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Suggestions for travel agencies entering Latin America's ecotourism and adventure travel market
by Ron Mader

PLANETA WIKI

This presentation was given July 1, 2000 at the Expo Aventura in Mexico City.

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FLICKR ALBUM: Dialogues


Travel agencies can position themselves to take advantage of Latin America's growing market for alternative tourism (turismo alternativo). The Internet has proven to be an effective tool for both research and promotion. Yet given the growth of the Internet, agencies may feel threatened by competition and must develop specialized skills to survive.

INTRODUCTION

Relations with travel agencies has been one of the unexpected high points of my work. Good friends and colleagues Marjorie Gutierrez of Mundo Ogima and Lillia Childs Guissen of Contraste Tours started their own agencies. Later they will share details about their work and lessons learned that will be of help to other agents as well as local operators.

DEFINITIONS

When tourism professionals talk about "alternative tourism" this simply means tourism that is not traditional. This is a vague definition at best. After all, tourism is not static but a dynamic sector.

There are other forms of "turismo alternativo" as well -- for example, gastronomical tourism or archaeological tourism. There is as great a diversity of tourism activities as there are tourists with special interests.

In order to be more precise, let's take a close look at two specialized fields -- adventure travel and ecotourism.

RAISING STANDARDS

For good reason ecotourism and adventure tourism have different standards or criteria.

Adventure tourism involves a degree of danger and requires specialized skills. Examples include mountain climbing, hang gliding and mountain biking. Ecotourism activities assist conservation efforts and include the local community.

Ecotourism guidelines focus on carrying capacity and ethical considerations. Additional details are found on our definitions page.

Adventure tourism requires strict guidelines to insure safety. These standards may be less "eco" because the focus is on bringing the customer back for a return trip. Agents need to make sure that companies are staffed by trained professionals and that the company has adequate insurance.

Both ecotourism and adventure tourism standards are based not in get-rich-quick megatourism projects but upon the principle of long-term sustainability.

Yet in terms of public diffusion of either, Mexico is literally off the map. At the Planeta.com stand at Expo Aventura I have on display a number of maps of national parks throughout Latin America, available in specialty stores as well as the Gone Tomorrow website -- http://www.gonetomorrow.com. Yet there's not one map that's publically available about Mexico's wilderness.

As Dalila Calvario of Aventura Vertical magazine said at a recent Adventure Tourism conference held in Real de Catorce:

"It's sad that the tourism offices produce brochures and guides to places people really can't visit in Mexico, and the places where people can visit, we don't have brochures or guides."

NEW PARADIGM

Here's the good news. Times are changing. It's a new millennium. Mexico holds its national elections tomorrow (July 2, 2000) in which the outcome is uncertain.

Likewise, in the tourism industry, we must recognize that the rules have not been fully established. That said, let's take a close look at the changing tourism market.

What kinds of trips are travelers taking?

Increasingly travelers are requesting a mix of FIT travel -- "get me from here to there and let me decide what to do in between" and Package Tours which plan the entire journey. Clients want the skeleton of the trip planned out but they also want the freedom to choose among the alternatives present at the destination.

Do travelers choose destinations or activities?

Both. While tourists traditionally look for destinations rather than products or activities, some are seeking out places to visit as a bird watcher or mountain climber. No traveler is a 100% ecotourist. Those fictional beings only exist in market studies. But once in Oaxaca or Durango, travelers with green interests will seek out those providers offering those services.

Where do travelers get their information?

The Internet. Tourism kiosks are woefully unprepared in offering visitors information accessible online. True, kiosks play a vital role. They can and should incorporate cybercafe components into their operations.

INTERNET

Why is the Internet so popular? Take your choice. There are a number of reasons.

1) Entertainment -- much of the information is simply fun 2) Business -- like the phone and fax, it's becoming an indispensable business tool 3) Diversity -- there is something for everyone 4) Interactive -- the Internet is by the far the most democratic communications medium 5) Personal -- users can use the Web to stay in touch with family and friends

Travelers are going to the Web and savvy writers are catering to this specific market. A great example is Michael Shapiro's book, The Internet Planner that describes in detail how to use the Web to book your perfect trip.

Agencies are also going to the Web. Two months ago Travel Weekly published an excellent article, Diary of a Web User that provides a day-by-day account of how agencies research practical information via the World Wide Web.

Unfortunately, much web design is focused on pleasing the Internet designers, not the end users. This is why so many sites are ineffective. Here are some clues to spot deadbeat sites:

  • Updates are infrequent

  • Transaction features don't work or are too complicated.

  • Links don't go to logical resources

  • Links don't work.

What makes good design?

  • Downloads quickly

  • Can be viewed from various platforms and can be viewed from various-sized screens

  • Feedback is welcome

  • Links work

  • Multilingual

  • Includes contact information

  • Includes prices/dates

 

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PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS

1) Answer emails. Correspondence requires feedback.

2) You can create your own list with any common email program.

You can also use regular email, but please, don't use CC but Bcc. Allow people to select various options. If you want to be more fancy, you can use the Yahoo Groups website which provides free archival space for mailing lists. One example is Pantera Excursiones de Durango -- http://groups.yahoo.com.mx/group/foro-pantera.

3) Send press releases to the appropriate Planeta.com mailing lists. We have a variety -- from serious ecotourism to adventure tourism to general tourism. Attachments are not permitted. Click here for details.

4) Participate in our virtual ecotourism forum. Details are posted online.

TRAVEL OPERATORS

Thanks to the Web more and more small- and medium-sized tourism operators and travel agencies are finding each other on the Web. Synergies are created each day by those who understand the opportunities of making reliable business-to-business contacts.

Yet travel agents are not sure of their new role. As Elizabeth Malek Zadeh points out in her ground-breaking essay "Marketing Ecotourism to Travel Agents:

"Most travel professionals fear the Web will take business from the travel agencies. However, the Web can provide a useful means for reducing the costs of research and making communication networks easier. As travel schools slowly become comfortable with this new tool, they may be made more aware of the issues of ecotourism."

Traditionally, travel agents have sold two things -- their expertise and access. As Michael Shapiro told me in our online conversation: "Now that the Net gives everyone access, travel agents are only worthwhile if they're experts. That could mean experts at finding discount tickets or experts at helping plan the right family vacation or ecotour."

Advice?Again Shapiro:

Specialize, specialize, specialize. Also, agents can use the Net to assist their clients by directing them to helpful web sites about their destination. In sum, agents are worthwhile if they can save clients a significant amount of time or money, or if they can sagely advise clients about how to best use their precious time off.

CONCLUSION: RE-IMAGINING MEXICO TOURISM

Within ten years professionals will opt to use more descriptive terms instead of alternative tourism.

If we do our job right, we will be laying the foundation for the development/promotion of "Turismo Mexicano," a form of conscientious tourism that benefits traveler and community alike. Travel agencies will be playing a major role as they choose what they want to purchase and what they want to sell in this market.



AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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