The recent tragedy that claimed the lives of five French tourists and their Quebec guide in the icy waters of Lac Saint-Jean during a snowmobile safari shook people on both sides of the Atlantic. It also rattled the tourism industry in Quebec.
The Quebec government had already planned to announce new safety regulations for adventure tourism users. This led to questions about how to regulate risk and adventure.
But what precisely do you regulate and how do you do it?
As a professor of nature tourism at l'Universite du Quebec à Montreal's Ecole des Sciences de la Gestion, I'm interested in adventure tourism in natural environments, particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The uncertainty of adventure
Adventure is defined in many ways. Its first characteristic is the unknown: we don't know where it will lead us. It is risky. It consists of the possibility that elements will positively or negatively influence those who take the risk. It is part of a sequence or an event. Risk is thus linked to the uncertainty of fate - of what's ahead, since the past can no longer be changed apart from its interpretation.
Uncertainty has two dimensions: the unpredictability of something, and the consequence - in other words, what could happen if a series of factors were to lead to a chain reaction. These unknown components lead some to reject adventure and others to anticipate that, with each palpitation and each breath, a new life story will be written.
Modern life in the Western world requires many to take certain risks in order to feel alive. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, to whom we owe the concept of the risk society, explored the paradox of our aseptic societies where everything is regulated and, because everything is controlled, some meaning is lost.
The "risk-free" phenomenon is omnipresent but not without consequences. Generally speaking, for example, while work-related accidents are decreasing, occupational diseases are increasing. The preponderance of impatience, aggressiveness, exhaustion and depression begs the question of whether leisure activities that involve taking risks might help. The hypothesis deserves reflection.
Risking to revitalize yourself
Many of us choose the outdoors to recharge our batteries. The advances in sports equipment, lighter materials and technical clothing adapted to difficult conditions, combined with the reduction in the price of transport and equipment of all kinds, have helped to democratize access to the most remote areas. At the same time, it's also given us access to some of the craziest activities.
Climbing Mount Everest no longer requires physical ability as much as it does the time and financial means to pay for the porters and guides needed to accompany, supervise and, to a large extent, ensure safety. However, there is a limit to amateurism, as proven by the deaths of 11 climbers last year during ascents.
Taking risks as part of an adventure helps to accelerate the revitalization process.
This risk, which we try to control on a daily basis, seems to become beneficial during leisure time. Hiking in the backcountry, obstacle courses, African safaris, swimming with killer whales or sharks, river descents, climbing of all kinds, glacier crossings, heli-skiing, bungee jumping, parachute jumping, flying in winged suits - the list of hobbies with some form of risk is growing longer and longer. And it's being promoted via testimonials in specialist magazines, autobiographies of extreme adventurers and TV reality shows.
These testimonials teach us that because it is intrinsically linked to risk-taking, adventure makes people alert. It then calls on all of their senses and all of their capacities for control and action, sometimes even pushing their limits.
Many people regenerate themselves through the experiences they find off the beaten track. Thus, adventure, like risk, is something that is chosen. When it's imposed, it's no longer adventure, but misadventure. One rarely chooses to suffer deliberately.
Adventure need not be tragic
Through studies on adventure, we have come to understand and define it as an individual's deliberate choice to embark upon an experience with an unknown purpose, leading to a feeling of personal satisfaction and growth. Adventure travel tourism lends itself particularly well to this.
Temporarily removed from their daily routine, these tourists find a quick path to release in adventure. Its intensity varies according to the capacities and needs of each individual's self-esteem. Adventure - and risk - can therefore a healthy process in the search for balance.
However, the adventure must not end in tragedy. Unfortunate ends, experts say, is usually a result of a sequence of harmless events that, as in a domino effect, draw the parties involved into a spiral that can lead to a point of no return.
Despite accidents and loss of human life, some people nonetheless always return to adventure. There are many reasons for this. Adventure offers the apprenticeship of making a conquest, providing incomparable feelings of euphoria. Self-fulfillment, and validation in the eyes of our peers, are priceless.
But, again, can adventure be regulated?
The risk of killing the adventure
Each tragedy reawakens the debate on the management of adventure and how to tighten risk management measures.
In the case of outdoor adventure, it is certainly possible to regulate the infrastructure and impose standards on companies and guides who accompany leisure adventurers. It is reasonable to request their certification to codes of conduct.
Regulations are used to frame, reduce and even mitigate risk. But the same cannot be said of emotion. For beyond the trails and landscapes where humans choose to venture, it is above all else the pleasure of challenging ourselves through the unknown that is at play. It's an addictive experience for adventure enthusiasts.
And who are regulations for? The adventurers find a safety net and the tour operators a protection against the risk of possible lawsuits. But this protection is not without limits. There are unpredictable hazards, such variations in terrain, weather episodes, and the environment. Think of the recent tragedy in New Zealand when Australian tourists were surprised by the eruption of a volcano. Nineteen of them died and many others were injured.
Add to this the social factors - the participants' previous experience and skills, their state of health, the friendship that develops between the members of the group, personal ambitions - that can never be fully controlled.
It's therefore possible to regulate adventure tourism, but only by formalizing customs and practices to a level that makes accidents the exception, not the rule. Otherwise, overly regulating adventure will end up killing it.
Author: Alain A. GRENIER - Professeur, Sociologie du tourisme, Universit du Qubec Montral (UQAM)