Adventure tourism is hailed as the fastest growing segment of tourism today. According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global adventure tourism market size was valued at US $ 586.3 billion in 2018. The sector is further projected to grow to an astonishing US $ 1.626 trillion by 2026 at CAGR of 13.3 per cent every year. Where does India stand today? And importantly, how’s the country placed to take advantage of the growth that the sector foresees?
SATTE 2020 brought together an engrossing panel discussion on ‘Adventure Tourism: Unlocking New Avenues’ to brainstorm and discuss how can India tourism take the much-desired ‘next leap’ as the panel’s moderator Tejbir Singh Anand, Vice President, Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), puts it. Speakers on the panel included Deepak Raj Joshi, CEO, Nepal Tourism Board (NTB); Sanjay Basu, Chairman, Far Horizon Tours; Vinayak Koul, Director, SnowLion Expeditions; Deepika Sharma, Director, Jammu Tourism and Arun Srivastava, DDG - Niche Tourism, Ministry of Tourism (MoT), Government of India.
Adventure tourism’s benefits are plenty. It is the fastest growing tourism sector with huge potential to shore up foreign exchange earnings, increase community engagement, develop millions of employment opportunities in the remotest part of the country, opportunity to create new brand image for the country and more. However, the sector has its own challenges too, from accessibility and connectivity issues and inadequate marketing to absence of well-practiced safety guidelines, sustainable practices, destinations’ carrying capacity studies and other such measures that’s intrinsic to adventure are areas of concern that needs to be addressed. And more than most ‘adventure tourism’ requires to be viewed and approached differently today.
Initiatives & Challenges
Although the sector is estimated at about US $ 650 billion industry globally today, India’s share is perceived to be disproportionately low. However, there are signs of a change. Infrastructure development, growing road connectivity and air access to newer and far-flung areas, among others, in the last few years have created renewed hope.
Basu says that for long India has lived under the shadow of Taj Mahal and similar attractions and monuments and that needs to change. “MoT needs to put out the message in front of the world that we are the country with the largest portion of the highest mountain chain on earth (Around 74% of the Himalayas lies in India). We are the only country on earth which has silver, golden and high-altitude cold desert and one of the few countries with equatorial and tropical rainforest to Alpine forest. We have seven navigable rivers, 105 smaller white-water rivers, the largest coral island on earth with a functional volcano, 7000 kms of coastline, two seas and an ocean; essentially God has given us everything, but we have not been able to monetize it.”
Expanding the discussion further to ‘natural heritage’, Basu, says that it has basically three major verticals, adventure, eco and cruise tourism. He argues that India being home to one of the greatest ‘natural heritage’ in the world is drawing little from the industry which by 2023 is estimated to be at 1.3 trillion dollars globally.
Some of MoT initiatives in the adventure space, informs Srivastava, have been the launch of ‘Safety Guidelines’ along with ATOAI, pushing the states for adoption and implementation of the guidelines, regular meeting of the adventure tourism task force created in 2016 to deliberate upon ideas and actions to develop adventure tourism.
Furthermore, Srivastava shares that ‘Swadesh Darshan’ also encompasses adventure tourism and such projects have been sanctioned in states like Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand already. Skill development is also being prioritised. MoT, through Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering in Gulmarg, has been organising training courses for snow skiing. MoT has also organised training courses in water skiing, trekking, parasailing, hot-air ballooning, water sports, among others.
Hugely endowed, Jammu has long lived in the shadow of the UT’s other region, Kashmir. But that, says Sharma, is changing as the region is today looking at turnaround in its tourism fortune by putting its adventure tourism offering in the spotlight. Changing perception about Jammu, tapping and diverting Vaishno Devi or Amarnath bound pilgrim traffics by collaborating with tour operators, improving accessibility, reviving various heritage, adventure and trekking trails, white water rafting on Chenab among others, are some of the department’s top tourism priority today.
Sharma says that tourism in the region is already increasing and further marketing and awareness campaigns are part of the plan now. “Paragliding, lake tourism, boating, water sports are adventure activities already under consideration and we are planning to do them one by one. All the four or five projects of Jammu which we have submitted to the MoT come from adventure segment like lake tourism on Ranjit Sagar Dam or water sports activities on Baglihar Dam,” she informs.
The region is also keen to attract investors in developing and promotion of camping experiences in areas like Bhadarwa, Kishtwar, Rajouri, Poonch and Doda. “Adventure tourism is no more a dream for Jammu & Kashmir,” she stresses.
On the domestic front, travel is now reaching 2 billion visits a year. “There is huge domestic market for adventure tourism right now, but they don’t know where to find the right operators. Marketing, in India or overseas, needs to inform customers where to find the right and responsible operators. There is this disconnect,” Kaul says.
Anand rues that clubbing golf, adventure, medical and other tourism sub-sectors together does not help any segment garner adequate attention and pointed that adventure on its own is huge with as many as 31 activities across land, water and air and clubbing it with other niche segments doesn’t earn ‘adventure’ its due recognition.
Basu says that India is missing out on its share of the US $ 1.6 trillion business opportunity to land on its shores along with what it can capitalise from the domestic market. He says that if the stakeholders come together “India is looking at a minimum business volume of US $ 50 billion within a short window and possibly a US $ 100 billion revenue across adventure, eco and cruise tourism. The sector can generate one million jobs all over the country in the remotest and most deprived parts of our country. This is really a game changer.”
