically appear. Insurers have to figure out how to provide emergency medical help and evacuations in these far-flung locations.”
Indeed, the search for the Titan submersible demonstrated how major an undertaking rescue efforts can be when accidents happen, with the cost reportedly reaching millions of dollars. Then there is the fact that rescue teams are being put at risk, with the possibility of more lives being added to the death toll. As appetite for extreme tourism grows, it seems a natural progression that the travel insurance industry will develop cover to fill the current gap in the market, but this won’t be an easy feat given the associated challenges.
The fact that the main demographic embarking on such ‘adventures’ is that of ultra-high-net-worth individuals further complicates matters. “They want more extensive coverage, higher policy limits and services tailored to their tastes,” said Frankham. “They might be chartering private helicopters to reach their exclusive extreme destinations or, as we’ve seen by recent tragic events, diving to the Titanic wreck. It can all lead to bigger risks and over-the-top claims, because you’re not just insuring their backpack and camera. We’re talking about high-value claims for expensive gear, high-end accommodations, and unique experiences.”
On to the next risky frontier
Frankham said that with an increase in demand, insurance for extreme tourism is bound to evolve and become more tailored to the specific risks involved: “Those specialist insurance providers will have to step up their game and offer coverage that addresses the unique needs of extreme travellers, whatever they may be. But that’s always going to be difficult in accurately assessing the dangers of very specialised activities. As a specialist adventure travel insurance provider, World Nomads policies offer cover for medical emergencies and medical evacuations in challenging environments. But there are limits and exclusions to what we’re willing to cover. There has to be to ensure we have a sound business model and that we’re not making promises we can’t keep at a time when our travellers might need us most.”
Ultra-high-net-worth individuals can afford to self-insure if the market cannot produce a protection programme at a reasonable price
Carlson agreed: “If the numbers continue to grow as they have been, then the insurance markets will receive more requests and subsequently create and/or improve existing products. It will become mainstream to the extent of continued and increasing participation.” He pointed out that whether or not insurance is available, this won’t prevent wealthy thrill-seekers from embarking on the next high: “The ultra-high-net-worth individuals can afford to self-insure if the market cannot produce a protection programme at a reasonable price.”
It seems that the deeper the pockets, the more extreme a traveller can go with tourism and whether or not the travel insurance industry can adapt to accommodate this demographic won’t present an obstacle. Furthermore, it’s possible that this is only the beginning. “I think it’s safe to say that, despite recent events, extreme tourism is going to continue to grow in popularity,” concluded Frankham. “And as technology advances and these adventures become more commonplace and therefore more accessible, people will seek these opportunities out. Of course, the question then becomes, ‘If everyone is doing it, is it still considered extreme?’ And so, there’ll be an inevitable race to the next risky frontier.”