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Wednesday, 24 December, 2014, 12 : 30 PM [IST]

ATOAI: Striving to position India as an adventure destination

An association that believes in Safe, Honourable, and Sustainable Tourism was founded 20 years ago by a handful of like-minded adventure tour operators. Today, it is not only considered as one of the most respected associations in the travel trade industry in India, but its members are also looked up to as reliable operators. Akansha Pandey tracks the journey of Adventure Tour Operators` Association of India (ATOAI)
The international figures on Adventure Tourism are exhilarating. According to UNWTO, globally the Adventure Tourism segment is worth USD 236 billion, and has grown over 100 per cent in the last 2.5 years. Over the last two years, more than 50 per cent of international travel booked were either adventure or active (Adventure Tourism is part of the itinerary) holidays. Akshay Kumar, President, ATOAI, elaborated on his ‘guesstimates’, saying that the Adventure Tourism segment in India must be over 2,500 crore (combining the organised and unorganised sub-segments).

The Advent
Initially, Adventure Tourism was a focus area of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO). However, a lot of adventure tour operators felt that the segment was not getting due recognition. The focus of IATO was majorly macro and the issues to be addressed were numerous.

Twenty-odd years ago, when the Adventure Tourism segment was at its nascent stage, it was facing numerous issues as the activities were mainly organised in remote areas. At that point of time, it was decided by Rani Puri (first Vice-President of ATOAI), Akbar Hussain (first Secretary), and Harsh Vardhan (first Treasurer) along with Bhim Singh, Ajeet Bajaj and Rashid Gosani (the then Executive Committee Members) led by Captain Swadesh Kumar, Founder President, ATOAI to form a separate association focusing on adventure travel.

In order to address issues independently, adventure tour operators came together to form ATOAI in 1994. The initial period was replete with hurdles, but soon the members realised the worth of a separate body. Issues that were lying buried for ages started getting addressed by stakeholders and decision-makers.

The main objective of coming up with a distinct identity was to network with other adventure tour operators, develop skills related to the trade, and voice suggestions to policy-makers. A lot of people have worked relentlessly to take the Association to newer heights. The Association has seen huge contribution from Late Avinash Kohli who was a pioneer in rafting expeditions, and Bhim Singh, who brought about the novel concept of camel / desert safari and other such leaders.

The first few Presidents of ATOAI had the herculean task of getting the Association recognition and getting other associations to start talking to them. Past Presidents such as Captain Kumar, Col S S Singh, Ajeet Bajaj, and Tejbir Singh Anand provided the Association a platform to take off.

Highlights of 2014
This year has been a milestone for ATOAI. The new team onboard (from March 2013 and now re-elected for the next two years) has been trying hard to create a new look and feel for ATOAI. The 11th Annual ATOAI Convention held at Shivpuri in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand this year in March was completely out-of-the-box and exuded the theme of adventure in every way. It redefined the concept of networking with ‘media connect’ and counselling from experts, which enabled small operators in Uttarakhand to touch base with the bigger operators.

The Convention Committee, headed by Rajesh Ojha, Chairman, 11th Annual ATOAI Convention, introduced some concepts, such as the stay in tents and the rafting expedition, for over 600 delegates, which added colour to the annual convention. This has indeed increased pressure on the current team heading ATOAI to come up with a similar or better convention for the next season.

ATOAI has become very active with the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), Govt. of India and they, too, have been receptive to the Association’s ideas and suggestions. “We were able to address issues that have been pending for over a decade, such as issuing permits to recognised adventure tour operators to use satellite phones, which has recently been enforced. The security clearance has been done and the ban has been officially lifted. The process, however, is yet to come into place, but nonetheless, this is a big move. We hope the facility is available to ATOAI members (under guidance) by the next trekking season, which will start from April 2015 onwards,” exclaimed Akshay Kumar.

Prior to the facility, a lot of companies in the US and the UK had stopped selling India as a prominent adventure travel destination. Their risk assessment of companies was based on evacuation and rescue. The moment they realised that the destination they would be heading to would have no communication with the closest hospital, tour operators based abroad refused to sell the destination. Countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan have allowed open use of satellite phones, which has enabled them to be top-scorers in the inbound adventure travel segment.

Future Plans
We are looking forward to an integral tie-up with the globally renowned Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), asserted Akshay Kumar. It is based out of USA and is the world’s biggest body in adventure travel. They organise a World Summit, better known as a five-day long convention, every year in a particular country. As part of the World Summit, they work for a year in advance with the host country. In this exercise, they make sure that they take the country to the world. ATTA provides a lot of publicity to the host country by means of FAM tours and promoting the offerings of the country. ATTA has tie-ups with UNWTO, World Wide Fund (WWF), and similar partners who assist in taking the host country to every nook and cranny of the world.

