An individual's perception of what constitutes a 'risky' situation is a unique, personal construct created in the mind (Hall and Roberts, 2001); affected by personality traits, previous experiences, knowledge and levels of skill (Weber, 2001). This leads to varied views regarding the danger level of participating in a specific activity.
It is widely believed that risk plays a central role in the appeal of adventure tourism and therefore if risk is absent, satisfaction and the desire to participate will decrease (Weber, 2001); risk is considered a motivational factor as it is directly linked to the pursuit of positive outcomes. It is said that many tourists rate the desire for risk as more important than their safety, however, studies show that tourists are likely to be more safety conscious than they think, selecting activities that take place in commercial settings, under the supervision of trusted operators (Weber, 2001). Such 'protective frames' allow the tourist to experience emotional highs associated with risk without actually putting themselves in truly harmful situations (Gibson and Lepp, 2008).
Cater (2006) suggests that adventure tourists primarily seek emotional highs which result from fear rather than risk itself. Gibson and Lepp (2008) refer to this concept as 'sensation seeking', where individuals seek intense, novel and complex sensations and experiences through tourism practices which are perceived to be risky or challenging. Buckley (2009) supports this view, claiming that the majority of adventure tourists seek 'rush' rather than risk. 'Rush' is described as a psychological and physiological sensation, known as a 'peak experience' which can only be obtained when the individual is comfortable with the required skill level and the conditions are ideal. This is also known as 'flow', a sensation that builds up throughout participation in activities as the individual becomes so involved that nothing else seems to matter. Activities that generate 'flow' require the setting of goals, demand challenge, skill, concentration, a sense of control and total immersion; participation must be voluntary and it is vital that participants feel at harmony with the environment (Pomfret, 2006).
Activity organisers aim to minimise the level of risk as much as possible to avoid poor publicity and costs which result from negative tourist experiences. It is said that what is actually sold is the 'illusion' of risk rather than genuine risk itself (Buckley, 2012). The recreation of risky situations is believed to stimulate intense levels of positive emotional and cognitive arousal in participants (Robinson, 1992). Research concludes that the most successful adventure tourism products have a high perceived risk but a low actual risk, as participants are said to gain pleasure from the knowledge that they cannot be harmed yet still get to experience the unknown (Hall and Roberts, 2001). Participants are also said to 'play with their fears' and are often encouraged to do so by activity organisers, this contributes to the authentic feeling of being in a dangerous situation which is in reality under control, this is referred to as 'commodified fear' (Cater, 2006).
It is suggested that 'risk-taking' is not always primarily a physical fact, but instead a device used to construct a story. Created risk narratives help individuals to express chosen identities, which may continue to develop after the experience is over. Research shows that many tourists believe participation in certain activities will work favourably for them in the future, as it will give the impression of an exciting, self-reliant, powerful and strong character (Elsrud, 2001).
It is often assumed that participants in adventurous activities are somewhat reckless and uneducated; failing to understand consequences and the concept of danger. However, studies have shown that people participants actually tend to be emotionally stable and conformotist (Gibson and Lepp, 2008), suggesting they would be unlikely to put themselves in a position they deemed damaging.
Brymer (2009) determined the main reasons tourists choose to participate in adventure activities are focused around the obtaining of experiences, skills, accomplishment and personal insight, demonstrating commitment and definition of personal boundaries. It seems that contrary to common belief, many participants simply seek emotional rewards not risks. Although danger may at times be present, it is often an unavoidable by-product, not a motive. For many tourists, the rewards they reap are greater than the risks they take; however, more often than not the perceived risk is much greater than the reality (Walle, 1997).
In conclusion, it seems that many adventurous activities do not encompass true risk taking but merely the perception of risk. Tourist motivation and satisfaction is largely concerned with experiencing emotional highs rather than seeking danger.
Cater.C (2006) Playing with risk? Participant perceptions of risk and management implications in adventure tourism, Tourism Management, 27 (2) 314-325
Gibson.H & Lepp.A (2008) Sensation seeking and tourism: Tourist role, perception of risk and destination choice, Tourism Management, 29 (4) 740-750
Weber.K (2001), Outdoor adventure tourism: A review of research approaches, Annals of Tourism Research, 28 (2) 360-377