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International operators: Why are they important?
Canada-based tour company Big Mountain Bike Adventures visited Greenland in September 2019 to develop a new mountain biking group tour product. Biker and journalist Ryan Stuart, who joined the recce trip, shares the company’s philosophy and discusses how an incoming international tour operator can be a benefit to local tour operators and local communities.
Mountain biking in Greenland? It was definitely an out of the box idea, but doubters are nothing new to Chris Winter. The owner of Big Mountain Bike Adventures has developed small group mountain bike adventures in 20 unique locations around the world. The key to success, he says, rests on the locals who know the places better than anyone.
“The nature of mountain biking is that local knowledge is key"
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“The nature of mountain biking is that local knowledge is key,” he says. “Locals are essential for route finding, bridging the language barrier and when challenges occur.” For instance, when Winter organized an exploratory mountain bike tour to Ilulissat and Sisimiut in September 2019, it was people like Jan Banemann, the owner and operator of Sisimiut Boat Safari, that he relied on.
“Jan was really helpful, for knowledge of the area and the remote boat transfer, for sure,” Winter says. “He would have become integral had we had an issue, like a mechanical, injury or weather challenge, while on the trail. But more than just logistics, I’ve found interacting with locals is what makes my tours memorable.”
But after 20 years of building tours, often returning to the same area over and over, Winter knows his repeat business brings value too. Indeed, local communities benefit enormously from small group tours, says sustainable tourism expert Kelly Galaski.
Small group tours tend to stay longer, spend more and leave more money in the local economy than bigger group tours, like cruise ships, says the director of global programs for the non-profit Planterra Foundation.
“It’s in the DNA of most small group travel companies to have as positive an impact on a local community as possible,” says Galaski. “Their customers are booking with them because they want to interact with local people and businesses.”
When Planterra analyzed the economic impact of one tour operator, G Adventures, they found small group tours rippled through the local economy: $1,000 spent on 10 locally owned hotel rooms could generate $8,000 in spin-off spending. Galaski explains: every dollar that G Adventures suppliers spent locally was often re-spent at local stores, who tend to buy from local distributors, who buy from a local tradesperson, who buy from other businesses.
On the other hand, large group tour operators bring more people, but usually only spend a short time in any one place and the benefits tend to go to larger businesses that can handle the numbers and are not owned by locals. Less of the money stays in the community’s economy, Galaski says.
“In tourism, success is often measured in numbers, numbers, numbers,” she says. “But often bigger numbers are not sustainable. We think it’s better to think in terms of what benefits the visitors leave behind.
That’s true for Winter: “We’re always looking to find ways to leave more money in the places we visit.”
Read on for more insights from Winter on working with small group tour operators.
What role do local guides and businesses play in your tours?
The nature of the experience I’m trying to create is very reliant on local knowledge. That’s especially true when you’re on a trail in the middle of nowhere and you come to a fork and you need someone to tell you left or right. And it’s not just navigating on the land. It’s navigating language barriers or injuries. It’s troubleshooting when the weather doesn’t cooperate or you have a mechanical issue. They’re the ones that are going to know the back up plan.
How do you build a trip like your Greenland tour?
It was really, really hard to put together the logistics for the Greenland trip. I think that’s part of the nature of the place. It started with the internet and then I reached out to Visit Greenland. They were very helpful. That led us to Jan. He helped us figure out the logistics of getting to and from the Arctic Circle Trail. Then it’s actually getting out there and going for a ride. I always do an exploratory trip to try it out and perfect it before running a tour with paying clients.
Now that you have a tour figured out, are there still opportunities for local businesses to get involved?
They can just get in touch with us and let me know what they can offer. Trips are never static. We’re always working to make them better, digging in and researching to see what we can add to an experience to improve it. That’s especially true of the newer trips.
How are adventure tourists, like mountain bikers, different than other travellers?
We tend to go to much more remote destinations. Ninety percent of travellers follow the path of other travellers. We go to places that are off the beaten path. As a result, our participants are spending money in regions that often see few tourists.
Can you give us an example of a tourism business that has benefitted from your tours?
The Hotel Le Vallée is in Switzerland in the valley below Verbier. I first stayed there about 15 years ago. At first, when we approached them about bringing mountain bikers to stay with them they were like, “What?” They didn’t understand, but when we told them what we wanted they were really supportive. They bought a shuttle van and added bike storage. They learned from our needs, embraced the sport and now it’s really working for them.
What tourism products did you think are missing in Greenland?
The one thing missing in the trip was more local flavour and culture. Some of my most memorable experiences traveling are interactions with indigenous people and learning about different cultures. I was just in Indonesia and I loved going into people’s homes, obviously very respectfully, to see where they lived. I think it would enhance the experience and clients would really like it if there were more opportunities to interact and learn in an authentic way about Greenlandic culture. It would be a nice addition to the adventure, wilderness, icebergs and whales.
After a successful September 2019 trip to west Greenland, Big Mountain Bike Adventures added Greenland to its menu of bike adventures. Their first tour arrives in September 2020.
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