1Fecha de recepción: 8 de octubre de 2012. Fecha de modificación: 22 de octubre de 2012. Fecha de aceptación: 23 de octubre de 2012.
Adventure tourism is a growing sector within the tourism industry and understanding its dynamics is fundamental for adventure tourism destinations and their local authorities. Destination benchmarking is a strong tool to identify the performance of tourism services offered at the destination in order to design appropriate policies to improve its competitiveness. The benchmarking study of Suesca, an adventure tourism destination in Colombia, helps to identify the gaps compared with successful adventure tourism destinations around the world, and provides valuable information to local policy-makers on the features to be improved. The lack of available information to tourists and financial facilities hinders the capability of Suesca to improveits competitiveness.
Keywords: Adventure Tourism, Internal and External Benchmarking, Destination, Suesca.
El turismo de aventura es un sector en crecimiento dentro de la industria turística y entender sus dinámicas es fundamental para los destinos de turismo de aventura y sus autoridades locales. La evaluación comparativa (benchmarking) de los destinos es una fuerte herramienta para el diseño de políticas apropiadas para mejorar su competitividad. La evaluación comparativa de Suesca, un destino de turismo de aventura en Colombia, ayuda en la detección de las distancias comparativas con destinos de turismo de aventura exitosos alrededor del mundo, y provee información valiosa a los formuladores de política en aquellas características a ser mejoradas. La falta de información disponible para los turistas y de instalaciones financieras dificulta la capacidad de Suesca para mejorar su competitividad.
Palabras clave: Turismo de aventura, Benchmarking interno y externo, Destino, Suesca.
The tourism industry is one of the biggest economic sectors in the world, perhaps due to its sustained growth for more than half a century. One of the highest growing subsectors of the tourism industry is adventure tourism, with a total annual turn over of around one trillion dollars (BUCKLEY, 2009a).
Benchmarking is a relatively recent management methodology that has emerged to evaluate the weaknesses and strengths of companies, and to assess the comparative advantages of leading competitors (WOBER,2002), where a lot of managers today recognize benchmarking as a useful process to implement improvements that enhance the performance of companies, but despite its popularity, "benchmarking lacks a rigorous foundation in management science" (WOBER, 2002).
More over, the application of benchmarking exercises in the tourism industry is challenging, due to the complexities of the industry itself. As KOZAK (2004) states, "destination benchmarking was neglected until the second half of the 1990s because the application of benchmarking to tourism and hospitality is quite new". Subsequently, the distinctiveness of adventure tourism implies different challenges, and so, few benchmarking exercises have been implemented in the adventure tourism subsector. This study tries to fill that gap, analyzing the case of Suesca, Colombia, a well positioned adventure tourism destination, especially for rock climbers.
Adventure Tourism has gained wide spread attention around the world, and as ecotourism and outdoor recreation, it also has been increasingly commercialized. It includes "all types of commercial outdoor tourism and recreation with a significant element of excitement" (BUCKLEY, 2010). According to HUDSON (2003), adventure tourism brings together travel, sport and outdoor recreation, it can be considered as a subset of tourism with a component of experiential engagement that distinct it from mainstream tourism.
Although benchmarking has been used since the early 1990's, its application in the hospitality and tourism industry is relatively new. However, according to KOZAK (2004) two categories of benchmarking for the tourism industry are considered in terms of its "micro and macro-applications: organization benchmarking and destination benchmarking". The micro-applications deal with particular organizations, while the macro-application relates with elements such as transport services, airport services, accommodation services, leisure and sport facilities, among many others.
The literature in benchmarking recommends that tourism destinations start with internal benchmarking, then external and generic benchmarking (MCNAIR and LEIBFRIED, 1992; ZAIRI, 1992; cited in KOZAK, 2004).
In order to assess the demand component ofthe benchmarking exercise, an on-site survey to adventure travelers in Suesca was planned, asking for several issues in adventure tourism in this destination, where a comparison between this one and other national and international adventure tourism destinations was done. The main issues that are asked in the survey were taken from the Adventure Travel Development Index (ATDI), a study conducted by Xola Consulting2, the George Washington University3 and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA)4. In order to calculate an index for Suesca, only certain pillars were used, as some of them employ international indexes that are not available for a small municipality such as Suesca (table 1).
Due to time and budget issues, only the pretests were carried out: a first pilot took place in June 2011, where 19 questionnaires wereanswered, and a second pilot was carried putin July 2011, taking into account the results from the first pilot, where 21 surveys where answered. Although the sample size is not as big as to allow the performance of statistical analyses and tests, the information reported by adventure tourists is valuable nonetheless.
The instrument used to define the supply benchmarks of adventure tourism is developed by Untong et al. (2011), who suggest a conceptual framework (figure 1) and a model to assess the logistics management of tourism destinations which are related to three main aspects of performance, namely, physical flows, financial flows, and information flows (table 2).
In external benchmarking, the term 'host destination' means the destination whose performance is going to be assessed, where as 'partner destination' is the one with which the host is being benchmarked (KOZAK, 2004). The key issue for defining a partner destination is to choose those that are "perceived as offering a superior performance in some respects" (PEARCE, 1997). The partner destinations chosen are Queens town in New Zealand, The Central Valley Region in Costa Rica, and British Columbia in Canada.
Several issues about the actual state of Suesca as an adventure tourism destination where found during the two pilot tests carried out. The results of the survey report that for the topic of comparing the level of prices of Suesca and other national adventure tourism destination, 47% of the respondents answered that it was the same, and 14% said it was lower, becoming an advantage over similar destinations. When asked about the comparison in the availability of information to the tourist between Suesca and other national adventure tourism destinations, 42% answered worse and 14% said much worse.
