It's been a troubling year for the adventure tourism industry, which offers high-risk travel to customers wealthy enough to afford it, including rocket rides into space, treks to lofty mountain summits, and voyages to the sea floor.

Seventeen people died in 2023 trying to summit Mount Everest in Nepal, and more have needed rescue. Now a massive search is underway in the North Atlantic for a submersible carrying four tourists and a crewmember on a trip to view the wreck of the Titanic.

Critics say this growing sector of the travel industry largely has avoided government oversight, despite a history of accidents and fatalities. For people paying to make trips with a guide or an adventure travel company, it's often buyer beware.

"If you regulate, you're going to kill the sense of adventure, so no regulation was brought," said Alain Grenier, who studies high-risk travel at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The Titan, the small submersible operated by a Washington state-based company called OceanGate, gives tours primarily in international waters, which means the experimental vessel avoided most U.S. safety rules.

In a 2019 interview with Smithsonian magazine, OceanGate founder and CEO Stockton Rush — currently missing aboard the Titan — complained about government rules.

"There hasn't been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years. It's obscenely safe, because they have all these regulations," Rush told the magazine. "But it also hasn't innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations."

A for-profit industry with government-funded rescues

Now a massive government response is being led by the U.S. Coast Guard, using vessels, aircraft and remotely operated submersibles, or ROVs.

"There are a lot of pieces of equipment flowing in from St. Johns [in Canada] right now. Some of the ROV capability that's arriving soon is really great," said Coat Guard Capt. Jamie Frederick on Wednesday.

The cost will be born almost entirely by taxpayers. OceanGate required passengers to sign liability waivers, and the company is unlikely to get a bill for this operation.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the company voiced gratitude for "the extensive assistance we have received from several government agencies and deep sea companies."

Vessels from other countries are also involved, as are private ships. NPR asked the Coast Guard for an estimate of the cost of the search and rescue operation but hasn't yet received a response.

Risks and ethical questions for rescuers

Experts say there are also other, hidden costs. The search and rescue operation now underway is happening in a remote area of the North Atlantic, where seas can be rough and visibility limited. That's inherently dangerous.

When commercial adventure trips go wrong, and tourists need emergency aid, first responders often face significant risk.

Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg, an expert in emergency wilderness medicine based in Hood River, Ore., said members of his rescue teams have been injured while searching for lost climbers in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's almost inevitable. I've been on missions where rescuers have been injured. Fortunately, no one catastrophically," he said.

So far there have been no reports of injury among the crews searching for the Titan.

In addition to high profile incidents that involve tour companies, including the vanishing of the Titan, experts say there are also far more travelers taking on high-risk travel alone. Often they lack the experience or the equipment to do it safely.

Scott Van Laer, a former forest ranger in New York state's Adirondack Park, took part in more than 600 backcountry rescues, often involving visitors who were unprepared.

"Most of them are so thankful to receive help, but we have people we had to rescue multiple time for the same lack of preparedness or equipment. So not everybody does get the message," Van Laer said.

Big spenders, big search effort

This massive international response has been mobilized to rescue a handful of wealthy travelers who chose to purchase an extremely risky vacation. Critics say it reveals a stark contrast with the way migrants and refugees are often treated.

"Compare this with the tragedy that happened in Europe with those immigrants who sank, and nobody cared too much," Grenier said.

He referred to an incident last week when a ship sank in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving more than 500 migrants missing. According to Grenier, the search effort and media attention for that disaster were far more modest.

"Now you have the young and famous and the wealthy [aboard the Titan] and I don't think the search effort will stop," he said. "The question is, how far do we go to save people's lives?"

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The search for a missing submersible in the North Atlantic is intensifying as the oxygen supply is believed to be almost gone. Surveillance planes have picked up underwater sounds, but there's no confirmation they were made by the Titan or its crew. The fate of the five people on board of the vessel remains unknown. And this incident raises questions for the adventure tourism industry, such as who pays the price when high-risk travel goes wrong. NPR's Brian Mann joins us. Brian, let's start with an update first. I mean, what's happening out there right now?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, A, as you mentioned, time's running out on the oxygen supply aboard that sub. A growing fleet of ships and aircraft are racing to the area to join the search and to be ready for recovery efforts if it is located. Here's Captain Jamie Frederick with the U.S. Coast Guard.


JAMIE FREDERICK: There are a lot of pieces of equipment flowing in from St. John's right now. Some of the ROV capability that's arriving soon is really great.

MANN: An ROV is a remote-operated vehicle. That's just part of the arsenal of equipment arriving now on scene.

MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. Coast Guard is running point for this thing. Vessels from other countries and private ships are also involved. Who pays for all that?

MANN: Yeah, this is going to be hugely expensive, and it will be largely paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Even though this tour left from Canada and took place in international waters, it's the policy of the Coast Guard. They don't charge people or companies for search and rescues. OceanGate, the company that operated this tour, required passengers to sign liability waivers, and now the company's unlikely to get a bill for this operation.

MARTÍNEZ: What about regulation, Brian, for high-risk tourism? I mean, do government agencies in the U.S. or maybe around the world have safety requirements for a company such as OceanGate?

MANN: Well, again, the Titan was giving tours in international waters, so there was apparently almost no government oversight here. In some parts of the world, A, companies that sell guide services or adventure trips do have to be licensed, but it's really uneven. Alain Grenier, an expert on adventure travel at the University of Quebec, says efforts to regulate this part of the industry have largely failed.

ALAIN GRENIER: If you regulate, you're going to kill the sense of adventure. So no regulation was brought.

MANN: And so for people paying to make these trips with a guide or an adventure travel company, it's largely buyer beware.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, when I look at these trips, adventure travel trips, they just seem sometimes very dangerous. So how common do their customers wind up needing help or rescue?

MANN: Yeah, this kind of travel is a fast-growing part of the industry. More companies are promising to take people to dangerous places - you know, outer space on rockets, to the top of mountains, to see the wreck of the Titanic. And sometimes things go wrong. This year alone, 17 climbers have died on Mount Everest on guided trips. More people there needed rescue. Experts tell me there are also a lot more people doing adventure travel alone in risky places. And often they don't have the experience or the equipment to do it safely. I spoke about this with Scott van Laer, who was a forest ranger in New York's Adirondack Mountains, where he took part in more than 600 backcountry rescues.

SCOTT VAN LAER: Most of them are so thankful to receive help, but I got to tell you, we had people that we rescued multiple times for the same lack of preparedness or equipment. So not everybody does get the message.

MANN: And one other thing experts tell me, A, is that rescuers taking part in these missions often suffer injuries and even sometimes fatalities. That's another hidden cost of the adventure travel industry. This search for the Titan is taking place in a very remote area of the Atlantic. So far, fortunately, there have been no reports of injuries among those rescue crews.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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