Moreover, it is a melting pot that churns out ideas on hosting a convention. Delegates have the option of arriving a week before the convention and opting for a FAM tour. This helps them meet a lot of people and establish contacts. Therefore, ATOAI is already in discussions with ATTA and MoT to bring their convention to India in 2016 (ATTA Convention 2015 will take place in Chile). It will be the biggest event that India would have handled in terms of tourism and is expected to attract over 1,500 tour operators from all over the world, thereby showcasing India to the outside world. The previous host countries such as Ireland and Namibia have seen huge growth in inbound adventure travel, post the convention.

Stepping Stones
A hurdle that has been flagged at various state governments’ offices is accessibility. Over 200 airfields are lying unused such as Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, and four airports in Uttarakhand. The road journey involves a lot of time, which eventually reduces the duration of trek. Capitalising on the accessibility front, Nepal is way ahead of our country in terms of attracting adventure lovers. Activating the idle airports is a cheaper option for us, highlighted Akshay Kumar. “For the same, we have identified three airports in Uttarakhand, two in Ladakh, one in Himachal Pradesh, and a couple of airfields in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. We want the government to make it easy with the concept of greenfield airstrips for short take-offs and landing with minimum infrastructure. Countries such as Nepal and Bhutan with weaker economies are beyond us with regard to tourism,” stated Akshay Kumar.

The new team at MoT is all geared up to market the Himalayas very strongly. Brainstorming is on to revitalise the branding of the mountrain ranges, which will not only drive off-season business into India, but will also promote gateway cities such as Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.

ATOAI is aggressively working on capacity-building and training, creating business opportunities, and networking. “By the end of 2013, we tied up with GIZ, a German NGO that works in India on tourism development. With support from GIZ, we had organised a seminar and two safety workshops in Uttarakhand. Taking that model to the next level, we are in touch with a few state governments to sign agreements on five-year-long capacity-building tie-ups. An annual safety workshop and seminar in each state will be organised as part of the tie-up,” Akshay Kumar outlined.

To attract domestic traffic, ATOAI will be organising a roadshow in Maharashtra in Western India, South India, and the UK by February 2015 and in Bengaluru in March 2015, in association with MoT.

ATOAI works as a very close-knit association and we keep encouraging new members to come on board. We make sure that we know all our members by the first name. We wish to grow the member count cautiously, by quality not quantity, Akshay Kumar added, saying, “Our procedures are very stringent to allow adventure tour operators to be a part of ATOAI.” Over 80 members have been added in 2014. The active membership is purely on merit and quality and one has to be recognised by MoT as an adventure tour operator. “Companies selling adventure travel as a part of the itinerary can be our allied member only. For an active membership, one has to be operating adventure tours and not just selling it. We want the ATOAI membership to be a quality seal for our members and add credibility to their image,” stressed Akshay Kumar.

ATOAI members sign a pledge after joining the Association to practise activities related to Adventure Tourism in a sustainable manner. It is also mandatory for all members to have their own standard equipment in place. Sub-contracting is done for minor or less important activities. Anand got a full-fledged office for the Association during his tenure as President of the Association, which the current team is looking forward to expanding in a big way.

“Most importantly, we have convinced MoT to conduct the first statistical survey on Adventure Tourism in India. Tenders have already been floated and the work would be on in some time. The result of the same would give us on-ground assessment of the size of the industry above guesstimates,” Akshay Kumar averred.

Past Presidents Speak
capt_swadesh_kumar_cs_id.jpgCaptain Swadesh Kumar (1994-2001)
Honestly speaking, I cannot talk about my achievements as it is for others to judge. The credit of taking the Association so far goes to the team effort of the Adventure Tourism segment in the country. When we conceived the idea and gave it a platform, there was no such category at that point of time. The Government of India recognised the Association later and added a category - adventure tour operators.
ajeet_bajaj_id.jpgAjeet Bajaj (2004-2009)
I enjoyed my stint at the helm of affairs at ATOAI. What made a big difference were my colleagues in the Association. We had great team work and it was satisfying to see results that greatly benefited our fraternity. We were able to increase membership and reach out to the adventure travel community in the far-flung regions of India. We were also lucky to have a fantastic team at MoT and with their unstinting support we were able to go miles.
tejbir_singh_anand_cs_id_new.jpgTejbir Singh Anand (2009-2013)
I served as the President of ATOAI for a four-year-long tenure. ATOAI being a unique association had always been selective in choosing its members. When I took over, there were over 20 active members and few allied members. From 50 members we grew to over 250 quality members. It is almost nostalgic to recall that we bought our first office space for the Association, renewed ties with MoT, and organised three annual conventions (in Madhya Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, and Assam). ATOAI members are an ethical lot with high moral values. We respect fellow members and are always there to support each other in tough times.

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