With respect to the quality of tour operators between Suesca and other national adventure tourism destinations, 47% reported that they were better, 14% the same and 14% worse. However, when asked about the level of good environmental practices adopted by Suesca's tour operators, 52% answered partially low, 28% answered fine and the remaining 19% did not answer.
In the sustainability pillar, the question regarding the level of support of the municipal government to Suesca as adventure tourism destination, 61% answered none, 33% little, and 4% didn't answer. As for the safety pillar, 33% answered that the safety management of tourists is badly handled, and other 33% answered very poorly handled.
The natural resources pillar asked adventure tourists to rate the level of environmental deterioration that Suesca's main natural attractions presented, and a list of natural sites were presented. The most recognized were the Rocks of Suesca and the Bogotá River with a 100% of answers, with a regular and a high level of deterioration respectively. 80% of respondents knew the Falcon Valley, and 76% answered that its level of deterioration was regular.
The information pillar inquired about the way tourists gather information prior to their visit to Suesca, where 76% answered through friends, family and mouth-to-mouth, and onlyone respondent said through the internet. A rock-climbing adventure guide for Suesca is available in specialized stores, both in Bogotá and Suesca. When asked if they knew this guide, 57% answered yes and 43% no. When asked for the quality of the guide to those who knew about it, 33% answered normal, 25% said very good and 16% said good. This means that this guide has reached a fair amount of adventure tourists that visit Suesca, and could be more merchandised due to the good quality reported.
The image that adventure tourists have of Suesca is good for 57% of respondents, verygood for 29% and just regular for 10%. However, when asked for the image of Suesca as sustainable adventure tourism destination, 40% said regular, 33% reported bad and 14% said good. This could indicate that although people see Suesca as a good adventure tourism destination, they do not agree with the way that authorities manage the destination.
Low prices are a big advantage that could be marketed in order to gain competitiveness. The availability of information for tourists prior to arriving at the destination is a major flaw, an issue that is covered in the external benchmarking.
Another result is the final questionnaire in Spanish, where issues regarding its style were fixed. A full scale survey may take this questionnaire in order to validate the preliminary results (see Annex 1).
Tables 3 and 4 present the results of the external benchmarking study.
The most important feature that gives Suesca a high degree of competitiveness is the low prices that it involves with partner destinations in the Physical Flows item, and every of its subitems, namely, accommodation, transportation and tour programs. This is a very valuable asset that can be thought of as a strength factor for international tourists, who will compare the amount of money spent in their adventure trip. Also, in the Tour Programs sub-item, the diversity of activities that an adventure tourist visiting Suesca can perform are as numerous as any of the partner destinations.
However, in the transportation sub-item, only one company offers public transportation to Suesca with a relatively low frequency of buses and with a tight time frame, where as in the partner destinations there are sever always of public and private transportation. In the accommodation sub-item, the amount and diversity of businesses offering this serviceis limited in Suesca, taking into account that all partner destinations chosen are mature destinations.
Another major gap identified was the fact that in the financial flows sub-item, no privately owned businesses accept credit or debit card, undermining Suesca's capability of attracting international tourists. Actually, only one atm is available and relatively far from the main spot where adventure tourists are gathered.
The lack of information to tourists prior to their arrival is a major issue that destination managers should improve. Nowadays, with the huge information flows that the internet allows, international tourists plan their trips by gathering high amounts of adventure tourism destinations information, and Suesca is lacking this flow. Adventure tour operators do not present price and rate information on their web pages, when all other partner destinations make available this information. Local tourism authorities of partner destinations have well designed web pages promoting their destinations, gaining a big leverage when attracting tourists who don't have enough information about the destination.
Benchmarking can be applied to tourism destinations to identify their performance gaps compared to other destinations (KOZAK, 2004). This study aimed to understand these deficiencies in Suesca compared towell known adventure tourism destinations around the world, and to learn from their success experiences in order to take action for improvement.
The internal benchmarking exercise, through the two pilot tests carried on-site supplied valuable information on how adventure tourists perceive Suesca as an adventure tourism destination, and provided a survey questionnaire to be implemented in the near future by Suesca's tourism authorities.
As for the external benchmarking exercise, huge gaps were found when comparing Suesca with other famous adventure tourism destinations. The most important lags appear in the financial and information flows, where Suesca sees undermined its capacity of delivering aquality experience for adventure tourists. Ahigh amount of governmental support must be given if it wants to become a highly visited adventure destination.
This study should be used as a tool by local authorities in order to create an Adventure Tourism Development Plan that takes advantages of its strengths, and also to develop Suesca as a world class adventure tourism destination. Some of the actions might be to incentivize the availability of financial services so that tourists could have more money available, which in turn would increase their consumption, and the creation of a specialized web page that concentrates all available information on adventure tourism in Suesca.
However, this study has a limited reach in the sense that only pilot tests were conducted, hindering the generalization of the information gathered, and also because direct observation of partner destinations could not be carried out. A big improvement could be achieved by visiting these destinations and carrying out a survey and direct observation and participation to obtain higher amounts of information that will be useful for improving the quality of Suesca's adventure tourism supply.
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Annex 1. El presente estudio pretende valorar sus percepciones como turista de aventura con respecto a Suesca como destino de turismo de aventura, y encontrar las brechas que tiene éste destino con un indicador de mejores prácticas