Adventure Travel World Summit Kicks Off a Revolution in Chile

20 October 2015

There were 200 Chileans dedicated to training local tourism workers across the country in the months leading up to the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS). Local tour guides and bartenders, hotel servers and housekeepers were practicing their English and preparing for their part in the “adventure revolution.” It all paid off when 700 delegates from 55 countries arrived in Chile and were greeted by a well-prepared contingency of tourism professionals who left a lasting impression.

To begin the opening day of the Summit, local artisans handed delegates clay piggy banks in the foyer of the Hotel Patagonico in Puerto Varas, Chile. In the next room those banks were broken apart revealing wooden “Chile Day” coins, a specialized currency that could be used throughout the day to purchase handicrafts from throughout the country.

Before Tuesday, most ATWS attendees had had some experience with Chile’s adventure offerings on either a multi-day Pre-Summit Adventure in places like Patagonia, Easter Island or the Atacama Desert, or on a Day of Adventure activity in the volcanoes and lakes region surrounding Puerto Varas. In his opening remarks ATTA President Shannon Stowell said, “When I told people we would be in the lakes region of Chile for the Summit they said ‘You know there’s a volcano erupting there, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘That’s exactly where we’re going and people have signed up to hike that volcano.”

In May of this year Cabulco volcano was emitting a plume of ash and smoke. By October, hundreds of tourism professionals were converging on the region and taking selfies with a more scenic and tranquil version of that exact same volcanic cone across the lake from where the Adventure Travel World Summit was taking place. On the Day of Adventure some groups even hiked or biked through the fresh ash from the recent eruption.

The opening session of ATWS was held at the Teatro del Lago, a stunning, modern performance space on the shore of Llanquihue Lake. Shannon Stowell kicked things off and set the stage for conservation giant Doug Tompkins, whose keynote presentation “The Road to Sustainability: Connecting Chile’s Preserved Places” outlined some of his foundation’s impressive work in the country. Tompkins also compared adventure travel to the organic food movement and other movements that start on the fringe of the mainstream and start to pick up speed under the direction of passionate people. “These movements are unstoppable,” he said to loud applause from a packed theater.

Next to take the stage was Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. Becker said she wrote the book not only for travelers to be informed, but also for industry insiders like those attending ATWS so “we would know our own history and story.” Becker believes that adventure travel can be a leader in this new golden age of tourism. She addressed adventure tour operators specifically: “You don’t know what kind of a difference you are making.” Becker’s keynote was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Travel Weekly editor Arnie Weissmann, where Shannon Stowell joined Becker on stage to answer some of the hardest questions the tourism industry is facing today. What resulted was a frank discussion on the reality of what it will truly take to have a sustainable future.

The day ended with a surprise guest: the president of Chile Michelle Bachelet. She had just come from an international press conference where she announced the creation of the largest marine reserve in the Americas. With sustainability initiatives fresh in her mind she addressed ATWS delegates in excellent English (translating in real time as her script was written in Spanish). The only English word she couldn’t quite remember was “trails,” which was provided to her by several members of the audience at once.

Tourism in Chile is growing rapidly -- the first half of 2015 saw a 20% increase over last year -- and President Bachelet knows that there has to be a connection between sustainability and tourism. She told the crowd at the Teatro del Lago that her administration has committed $100 million in the next three years to develop new sustainable tourism areas around the country and teach English and Portuguese to tourism workers to help promote Chile as an international destination.

A few days later, another revolutionary speaker took the stage: Tim Martin, former ambassador from Canada. Martin talked about travel in terms of the diplomatic process. Drawing on his involvement with the Kimberly Process that created a new business-driven ethical standard for the diamond industry, he described revolutions in a deliberate step-by-step process. With a strong determination to lead with honesty and find strength through like-minded partners, Martin explained, there could easily be a tourism revolution led by the ATTA and its membership.

Of course the Adventure Travel Trade Association is also doing its part to inject investment and inspiration in the adventure tourism industry of Chile. Nearly one out of five delegates to the ATWS were local representatives from Chile. In all, the tour operators at ATWS represented nearly 3 million adventure travelers. The Summit had a total of 36 speakers in 32 separate content sessions. But after a long list of facts and figures about Chile and the Adventure Travel World Summit, the opening night’s video left one number on the screen: the number 1, with the following explanation: “The number of people it takes to start the adventure revolution.”

The 700 delegates mixed and matched and paired up in a variety of networking scenarios. The ATTA estimates that over 11,000 new business relationships were made over the course of the Summit. Between a bustling business-to-business Marketplace, two 90-minute intensive MediaConnect sessions, a dozen coffee breaks and sit-down meals and two dance parties, millions of words were exchanged and thousands of hands were shaken. In the closing session of the Summit, Chile handed the baton to representatives from Alaska who will host next year’s Adventure Travel World Summit. The words on the screen said “Go Big” and the sentiment was clear from everyone who attended that Chile had left some very big shoes to fill.