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Everest Tragedy Shines Light on Billion Dollar Tourism Niche

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Four climbers died on Mount Everest over the weekend, making Saturday one of the deadliest days ever on the "rooftop of the world."

But the incident, which has been blamed in part on overcrowding on the mountain, has raised new questions about the commercial side of climbing the 29,035-foot Himalayan peak, which lies on the border between China and Nepal. Hundreds of wealthy clients every year pay guide services tens of thousands of dollars for escorted trips to the summit, and client numbers have been increasing steadily since the 1990s. According to reports, 208 climbers were packing the mountain last weekend, leaving some trekkers stuck in the high altitude "death zone" — so named because of its treacherous terrain and low oxygen levels — too late in the day to descend safely.

"There was a traffic jam on the mountain on Saturday," Nepalese mountaineering official Gyanendra Shrestha told The Associated Press. "Climbers were still heading to the summit as late as 2:30 p.m. which is quite dangerous." As a general rule, Shrestha said, climbers are advised not to try for the summit any later than 11 a.m.

Still, another 200 climbers are set to try for the summit this weekend, during what is expected to be the final clear weather window of the 2012 season. In total, more than 316 climbers are believed to have reached the summit so far this year, up from just 91 a decade ago.

Including the losses from this weekend, six climbers have perished on Mount Everest in 2012.

Money and Climbing

The solution to all this overcrowding seems simple enough: Limit the number of climbers on the mountain, avoid the "traffic jams" and ensure the safety of all involved. But, in reality, it is not that simple. Climbing the world's highest peak has become a big business, and a lucrative one at that. The Nepalese government, for example, issued 325 climbing permits to foreign mountaineers this year at a price of $10,000 each. And that's just the beginning.

The average Everest climber spends around $51,000 on guides, porters and permits, according to Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and Mount Everest expert who speaks frequently on issues related to the mountain. On the high end, RMI Expeditions charged clients $74,000 apiece in this season, while local Kathmandu operator Asian Trekking was the cheapest guided option at $30,300 as of 2010. Gear and travel expenses can easily add another $5,000 to $10,000 to the cost.

And yet, despite these prices, they keep on coming.

According to AdventureStatistics.org, a total of 4,866 climbers attempted to climb Everest between 2000 and 2006, with 1,861 of those reaching the summit. Just over 2,000 of those climbers were part of commercial climbing tours.

Adventure Travel a Growth Market

Beyond the high peaks, however, adventure travel as an industry has never been hotter. According to the Adventure Tourism Market Report, released in 2010 by the Adventure Travel Trade Association in partnership with George Washington University and Xola Consulting, adventure travel is an $89 billion business that accounts for 26 percent of the overall travel market.

"Instead of being seen as a small, niche market, the study shows that adventure tourism is a sizeable market with the potential for significant economic growth opportunities," said Dr. Kristin Lamoureux, director of George Washington's International Institute of Tourism Studies, when the study was released.

Two percent of adventure travelers participate in "hard adventure" activities, which are defined as mountain climbing, caving and long distance trekking, while the remaining 24 percent focus on softer adventures such as bird watching and photography. Based on that math, hard-core adventurers account for some $1.78 billion in annual travel spending, plus the additional millions they spend on related gear and accessories for their travels.

And numbers like that are hard to ignore, especially in developing nations like Nepal, where per capita income hovers around $490 per year and tourism makes up more than half of GDP. The mountain is "there," who can blame them for cashing in?

Have you ever taken an adventure vacation? Would you?

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