An interview with Shannon Stowell, CEO of Adventure Travel Trade Association
- Could you tell us the purpose of your visit? What are the possibilities of cooperation between the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and Mongolia?
-Firstly, I would like to express gratitude to the Government of Mongolia and the Minister of Environment and Tourism of Mongolia Bat-Erdene Bat-Ulzii for successfully organizing the "Years to Visit Mongolia" to develop tourism. I'm interested in learning the role and impact of adventure tourism on nature conservation as part of the Sustainable funding program for nature conservation jointly carried out by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism of Mongolia and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) NGO. A classic conservation approach of adventure tourism focuses on locals, in other words, it is community-based. Adventure tourism plays an important role in supporting the economy by adding value to natural resources and it is comprised of nature and culture with vigorous activities as complex. In this sense, adventure tourism benefits the local people and the local economy much greater than mass tourism.
-What makes adventure tourism different from mass tourism?
According to a study conducted a few years ago, the benefits from mass tourism for local communities make up 15 percent of the total money spent there, while adventure travelers spend 70 percent for locals. Adventure tourists stay at local inns, eat in local restaurants, and buy local goods investing in the local economy. Before the pandemic, in 2019, the pharmaceutical supply market was valued at USD 630 billion, and the adventure tourism market has grown much larger than that. Therefore, we requested funding from the World Bank for new research. As Asian countries are new players in the adventure tourism market, funding is likely to increase.
- Adventure tourism is new for Mongolia, but I think Mongolia has the potential to develop adventure tourism using its unique nomadic culture and abundant natural resources. What does adventure tourism provide? What are the advantages of Mongolia, what makes Mongolia an adventurous destination?
- There are three leading profitable products in the world's adventure tourism market - walking, cycling, and trekking.
This is the best pleasure and opportunity to cross the country on foot or by bicycle. In this sense, I think there is a lot of opportunity to promote Mongolia among international traders, tour operators, and large companies.
-As the Mongolian Government declared 2023-2025 the "Years to Visit Mongolia," many celebrities from many countries visited Mongolia last summer. How we can attract more adventure travelers to Mongolia?
-I arrived in Mongolia to find the answer. The ATTA has many member tour operators and media representatives. We provide professional support for the improvement of adventure tourism products and bring the media staff to a particular country. Besides, we visit the destinations and study what should be explored and what media channels should be used to promote it. Once this is studied, it will open doors for international wholesalers and media advertising.
- I suppose, adventure travelers are attracted to challenging, complex, novel journeys, and they feel pleasure and energy accordingly. What is the main criterion for choosing a destination for them?
-In the past, well-traveled and experienced tourists were interested in adventure. A hundred years ago adventurers traveled to enjoy the natural beauty of countries, but over the past 20 years, the interest and nature of the adventure tourism market has changed. Today they are more interested in national culture and people you meet. When tourists come to Mongolia to see the nature, plains, and wild animals, the main thing that makes the trip unique is meeting and interacting with the people and locals. I have a wish to learn more about Mongolia's culture to enrich its tourism products. For us, we are more interested in human-oriented products. Looking at the plains and nature of Mongolia, I assume there is a competitive product for the tourism market. However, more detailed information is not yet available.
-How adventure tourism products have changed over the past 20 years of your experience?
- I had perceived adventure travel must be risky and could not always achieve that.
Discovering uncharted land and challenging yourself may be, used to make the adventure travel more attractive and appealing. However, the situation is changing and the scope of adventure tourism is expanding. For example, for some people, visiting a country where the native language is not English and experiencing a different culture and way of life can be an adventure. Over the past 20 years, the concept of tourism has expanded, products have diversified, and many alternative forms of tourism have emerged. There are opportunities to involve a wider population. In the past, tourism was focused more on material issues, but now tourists are more interested in culture and building bonds with local people.
-Mongolia has many big rivers with strong streams and high mountains and there are many experienced guides and teams. Could you share some of good examples of how to assess risk for adventure travel?
- Training reference standards on how to properly manage risk according to ISO were first developed eight years ago, Today, for instance in Okinawa, Japan, tour guides are trained in risk management, and adventure tour products have been improved. Adventure travel is about challenging yourself and enjoying activities that often require physical fitness and stamina. Such a wonderful journey can become dangerous if the risks are not mitigated. Minimizing risks in adventure travel must be fundamental for all travel companies, along with offering inspiring, challenging, and fascinating tours. For example, it is extremely dangerous to have a ride on an inflatable boat in a fast mountain river without a guide or proper risk management. Therefore, there must be guidance that can reduce the risk. We prepare product safety guides and training manuals in all areas and conduct training.
-Mongolia has a large territory and is sparsely populated. How to overcome the risks such as lack of emergency service and communication when traveling to remote areas?
- When visiting a country, our team makes a risk management plan after conducting a risk assessment. For example, it would be very irresponsible if a tour operator allowed a tourist with minimal experience of horse riding to gallop. When riding a horse, it is necessary to ensure safety, such as choosing a gentle and tamed horse and at least wearing a safety helmet. Of course, it is impossible to eliminate all risks, but we can evaluate and make a plan for potential risks, and train our people.
Additionally, the course and decisions should be produced in consultation with locals and guides. Being aware of the local culture, knowledge, and mentality is very important. For example, in Brazil, there are swamps and ponds where piranhas live. When developing our tours, we consult with locals who know when piranhas are away, when it is safe to swim, and when it is not, so together with international trainers we solve the problem and make adventure tourism products risk-free. Recently, tour operators have begun to offer insurance for helicopter services, especially in remote areas. Assuming an average adventure traveler spends USD 3,000 on a ten-day trip, an extra 10 percent can help reduce the risk of a long-distance trip.
-Influencers tend to take perilous journeys and actions to increase the number of their followers. There are many sad cases of tragic deaths. What are the ways to minimize the risk?
-This is a problem today. The ATTA, as a professional association, has different standards. Such risky, reckless, unethical, illegal, unlawful, or disrespectful behavior is never supported. It is wrong to take a photo of yourself wearing shorts and jumping in the air when you are in a mosque. Our requirements and ethics are on a different level. We value influencers whose followers are ethical and decent. Our influencers who are ethical themselves and have few but loyal followers benefit locals because they share their experiences about the culture and nature of the places they travel to.
-How many countries does ATTA operate in?
-We have been operating in more than one hundred countries. We have our teams in 10 countries. We organize 20-40 courses a year and we conduct activities at a global scale. Over a month ago, the SDSN Hong Kong held its first "Global Conference on Sustainable Development" (GCSD 2023) in Asia. More than 800 international representatives attended and we exchanged views on tourism sustainability, challenges, and what tour agencies can offer depending on the country. During the Conference, I met with representatives of the Mongolian companies, but we could not discuss the issue in detail. While I am in Ulaanbaatar, I am interested in opening up a market to "sell" and promote Mongolia. We want to expand the sale and promotion of the Mongolian affiliates' products in our tour agencies. There are travel agencies to provide information about Mongolia in case the public is not well-informed.