Off to an adventure

Adventure tourism is a valuable forte for destinations to develop, asserts Hannah Pearson, Adventure Travel Trade Association’s regional director for Asia, as it is a multi-billion dollar segment that keeps most of the earnings within the local community and demands a sustainable approach to development

Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) is an unfamiliar name in this part of the world. Will you give us a flash introduction to the association?
It is a name that is a little bit unfamiliar here, as you say, as it had originated in the US.

Established in 1990, ATTA advocates for adventure travel. Anybody who touches the adventure travel trade can be an ATTA member, so that means anything from tour operators who run adventure tours and travel agents who buy adventure tours, to gear and accommodation providers, tourism boards and media representatives.

ATTA’s current global membership is around 30,000. Forty per cent of that are tour operators.

The majority of our members come from the US, followed by Europe. Only six per cent are from Asia and four per cent from Oceania.

Within this region, our biggest representation is in Japan, Nepal, India, Australia and New Zealand, while in Vanuatu, Bhutan and Mongolia we have a small community of operators.

My role is to cultivate ATTA’s Asian membership, develop business, and look at ways to work with our partners to bring out the potential of adventure travel for destinations in this region.

I’ve been in Asia for so long, so I know that there are fantastic opportunities for adventure throughout the region. However, the rest of the world does not quite know it yet.

ATTA provides opportunities for members to meet international buyers, which is so important post-lockdown as businesses strive for recovery. There are North American and European buyers who are looking to develop what they regard as newer destinations here in Asia or different ways to experience the region. ATTA can facilitate these business connections.

I cannot help but notice that ATTA’s Asian members are in destinations typically associated with adventure – Nepal, Bhutan and New Zealand. That leaves you with plenty of room to grow membership in destinations seldom seen as an adventure paradise.
Absolutely! There are many countries with great adventure offerings but where we have only a handful of members – such as Thailand and Malaysia. There is a lot of work for me to do, but it is a happy challenge.

There is a belief that adventure tourism is a very niche segment. Is it truly that niche, or are we in Asia-Pacific missing something?
That’s a good question and the answer is no – adventure travel is not a niche segment at all.

In terms of monetary value, adventure travel is a growing segment. There was a 2018 study done on the size of the global adventure travel market, and it showed the market contributed US$683 billion to the worldwide economy. In comparison, the cruise market was US$119 billion and the global prescription drugs market was US$744 billion. So, that gives you a good view of the weight of adventure travel.

This huge headline number is fascinating but even more important is that a lot of this money actually stays in the community. According to ATTA studies, 65 per cent of adventure travel expenditure stays in the destination and 45 per cent of adventure travellers use a local operator.

Adventure travellers typically require the guidance of a local specialist. Imagine going for a multi-day kayaking adventure – you will need an adventure operator with local knowledge to make that happen.

Or insane courage to just pick up oars and go! Is adventure tourism all about intense activities though? How does ATTA define adventure?
Yes, that is another misconception. The word adventure often brings to mind something extreme, like jumping off a plane or climbing a mountain. At ATTA, we define adventure as something that combines three elements – activity, nature and culture. For us, an adventure could be a challenge, a transformational experience or a wellness pursuit.

Hence, going on a food tour and learning to cook a local dish, or taking a walk along a river in a new city can be adventures too.

Now, with this definition, you will realise that the traveller does not need to leave the urban environment for an adventure or to participate in something extreme. That broadens the opportunity for destinations to develop adventure travel offerings and for more people to participate in adventure travel.

Furthermore, by defining soft adventures as being part of the wider adventure travel mix, it becomes clear that adventure can be for everyone. We had a recent webinar discussing how to make adventure travel (universally) accessible and inclusive.

Since adventure tourism is defined as comprising nature and culture, can building an adventure tourism forte influence the destination and its tourism stakeholders to be more mindful of sustainability?
Definitely. For ATTA, sustainability is a core value. Sustainability is also at the heart of adventure travel because you need both the environment and the people for the formation of authentic experiences. People could refer to indigenous people, and the environment could refer to indigenous cultures, for instance.

We have been hearing more talk from governments about wanting to go after quality tourism – that is, quality over quantity ­– post-lockdown. Adventure travellers tick those boxes. But it remains to be seen if governments will stick to their quality tourism approach as travel recovers. It is easy to say you want quality tourists when tourists are few.

Destinations that are serious about attracting adventure travellers must truly walk the talk. Adventure travellers are very aware of their impact on the environment and are wary of greenwashing.

ATTA has a set of adventure travel guidelines developed with the help of a steering committee and relevant organisations, and one of them is about interpretation – how can an experience be interpreted in the local context. For example, when a traveller goes on a forest trail, he will learn about the environment, the native wildlife and how local lives are connected with the forest. This interpretation is also very powerful for communities, as it lets them realise the value of the place they live in and encourages them to preserve the natural environment.

When local communities realise the financial benefit of (travellers coming to visit their natural environment), they will no longer need to engage in activities like poaching or logging to make a living, which then contributes to sustainable development. Tourism job opportunities can also encourage youngsters to stay in the community (which then preserves culture) instead of leaving for the big city.

So, the sustainable benefits of adventure travel is wide-ranging.

From your observations, which destinations in Asia-Pacific are doing great with adventure tourism development and which have the potential to do more?
New Zealand is known as the capital of adventure travel here in Asia-Pacific, while Australia has positioned itself so well for adventure and indigenous culture.

Japan is also pushing very well on the adventure travel front. ATTA has worked with Japan for years now, from adventure guide training to destination positioning among adventure travellers. These efforts culminate with our 2023 Adventure Travel World Summit in Hokkaido.

South-east Asia can do so much more to demonstrate its adventure potential, but it is also important that destinations develop the necessary infrastructure before bringing in adventure seekers.

Tell us more about the Adventure Travel World Summit – what does it hope to achieve and who should attend it?
This is an annual event that brings about 800 people together from across the world; some ATTA members, some not. It focuses on adventure travel and dives into issues faced by stakeholders. There is also a marketplace and a meet-the-media session.

The Summit is unlike most trade events. It is very casual, in that attendees can come in jeans and tees. Being in adventure travel affords that comfortable setting. The event is across four days, and kicks off with Day of Adventure for attendees to pick an adventure they wish to experience in the host destination. It presents a fun and informal platform for attendees to network and break the ice.

Our recent Summit in Lugano, Switzerland had a strong focus on sustainability, not only through the content but also in the way the event was conducted. That tied in nicely with Switzerland Tourism’s Swisstainable sustainable tourism initiative.

For my Day of Adventure in Lugano, I chose to go on a cruise down Lake Lugano and then cook a dish of risotto. That’s my idea of an adventure!

There is a lot of hype over the Summit next year because it is ATTA’s first in this region and the first for Japan. The Summit has only rotated across the Americas and Europe previously.

Furthermore, Japan is a desirable destination among people from most parts of the world, and many outside of Asia are not familiar with Hokkaido. Our members in Europe and the Americas are eager to experience Hokkaido along with its Ainu indigenous people.

The Summit in Asia will hopefully attract more Asian attendees due to ease of access.

What other ATTA trade events are lined up for 2023?
We have AdventureElevate happening in Maine (the US) next May, an annual North American event. Although it brings mainly North American trade together, the marketplace feature sees the participation of some Asian destinations and sellers looking for a chance to meet North American buyers.

There is also AdventureConnects, a series of member networking sessions. Most are held in North America, but we also have a presence post-World Travel Market in London and at ITB Berlin.

I’m now planning the next Asia meet-ups for 2023.


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