Shannon Stowell is the CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

One phrase hashtagged everywhere during the pandemic, rising to a crescendo in mid-late 2021 was #buildbackbetter. The COVID-19 pandemic gave nearly all in tourism an undesired break from our work that seemed never-ending. Those who let it sink in received insights into their lives, priorities and how that translated to their businesses and work life balance.

From my vantage point at the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), business is coming back rapidly. And this was predicted by a report put out by WTTC and World Bank in 2021, reporting that when travel resumed, the most important anticipated market for destinations’ recovery would be Adventure/Nature-Based/Eco-Tourism. Key features of adventure travel are well-suited to post-pandemic travel: small groups, outdoor activities, remote locations, immersion in nature, and companies who already had expertise in risk management and safety. The future finally looked brighter.

The full data will reveal itself in our next Industry snapshot but anecdotally the numbers are very strong. I conducted an informal survey to a variety of ATTA members in September, then interacted with hundreds at our Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS), held in Switzerland this year. What I learned was this: Customers seem more aware and desire to be more thoughtful in their travel. This manifests in many ways, more multi-generational groups, questions about sustainability, desire to reduce their footprint, care of safety of rare species, seeking out ever more unique culinary and cultural experiences. Concerningly, while business is blasting back like water from a firehose, there are key challenges for operators and accommodations: namely that parts of the supply chain have disappeared or have been brought to their knees by COVID-19 and staffing has become a daunting challenge. How to build back better without cutting corners when we’re in a situation that nearly demands it?

If we really are going to build back better (and that window is closing), we have to re-think everything at the most basic levels how we’re going to do it differently. The Minister of Tourism from an advanced Latin American destination told me, “I’m getting pressure from my government to get arrival numbers back to 2019 levels.” This is not building back better.This is trying to get back to “normal” which we knew as overtourism, exploitation, climate change acceleration and more.

In 2018, ATTA proposed that travel was a privilege, not a right. Philosophically, this ties right into a powerful keynote from this year’s ATWS delivered by practitioner and professor Jean-Claude Razel’s admonition to the audience: “Don’t sell what guests want, sell what destinations need!” This could also be applied to how destinations are developed, stories are told, etc. It takes the old adage of “The customer is always right” and flips it to “The customer does not understand nearly anything about what’s actually happening on the ground here, but we do and it’s our job to build accordingly.” Encouragingly, several operators I surveyed mentioned that their staff were much more insistent on more sustainability in their businesses. It should not be so easy or cheap to trample all over the world with no responsibilities. Will this make travel more elitist? That’s for another discussion.

Bottom line: You must re-think everything you do, regardless of where you are in the supply chain, to force things to be different or we will find ourselves supersized in 2023 with even less recourse to be a responsible industry.

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By Shannon Stowell

To learn more about the 2022 Titans of Tourism, visit the December issue of Leisure Group Travel.