Nepal’s strong growth in recent time is testimony to what Basu says. Home to the world’s highest mountain peak, Nepal’s recognition as an adventure tourism brand is reflected in its robust 25 per cent YoY growth in the last four years driven especially by its offering in the adventure tourism segment. It’s number more than doubled from about 539,000 tourists in 2015, to 1.25 million in 2019. The country has been hailed as the fastest growing destination in Asia-Pacific by organisations like UNWTO and PATA.
Joshi says that “the number is growing despite so many limitations” like infrastructure, accessibility etc. because of the initiatives, especially in the adventure tourism segment. Year 2020 has been declared as the ‘Visit Nepal Year’ where the NTB is promoting Nepal as ‘lifetime experience destination’ and for wildlife and adventure activities among others. If ‘The Great Himalayan Trails’ offers tourists and adrenalin junkies a slice of Himalayan adventure, the private sector, supported by a pro-active tourism department is also equally strong and aggressive in promoting these products and activities, says Joshi.
“Adventure is the only tourism vertical that touches the lives in the remotest part of the country and alleviates poverty. It empowers community and creates an economy in places which are days walk from nearby towns” stresses Anand.
Sustainability, Safety & Guidelines
Tourism nevertheless also leaves its adverse footprint. And with adventure segment, both safety and sustainability become an even greater concern. However, the segment is also widely recognized for taking up safety issues as well as driving conservation efforts and best environmental practices. “Strong safety guidelines are key to promoting safe and responsible adventure tourism and despite MoT along with ATOAI launching safety guidelines there are few takers. Kerala is the only state that has taken steps in this direction also taking into consideration the safety guidelines issued by MoT and ATOAI,” Anand says.
According to Kaul, it’s a comprehensive guideline covering virtually every area from safety to back up to insurance and more. “We need to market it well. MoT has already adopted it but it is still a guideline. It needs to become a regulation and law. Also, the states need to strongly come onboard on this and if need be, tweak it a little bit as per their geographical requirements,” Kaul also bats for insurance cover for the adventure tourists that he says can be additional revenue for operators. “The tour operators can make a decent profit at the same time make it safer for their clients and for themselves as well,” he says.
Carrying capacity is another area of concern, especially so because adventure tourism tends go to places which are ecologically sensitive and fragile. Unregulated visits can have long-term adverse impact or even destroy a destination.
Kaul warns that if the carrying capacity studies in ecologically sensitive areas are not done immediately the situation can spiral out of control. He gave example of Stok Kangri, the highest mountain peak located in the Hemis National Park in the Stok Range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region, that has turned into crowded mountaineering and adventure tourism hotspot in the last ten odd years leaving the stakeholders as well as the people in nearby villages worried about the impact. He also pointed that places like high altitude Pangong Lake are also bearing the brunt being swamped with mass tourism and trash.
From conducive tourism policy, involving and partnering with private sector players and rational taxes to joint stakeholders meet and focused marketing, the discussion put forth several areas in the spotlight to unlock the potential of adventure tourism segment.
Basu puts it succinctly when he says, “MoT needs to focus on what is the product organisational developmental requirement that need to be put on the ground. Whether it is accessibility, infrastructure, amenities, accommodation and sustainability. Thereafter, there is a need to create a specific campaign focused on the promotion of the message that India is actually not the fifth greatest natural heritage destination on earth but practically the greatest. This is actually what needs to go all over the world because the mix of what we have in natural heritage, no other country in the world has it. And the world does not know about it.”
The MoT’s current overall marketing budget that includes publicity and overseas marketing is 300 crores. There is no separate budget for marketing India’s adventure offerings. However, Srivastava offers, “Based on the inputs of the industry we finalise a dedicated marketing plan for a particular region (source market) for the product to be marketed there. And if it is adventure tourism product which is to be promoted in any market, we are willing to extend that help based on the input that industry brings to us.”
The panel also argued that the right policy and incentives concerning adventure tourism is key to the success. And taking the cue, Sharma informs that her department is formulating a new tourism policy with incentives component to attract trade and investors and is keen to get it right in order to effectively promote adventure tourism in the region. She also points that the department is keen to partner with trade on fam. tours.
Empowering and closely working with the private sector is one of the reasons behind Nepal’s success in the adventure tourism segment. Nepalese government has authorized Nepal Mountaineering Association to collect royalties for some peaks part of which is in turn used for promoting those destinations through involving and mobilising industry stakeholders and the local community. Also, there is another fee called TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) which is utilized for the safety of the trekkers as well as for the promotion of the destination.
Anand also draws attention to community engagement and sustainability. “One of the main strengths of adventure tourism is conservation and engagement with the local communities. Let the local people be engaged in the tourism development and made custodians of the natural heritage so that there is a sense of belongingness for the region,” he stressed.
According to Anand the first step towards promoting a region or segment is to create the image. “Once you position yourself very well in a traveler’s mind, business and investment flows. Marketing and positioning are an exercise which is not done in just six months or a year or two. It’s done over years,” he says drawing attention to the need of focused marketing. He also indicated that there is need to rebrand Incredible India campaign and revive the ‘777 Days of the Incredible Indian Himalayas’ marketing campaign.
Furthermore, the industry views the current GST slabs high that renders India costly and uncompetitive. “GST rate of 18 per cent on international front is too high for us to charge and especially so when we are talking about increasing our numbers. The industry needs more support in reducing the GST slab,” says Kaul.
Summing up, Basu stresses urgent need for the adventure tourism stakeholders to come together to find the way forward. “The message needs to go from the MoT to every state government and related ministries like Forest & Environment, Civil Aviation, Home and others. Between the governments, the private sector, with the right policy and with the right focus, we can create wonders. We need a meeting of National Adventure Tourism Task Force along with all the ministries and stakeholders to brainstorm and devise the way forward.”