In early October I attended the Adventure Travel World Summit in Puerto Varas, Chile. Along with some 700 delegates from 55 countries, we overtook the tiny waterfront town in the Lakes District, in northern Patagonia. Lesser-known than the south, the northern region offers a ton of outdoor activities including downhill and backcountry skiing, rafting, hiking, kayaking and mountain biking. I wasn’t sure if it was the cool, austral spring or the local fashion, but everyone here seemed to be wearing Gore-tex or down jackets. So, needless to say, I felt right at home.
Settled by Germans in the mid 1800’s, Puerto Varas has a European feel with German architecture, numerous pubs, outdoor gear shops and two imposing, snow-capped volcanoes across the water. One of those volcanoes, Calbuco, erupted Hiroshima-style this past April, covering the nearby area in up to a half-meter of volcanic ash, which I trekked on, on the Los Pioneros Trail.
The theme of the conference was ‘La Revolucion’ and it was kicked off by a day in nearby Frutillar, highlighting Chile as a destination with cultural presentations from each of the country’s varied regions. Chile is fast becoming a top adventure travel destination, with tourism numbers up 20% over last year and top honours at the World Travel Awards. Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, was there to welcome to us and made a commitment of $100 million for sustainable tourism over the next three years.
Also on the political side, former Canadian ambassador, Tim Martin, talked about his work on the Kimberley Process, helping to end the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone and his harrowing experiences on the ground in war-ravaged Somalia and Palestine. He distilled this into four key elements for the adventure travel industry.
ATTA President, Shannon Stowell, reminded us that, “doing adventure right is hard, and complicated,” and author Elizabeth Becker pointed out the pitfalls of excessive growth in tourism: In Costa Rica, selfie-taking-tourists chased away turtles from their breeding grounds and China is now seizing passports from its own citizens who are behaving badly abroad.
On the positive side, North Face founder and eco-baron Doug Tompkins, highlighted the work he’s done developing the Carretera Austral, a new network of National Parks in Patagonia. On a much smaller scale, Enrique Umbert, of Mountain Lodges of Peru and Jorge Perez, of World Bike Adventures, explained how they’ve directly involved local indigenous communities in their businesses to the benefit of both parties and their clients.
Some other trends featured in the sessions included content marketing, big data and behavioural economics for the travel industry. Each presentation was interspersed with heavy networking and by the end of each day, my brain felt like it had run a marathon.
Overwhelmingly, most delegates were here for the ‘trade’ part of the conference, small adventure operators seeking contracts with big US and European outbound agents. Sadly, this old system of travel agents, receptives and hefty commissions seems to be the game most are still playing. Though many realize the value of media, and the importance of connecting directly with their customers as millenials replace boomers for bookings, a lot more needs to be done. It’s also clear that this conference has given me a lot to write about.
Viva la Revolucion!