New Zealand deservedly has a reputation as a tour destination that offers some of the best and most accessible adventure opportunities available. However, with adventure travel comes risk. Understanding this risk and how to manage it is the key to operating a quality adventure tour experience.
The increasingly sophisticated world traveler demands a level of authenticity and involvement in their travel that was not present in the past. This requirement puts demands on tour operators that have to be met but also carefully managed. In the case of adventure tourism, these twin requirements of authenticity and involvement lead to an inevitable risk profile associated with the provision of the tourism product.
It is not possible, nor desirable to eliminate all risk. The very essence of this mode of tourism is to provide the traveler with an experience outside his or her daily range, to push their limits. Elimination of the risk in the experience eliminates the authenticity and therefore the depth of experience the traveler is seeking. Having accepted that some risk is inevitable and desirable, it then becomes important to understand risk.
One of the huge issues with risk is that the public perception of a risk level is not closely related to the actual risk level. This point is currently being very clearly demonstrated in the media coverage surrounding swine flu. As of 16:00 GMT, 5 May 2009, 21 countries, including New Zealand have officially reported 1490 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection with 30 confirmed deaths (source: World Health Organization). The disease has been met with blow-by-blow media coverage, detailing the possible spread of the disease and development into a pandemic. Public facilities have been closed, negative travel advisories have decimated local tourism businesses, and even the pig industry has suffered as people stop eating pork. Compare these figures with those for malaria, a disease that has been present for so long it is no longer news worthy. In 2006 there were 247 million cases of malaria, causing nearly one million deaths (source: World Health Organization). What is the current focus on malaria in the media even though it dwarfs swine flu by every measure? Clearly the issues of perception and reality don’t meet in this case. This is probably a lucky thing as if they did meet; most people would be too scared to drive to work.
How then does this relate to tourism in New Zealand? We have identified that risk is desirable and that the perception of that risk is highly subjective. In creating an adventure tour product, leveraging the issue of perception is very valuable. It is possible to create activities that have a genuine risk profile but are perceived to be much more risky than they actually are. We term this “psychological risk”.
A critical part of this process is to carefully manage this risk, so that the perception remains but the actuality is reduced. In New Zealand, the health and safety regulations along with the active involvement of many of the industry organizations helps tour operators understand risk and work to minimize risk factors. Thus the New Zealand tour industry has become highly proficient at offering a wide range of activities that offer a genuine sense of adventure while minimizing the true risk factors that might affect the adventure.
In summary, adventure tourism in New Zealand cannot and should not avoid all risk, but by careful management of the main risk factors, the risk that guests are exposed to in a well run adventure tourism activity can be minimized to a point where they are acceptable, even though the perception of that risk might well be significantly higher.