Risk Management for Australian Commercial Adventure Tourism Operations

By Morgan, Damian; Fluker, Martin | Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Risk Management for Australian Commercial Adventure Tourism Operations


Morgan, Damian, Fluker, Martin, Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management


This paper reviews research and practices relevant to risk management for operators in Australia's commercial adventure tourism industry. Important concerns highlighted by the 1999 Interlaken river canyoning tragedy in Switzerland are first discussed. Following this, the industry is defined and examined with particular regard to the participant, the operator and the setting. The legal framework encompassing the industry and other broad considerations are then appraised and crises management practices outlined. Two implications arise from this review: first, a model of the risk management operating environment for commercial adventure tourism operations and second, suggestions for research to enhance understanding of this dynamic tourism sector.

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The social awareness of risks posed by environmental, industrial and biological hazards has never been greater (Kolluru, 1996; Smith, 2001). Nonetheless, rapid growth of Australia's adventure tourism industry over the last three decades demonstrates an existing and increasing demand for the opportunity to engage in risk taking behaviours. The challenge then for adventure tourism providers is to manage the various risk elements to avoid crises, while at the same time ensuring customer satisfaction.

Many clients will engage in commercial adventure tourism activities to experience thrills and excitement (Fluker & Turner, 2000; Hall & McArthur, 1994). These psychological experiences arise through the uncertainty created in the minds of participants by an activity's inbuilt physical and social challenges such as high physical exertion, social embarrassment, and the possibility of sustaining physical injury (Morgan, Moore, & Mansell, 2000). These challenges, especially those of a physical nature, are in turn inextricably linked to the inherent risks provided by the natural environment (Brannan, Condello, Stuckum, Vissers, & Priest, 1992; Cheron & Ritchie, 1982). To ensure an appropriate experience for adventure tourism participants, the experience of inherent risks must be at an optimum level. With too little risk, the customer can find the experience dull and boring; too much risk and the operator may confront a crisis situation (Morgan, 2000).

The Interlaken canyoning disaster in Switzerland was one such crisis. As reported by Le Quesne (1999), on the 27th of July 1999 a group of 44 adventure tourists and 8 guides were abseiling and body-rafting down a 400-metre stretch of rapids and waterfalls. Heavy rainfall caused the banks of an upstream creek to falter, releasing "a 6 m high wall of mud brown water" down the watercourse. The ill-fated result was the death of 21 people.

Newspapers reports of the Interlaken tragedy speculated that early warning signs of danger had been ignored by the activity's guides (e.g., Mann, 1999). Experienced river guides, not involved with the adventure company in question, also expressed serious concerns about the operation by suggesting that the company's river guides were under pressure to put profits before safety, this being compounded by their lack of adequate knowledge of the local conditions (e.g., Nicholson, 1999). The Swiss court judgement supported this view of events and convicted six company managers and senior guides of manslaughter through culpable negligence (Bita, 2001a). The report of the trial by Bita (2001b, p. 13) highlights a number of important considerations for risk management in commercial adventure tourism operations:

   Judge Thomas Zbinden found that most of the
   participants didn't know what canyoning was, let
   alone have any experience of it. The guides'
   supervisors ignored signs of a thunderstorm
   brewing in the Valley, he said, even though
   storms had been predicted in the local newspaper
   and on radio. They [the canyoning tour
   operators] had time to cancel the trip but went
   on regardless. The junior guides were not properly
   trained, the judge concluded, because they
   had not been instructed on how to read all the
   danger signs of an impending flood. … 

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