A New Year’s Letter to the Adventure Travel Community from ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell

2 January 2022

Dear industry colleagues and friends,

Here we are in the dawn of 2022, two years into the biggest disruption the travel industry has ever experienced. While bent, scarred, and tired, many in our community are still standing and rebuilding. Although new variants continue to emerge and serve as a reminder that recovery is fragile, our world is in a much stronger position to respond.

While some organizations have left travel either temporarily or permanently and some have shuttered or been acquired, we’re starting to see widespread recovery. As one example, I have recently spoken with three separate ATTA members who are no longer looking for grants or loans because their business is returning, showing some glimpses of hope for the industry. 

As another sign of recovery, after 26 months of time where we weren’t able to gather at any scale, we held our first in-person event this past November, AdventureELEVATE in Sedona, Arizona. We required vaccination for the 250 attendees to lower the risk for our community. It was such a joy to reconnect even with the restrictions! For those who were there, you know how incredible it was. One attendee said, “Getting to see everyone at AdventureELEVATE in Sedona felt like the beginning of a new day for our industry. So great to get together and talk with such passionate, engaged, and positive people. The value of being at these events never ceases to amaze me … everything we do is about relationships and being at Elevate proved that!!”

We’re gearing up for more events in 2022 (next stop, Panama!), as this community both wants and needs to meet again and become inspired, learn, and get back to business.

I truly believe we’re on the cusp of a robust recovery. I acknowledge there are still serious challenges with issues like vaccine inequity and variants impeding travel to many destinations. There are inconsistent policies between countries that still vex travelers. Air travel, already the bane of many trips, will not be easier, cheaper, or more fun, but the demand cliff is real. People are itchy to get back on the road and explore the world. 

In a conversation with Edmund Morris of hospitality data firm Equator Analytics, I learned that according to the World Bank (June 2021), the global economy is poised to stage its most robust post-recession recovery in 80 years. A strong economic recovery will likely drive a rapid return to international travel, particularly with latent demand in some of the world's biggest outbound markets. From a purely economic point of view, the overwhelming evidence points to a rapid recovery in travel and tourism, reaching pre-pandemic limits by 2023-24. With this rapid return of arrivals then we must think about the following:

  • Post-COVID, our ability to manage overtourism will have likely weakened. With thousands of hotels and tour operators shuttering, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of workers were forced to seek work elsewhere. Some won’t return. The supply of services and products will have fallen and as demand surges, supply will struggle to keep up. This means that the hotels that survived will be packed and the destinations that could afford to provide assistance to keep them afloat will be inundated.
  • This brings us to inequality. In 2018, high-income countries accounted for 60% of all global arrivals. Post-pandemic, it is likely that this number will increase as these same countries have higher rates of vaccination, have the strongest domestic tourism, and governments were able to provide the capital investment required to subsidize and support local tourism sectors. Poorer countries, however, have not fared as well. Higher hospitalization rates, fewer surviving businesses, and weakened economic systems mean they will struggle to compete with the high-income countries. Tourism's pervasive inequality problem may get worse. 
  • The two Asian giants have yet to really start traveling. The year 2019 was not 'peak travel'. It was just the beginning of Asian travel markets. Just 10% of the Chinese population have a passport and yet already China was the world's largest outbound market. In India, that number is 5%. With India now reaching the same GDP per capita as China in 2004 (which was the year Chinese departures soared), the world should anticipate a potentially unprecedented surge in global arrivals. 

In short, we’re past what looks like the worst of the pandemic overall, we are better at managing through it, we’re poised for recovery in adventure travel, and that recovery will have challenges embedded within it. I would wager that if your organization is still functioning, you’ve changed something major, if not nearly everything, in your day-to-day operations. This is partly good news, as waste and inefficiency are not merely problematic as they once were–they are an underlying threat now and we all know it. 

Good years are coming for adventure travel, although realistically, 2022 will likely still be very bumpy for many. If you are reading this newsletter, you are still part of this community, with the capacity to grow and rebuild, although it may be in a different form. Consider yourself an absolute champ for getting this far. When we’re years past this, we’ll look back and marvel at our tenacity as a community. 

I’d like to close this letter by sharing a story that has inspired me greatly. In 2017, a very successful travel entrepreneur from Asia was studying the U.S. model of casino tourism with Indigenous people and had decided to import the concept to his destination. They were far enough down the road in this plan that they met with an American casino giant in Las Vegas to create the plan to develop casino tourism in a destination that also happens to have incredible local culture and pristine nature. Then something major happened. In 2018 this gentleman attended the Adventure Travel World Summit in Tuscany, Italy and it completely changed his plans. 

Because he and his team met many of YOU, the ATTA community, his worldview was upended regarding tourism. He was inspired by you, the people of adventure travel, to radically shift away from the plan. He tossed the plans for casino tourism and fully committed to adventure travel for the region, immediately putting it into action with meaningful outcomes. COVID-19 was a real speed bump for everyone, including him, but the goal is still intact and he plans to bring sustainable adventure travel to life. 

This, again, is why you matter. Whether we know it outright, or it happens unwittingly, the adventure travel community is changing travel and the world for good. We were put on pause for some time, but we’re coming back stronger and better than ever. It will look different, but that doesn’t matter because we are still the same community and I can’t wait to see what we accomplish in 2022 and in the coming decade.

The ATTA and I wish you a very successful new year, and as always, please reach out to any of us if you need support or encouragement; we are here to help.

Shannon Stowell, CEO, ATTA