Regulating adventure tourism?
Québec snowmobile tragedy raises questions about adventure tourism
Posted on 14.07.2020
The recent tragedy that claimed the lives of five French tourists and their Québec guide in the icy waters of Lac Saint-Jean during a snowmobile safari shook people on both sides of the Atlantic. It also rattled the tourism industry in Québec which had already planned to announce new safety regulations for adventure tourism users.
This led to questions about how to regulate risk and adventure. But what precisely do you regulate and how do you do it?
The uncertainty of adventure
Adventure is defined in many ways. Its first characteristic is the unknown: we don’t know where it will lead us. It is risky. It consists of the possibility that elements will positively or negatively influence those who take the risk. It is part of a sequence or an event. Risk is thus linked to the uncertainty of fate — of what’s ahead, since the past can no longer be changed apart from its interpretation.
Uncertainty has two dimensions: the unpredictability of something, and the consequence — in other words, what could happen if a series of factors were to lead to a chain reaction. These unknown components lead some to reject adventure and others to anticipate that, with each palpitation and each breath, a new life story will be written.
Modern life in the Western world requires many to take certain risks in order to feel alive. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, to whom we owe the concept of the risk society, explored the paradox of our aseptic societies where everything is regulated and, because everything is controlled, some meaning is lost.
The “risk-free” phenomenon is omnipresent but not without consequences. Generally speaking, for example, while work-related accidents are decreasing, occupational diseases are increasing. The preponderance of impatience, aggressiveness, exhaustion and depression begs the question of whether leisure activities that involve taking risks might help. The hypothesis deserves reflection.
Risking to revitalize yourself
Many of us choose the outdoors to recharge our batteries. The advances in sports equipment, lighter materials and technical clothing adapted to difficult conditions, combined with the reduction in the price of transport and equipment of all kinds, have helped to democratize access to the most remote areas. At the same time, it’s also given us access to some of the craziest activities.
Taking risks as part of an adventure helps to accelerate the revitalization process.
The risk of killing the adventure
Each tragedy reawakens the debate on the management of adventure and how to tighten risk management measures.
In the case of outdoor adventure, it is certainly possible to regulate the infrastructure and impose standards on companies and guides who accompany leisure adventurers. It is reasonable to request their certification to codes of conduct.
Regulations are used to frame, reduce and even mitigate risk. But the same cannot be said of emotion. For beyond the trails and landscapes where humans choose to venture, it is above all else the pleasure of challenging ourselves through the unknown that is at play. It’s an addictive experience for adventure enthusiasts.
And who are regulations for? The adventurers find a safety net and the tour operators a protection against the risk of possible lawsuits. But this protection is not without limits. There are unpredictable hazards, such variations in terrain, weather episodes, and the environment. Think of the recent tragedy in New Zealand when Australian tourists were surprised by the eruption of a volcano. Nineteen of them died and many others were injured.
Add to this the social factors — the participants’ previous experience and skills, their state of health, the friendship that develops between the members of the group, personal ambitions — that can never be fully controlled.
It’s therefore possible to regulate adventure tourism, but only by formalizing customs and practices to a level that makes accidents the exception, not the rule. Otherwise, overly regulating adventure will end up killing it.
Professeur, Sociologie du tourisme, Université du Québec à Montréal
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