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Patrick Barkham on the rise of extreme tourism | Travel

Dexter Pletts in MongoliaTrekking to Kathmandu, going nomadic with the !Kung of the Kalahari or visiting the slums of Kolkata are no longer exotic enough. Today's trophy tourists want to tick off ever more extreme locations on their global adventures. Travel supplements bulge with the ultimate - and ultimately self-defeating - quest to find the completely unspoilt destination, whether it is the Lakshadweep islands, Oman's grand canyon or outer space.

We are all aware of the contradictions of modern tourism; how it can cascade unimaginable riches on impoverished corners of the world and also destroy the very tranquillity we all seek. The media and modern transport have opened up the world and now its less visited pockets are being picked over by more and more western tourists seeking to pep up their jaded travel palates with something different. During the Antarctic's 1996/97 summer season, 7, 413 tourists landed on the continent. Ten years later, 29, 530 visitors touched down on the ice and snow. Many environmentalists and even some tour operators fear such exponential increases are not sustainable.

The urge to explore, to go to the next corner or climb to a top of a hill to see what lies beyond, is a human impulse as basic as breathing. People have toured the world out of curiosity rather than economic or political conquest for centuries. But the extreme adventuring of today's wealthy citizens is driven by two, often contradictory trends. Some of us want to reconnect with our authentic selves through the mirror of another culture, sensing that our materialistic modern lives lack "a connection between us and the soil and the things we grow", as Peter Burns, professor of tourism and international development at the University of Brighton, puts it. In contrast, others unashamedly obey the status-seeking urge to tick off exotic destinations - "trophy tourism", says Burns. "The reality is that extreme tourism are adventures for the rich and the elite."

While the idea of a noble savage teaching us something essential we have lost has been knocking around the western world for more than 300 years and also triggered the hippie trail more than 30 years ago, the worry that we have lost an authentic way of being is a growing modern obsession. The BBC series Tribal Wives looks at individuals' search for meaning in their lives by visiting remote peoples, although the episode following a British woman's month with the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador focused on the "untouched" element (but somehow failed to make clear that the village is actually a well-trodden eco-tourism destination). Tonight's "wife" is typical. Yvonne Power, 37, spent a month with the Himba, semi-nomadic pastoralists who live in Kaokoland, Namibia. She said she only realised the impact of the trip when she returned to her ordinary life in Blackpool. "I found myself there, " she told local press. "Before I went I didn't like who I was, I had load of issues, little self confidence, and felt fragmented and fractured. My head was telling me that I was doing well but my heart was broken."

Tony Pletts decided on an extreme holiday because he was worried his 14-year-old son Dexter was spending all his days on computer games. A film set designer from Hackney, London, Pletts spent nine months setting up a trip to join Kazak-speaking eagle hunters in the remote mountains of Mongolia. "I wanted to show him you could do much more interesting things in the real world than in the virtual world, " he says (although Dexter still took his Game Boy with him and played it with local youths).

Pletts says he acquired his adventurous spirit on an art college exchange to Russia in 1984. He remembers watching Russian news footage of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear demonstrations in which police were beating up women - footage that had never been broadcast in the UK. "That's when I decided I wanted to travel and see the world from as many different perspectives as I can, " he says.

He and his wife, Sarah, and Dexter, flew to Beijing and broke their journey on the Trans-Siberian railway at the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, from where they flew to Ulgii. Pletts had Googled eagle-hunting, the Kazak tradition of training and using golden eagles to catch foxes and other small mammals for their pelts. He avoided tour operators and stayed with an eagle-hunting family who had only ever had a couple of other western visitors.

Pletts was struck by the similarities between the family they stayed with and his own, and both families bonded by playing pool on an icy outdoor table. The trip taught him to cast aside his western-centric view of the eagle hunters, and he learned how the family treated their eagle almost like a treasured pet but also understood it was a wild animal and would release it after a number of years - golden eagles can live 20 years - so it could return to the wild and breed.

"I'm a typical urban kind of guy. I'm not mister hunting, shooting and fishing so it became quite a challenge to step into that situation but the guys live in a very balanced way with the environment, " says Pletts. He admits the whole family found "elements of it extremely hard being in the presence of a kill, but the Mongolians aren't sentimental. They like their horses but when they get a bit old and slow they are in the pot. That's the way it goes. They really respect their land and the animals. It's a very different, very open relationship with the land."

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