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Pressed for time but ready for anything, travelers opt for ‘microadventures’

Joe Hancock

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe — “What activities today?” inquires the friendly security guard whose job it is to shield guests from the determined hawkers and money-changers hovering in wait outside the Kingdom Hotel.

There are lots of choices of things to do out there beyond the gate. The prime attraction here is the spectacular mile-long waterfall, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, whose cascading water creates a towering cloud of mist. There are also elephant and helicopter rides, bungee jumping, zip-lining, wildlife viewing along the Zambesi River, whitewater rafting, and excursions across the bridge to Zambia.

Almost all of them, interspersed with meals of African game in the smattering of restaurants or browsing in the handful of shops, fit easily into a typical visit of two and a half days.

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That makes this little inland African town a prime destination for a microadventure — a short, action-packed, often spontaneous getaway for people too busy to take lots of long vacations, or who look for fast-paced detours from business or other pleasure trips, or for couples who want to travel separately now and then with friends.

The microadventure trend is being driven by technology that allows spontaneous bookings and offers low last-minute fares, and, in Boston, by more and more fast direct international flights that let people jet off to, for instance, the Azores for a weekend.

Now the tourism industry is latching on, helping last-minute travelers arrange the parts of brief trips they can’t always easily find and book themselves: sightseeing, table reservations, and other on-the-ground experiences.

Jon Marcus
Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

“People may be savvy and able to make arrangements on their own, but looking to people like us to help with the elements of the trip that require more support,” said Jonathan Brunger, general manager of a company called Adventure Life that markets microadventures largely to busy executive types. “They’re short on time and need help with a plug-in for that active component that they’re looking for.”

Some microadventures may seem extreme, not for the activities they promise, but for their very, very short durations. Adventure Life, for instance, offers a three-day Ecuador mountain-biking tour, a four-day Belize rainforest tour, a three-day Costa Rica hiking trip, and a five-day excursion to Thailand.

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Even travel companies were previously skeptical that anyone would want to take such whirlwind packages. That’s changed with the heightening of demand, including among groups of friends in search of what the industry has dubbed “man-cations”and “girl getaways.”

In the past, said Brunger, “People would contact us to do short trips but it didn’t seem worth it to put together a short itinerary. Over the last few years we’ve had to adapt and really customize the experience for what they need.”

“There’s a segment here,” he said. “We need to offer this.”

Meanwhile, even as work responsibilities squeeze vacations into smaller and smaller windows, millennials are seeking out adventure travel, said Harry Dalgaard, founder and president of Avanti Destinations, which specializes in customized independent travel.

“It’s as though the less time they have, the more active and adventure travel they want to cram in,” Dalgaard said.

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Avanti offers four-day, three-night sandboarding trips to a Nicaraguan volcano, three-day, two-night rafting, tubing, and canyoneering packages to Costa Rica, five-day, four-night sea-kayaking and zip-lining visits to Croatia, and five-day, four-night tours of southern Iceland with snowmobiling and hiking.

“It’s about testing destinations, but it’s also about testing the activities,” said Christopher Doyle, the American-born executive director for Europe of the Adventure Travel Trade Association — “seeing if this will be a part of my next adventure next year with the whole family.”

Some people also add on short breaks to business trips or vacations. That’s how a lot of travelers wind up in Victoria Falls, given its enormous distance from their starting points.

“We’re getting increased uptakes of people extending their holidays and adding on,” said Shelley Cox, Victoria Falls-based “ambassador” for the African tourism company Great Plains Conservation. “Then you’ll have business people here for conferences. There are huge numbers of travelers who are so busy. They’ll do five days in Botswana and one or two days in Victoria Falls to squash it all into a week.”

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It’s among Europeans that the microadventure fad is hottest. The consulting firm Euromonitor, which tracks consumer trends, expects it to widen this year.

“People find they’re having to take shorter breaks, or might use a holiday to get a taste of an experience before they take on a full-blown adventure trip,” said Caroline Bremner, Euromonitor’s head of travel research.

The travel company Monograms has 31 four-day “city getaways” to London, Paris, even Rio de Janeiro — nine of them new this year — that include airport transfers, hotel accommodations, half a day of sightseeing, and the services of a local host who can recommend and arrange dinner, theater, and other bookings.

The wholesaler Travel Impressions books weekends in Dublin, countryside cycling trips outside London, and hiking through a rainforest in Panama, all in short bursts.

“More and more travelers are equipped with the ability to be spontaneous,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Monograms parent Globus. “You could wake up on a Wednesday and not have plans to go to London, but on your newsfeed you can see a $499 airfare. Ten years ago that wouldn’t have been something we would have even considered.”

Joe Hancock

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.