In an address to the 2012 Adventure Travel World Summit, UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai proclaimed: “Adventure tourism is what tourism should be today and definitely what tourism will be tomorrow.” Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, shares his philosophies on adventure travel as a tool for economic development.
Everyone interprets adventure travel differently, so what would you say is your definition?
It is a gray term: adventure to one person is not adventure to another. However, ATTA has broken it down to three main criteria:
– Nature, where people are connecting to wildlife and outdoors
– Activity, which means you’re not sitting in a casino or lying on a beach
– Culture, which is connecting to people from another culture
A lot of destinations do the first two parts well, but not the last. Cultural immersion, in many cases, is the most engaging and transformative part of travel.
Are you seeing destinations picking up on this message?
We did a survey of about 100 different destinations and asked, at what point did they adventure to be its own vertical?
In 2007, less than half considered adventure travel to be a standalone product. Now it’s about 80 percent.
What do you say to people who are hesitant to choose an “adventurous” vacation? Say it’s a multigenerational family, where a cruise or all-inclusive resort caters to everyone’s needs?
Well, we don’t want everyone going bungee jumping. But there are options with operators who can set up programs specifically for multigenerational travelers. Maybe the young parents want to go mountain biking, the grandparents want to go on a nature hike, and the kids have a supervised program.
I’ve done the all-inclusive resort in Mexico with my kids, my brother and his kids. We used the resort as an adventure base: By day we would go to archeological ruins or cenote diving, and we knew where we were going back to at night. With young kids, that’s a good balance.
How do you see organized tour operators fitting into the adventure travel trend?
There’s a natural fear of traveling somewhere where you don’t know the local language. For someone who is interested and curious, having a guide company is absolutely critical. It brings peace of mind to have someone who knows what we’re doing, where we’ll be eating and where were staying.
That said, I’m always encouraging people not to price shop and choose the lowest-priced package. They’ll be bundled on everyone’s schedule and trundled off on the themes that everyone has seen before. Smaller group operators are not the cheapest, but they have an advantage and they can read the group to determine how the day will go.
A couple of years ago, UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai said, “Adventure tourism is what tourism should be today and definitely what tourism will be tomorrow.” That must have been a huge turning point for the industry.
It impacted how destinations viewed adventure travel. The reason that he called it out is because people are becoming more aware that you can travel responsibly and have richer experiences through adventure travel, because it encompasses both natural and cultural activities.
We recently collaborated with the UNWTO on the UNWTO Global Report on Adventure Tourism, which took it to the next level. That will have a pretty big effect on destinations in terms of where the growth markets will be in travel.
With travel to and from Asia expected to grow in the next few years, what do you think the industry needs to focus on?
Asia is poised to be a massive game changer. Asia is all about opportunity both inbound and outbound. For me, the most important thing to think about is, with higher volume traffic, what makes us stand apart?
Destinations that don’t protect their natural resources will lose them forever. We need to focus on protecting our natural and cultural capital. We’ve seen destinations get washed out and homogenized because there are volume problems.
Our hope is that destinations will focus on low-impact and high-quality travel and not just aim for the biggest number of heads in bed. It’s a difficult balance, and it takes longer-term vision, but it’s critical.
Is there an argument for focusing on the luxury market to lighten the footprint?
It depends on the strategy and the product. Some adventure markets can be higher end, like Bhutan. It’s just not a cheap place to go and that’s fantastic. But there is space for places like Yellowstone National Park and other and bigger volumes adventure destinations that can move a lot more people through.
The more important part of the conversation is the protection of what makes a place so unique. It’s about keeping the essence of the culture.
When we look at products like community-based tourism, it seems like such a great solution to managing flow and maintaining the local culture. But from the outside, it looks difficult to maintain.
Tourism is tough. It’s not an easy thing to use as an economic tool, and small-group, community-based tourism is very fragile.
But I think about the philosophy that if no one has a strategy to manage tourism right, then someone else will do it wrong. It will get taken over by exploitative forces.
You mentioned recently, in the context of wildlife conservation, that tourism can actually help maintain regulatory oversight.
Namibia is a great example of this. In the areas where the communities have a financial reasons to protect elephants and rhinos, that’s where they’re safest. In cases where the locals have no reason to protect their resources, that’s where they’re getting poached. It’s a weak link.
Namibia had a very interesting, hard-won approach: They started putting community-based tourism programs between private landowners, the communities who lived in those lands, the NGOs and the government. It was complicated getting everyone to the table, but they did it.
Are there concerns about duty of care with local adventure tour operators, especially in emerging destinations? Is there oversight in terms of safety regulations and training?
We’re in a fledgling industry so the truth is in different destinations, there are different forces at work. In some places it’s the government, and in places that are new or undeveloped, there may be no one overseeing it. It’s not just your own business at risk; you could destroy a lot of other people’s businesses by not being responsible.
We’ve put together our own statement of ethics, and any company that joins the company has to abide by those standards. If not, they face removal.
It’s really about doing tourism the right way, so the traveler has as fantastic, safe and transformative experience.
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