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  • Kayla Petroski

Billionaires and The Rise in Extreme Tourism

Courtesy of BBC

The Extreme Tourism industry has become a popular trend for billionaires seeking a thrilling adventure. From the titanic submarine exploration costing $250,000 to trips to outer space with Virgin Galactic for $450,000, a growing number of the wealthy are looking for new ways to spend their fortunes. While some billionaires are funding charities, others are spending their fortunes on bucket list experiences and extreme adventures.

Extreme tourism is a niche subsector of the tourism industry that involves anything high-risk. Oftentimes, extreme tourism involves traveling to dangerous places or participating in dangerous events. These activities often include extreme sports, such as skydiving, mountaineering, cave exploration, or expeditions to remote and dangerous locations.

Ocean Gate, a privately owned company that provides crewed submersibles for tourism, research, and exploration, rose to fame on June 19th, 2023 when their submersible, Titan, lost contact only an hour and 45 minutes into an exploration of the Titanic wreckage. The missing submersible was thought to be somewhere around 900 miles east of Cape Cod in the North Atlantic at a depth of 13,000 feet. News of the missing submersible sent the world into a frenzy as a three day long search and rescue was launched.

Onboard the ship were OceanGate’s CEO Stockton Rush and four passengers, each of which paid a hefty $250,000 for their spot. The passengers included 59 year old billionaire Hamish Harding, British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawad and his 19 year old son, Suleman, and French explorer Paul Henri Nargeolot. This was Nargeolot’s second time making the trip with Oceangate, as he was part of the original expedition to visit the Titanic wreck in 1987. Rush served as pilot during the dive.

On the morning of June 22, four days after the sub had been reported missing, a remotely operated underwater vehicle located debris which was confirmed to be the tail cone of the submersible. U.S. Navy officials declared that the submersible had most likely suffered from an implosion shortly after it lost contact.

After news of how much the expedition costs each of the victims, the incident sparked a debate about the ways billionaires spend their fortunes. Many online failed to understand why someone would spend $250,000 to travel on a ship that was controlled by a repurposed video game controller. Some went as far as to call these billionaires' idea of fun as their “worst nightmare.”

This isn’t the first incident of billionaires spending their fortunes on extreme expeditions. For $98,500 customers can take a luxury adventure into Antarctica and the South Pole with White Desert expeditions. Or for $93,500 they can join expedition leader, Garret Madison, on a climb up Mount Everest with Madison Mountaineering.

In 2021, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, took separate expeditions to the edge of space, both of which were on their own private-spector spacecrafts. Bezos’ Blue Origin auctioned off a ticket to ride alongside him for $28 million. Branson’s Virgin Galactic has yet to send any paying guests to space,but tickets are selling for $450,000.

This era of billionaires taking joy rides to space also generated backlash. In an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres called out “billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth.”

Meanwhile, there are other one percenters who are funding charities and donating their fortunes. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, made the largest charitable donation in 2022 when he donated $5 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which focuses on fighting poverty, disease, and inequity around the world.

In 2021, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet donated $4.1 billion to charity, bringing his total of donations throughout his lifetime to $41 billion. In a 2021 statement, Buffet stated “in 2006, I pledged to distribute all of my Berkshire Hathaway shares – more than 99% of my net worth – to philanthropy. With today’s $4.1 billion distribution, I’m halfway there.” He has also founded The Giving Pledge, a campaign concentrated on encouraging the world's wealthiest individuals to dedicate their wealth to charitable causes.

When billionaires reinvest their wealth into the economy these large quantities of wealth are used to expand businesses, therefore allowing them to provide services at a more efficient, and likely cheaper, rate, growing the economy for all. However, when these billionaires pursue the interests of their companies such as by financing lobbying against raising the minimum wage, causing the minimum wage to no longer support the cost of living, they begin to hinder economic growth.

Why is it that some billionaires are funding charities, while others are spending their wealth on rides to space and submarines to the bottom of the ocean? Billionaires have the ability to reinvest into the economy in a meaningful way. Just a fraction of a billionaire's wealth could help end extreme poverty. However, they seem intent on funding the extreme tourism industry through spending their fortunes on extreme bucket-list adventures.

According to Forbes 400 Philanthropy Score in 2020, only $171 from the coffers of Forbes 400 members, which has a collective net worth of $3.2 trillion, has ended up in the hands of charities and nonprofits. This is only 5% of their collective net worth. From 2021 to 2022, there has been an increase in members who have donated their wealth but the average donation still sits at only 1% of their net worth going to charities, with only nine members having given away even a fifth of their wealth.

If billionaires stopped funding extreme tourism, and instead began investing this wealth into nonprofit and charities, they would have the power to single-handedly help end extreme poverty, disease, and climate change, as well as allow for economic growth.


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