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A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska
 

A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska

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Results from Survey of AWRTA Membership  

Results from Survey of AWRTA Membership  
J. Jason Wettstein
Daniel T. O’Neill


Survey Conducted Winter 2010


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    A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska Document Transcript

    • A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska J. Jason Wettstein and Daniel O'Neill
    • Introduction and Context Recent economic challenges notwithstanding, tourism in the last half century has been larger than at any other time in history. Overall the industry may employ as many as one in 12 people on Earth, and between 1950 and 2009, the number of annual tourist arrivals grew by more than 3,500 percent to some 922 million as of 2009 (UNWTO, 2009) - meaning that almost three times the population of the United States is traveling internationally for pleasure each year, a phenomenon that was not possible in the course of human history before the advent of mass transportation and mass marketing (Cox, 2006, US Census Bureau, 2010). Within this massive tourism market, the World Tourism Organization estimates that ecotourism is growing at a rate three times that of tourism as a whole. Ecotourism, defined by the International Ecotourism Society as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people,” has its roots in both the environmental movement and academic, international development circles (Kuchment, 2008). Conservationists, academics and development experts are both critical and crooning about the trend. Federico Neto, an early advocate for more environmentally sustainable approaches to tourism described a dire economic cycle associated with the tourism industry and natural places. Describing the "lifecycle of tourism" in conscious parallel with the product life cycle as known to marketers and manufacturers, Neto noted the evolution from "discovery" to "development" to "decline." In essence, Neto identified and emphasized the fact that tourism can only be sustained in the long term when natural beauty and cultural attractions associated with distinctive places are maintained in healthy form. (Neto, 2003). The Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association The Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association (AWRTA) is a member-led association that represents nature-based tourism businesses, individuals, and organizations in Alaska that are aiming to practice ecotourism approaches and avoid the tourism life cycle's final stage of decline. Via its website, awards, public outreach and education efforts, AWRTA advocates for the sustainability of Alaska's natural and cultural resources, responsible tourism and tourism planning for communities. An association primarily made up of businesses, AWRTA describes the role of its members as "working with communities to protect and enhance the quality of life, to provide good jobs and business opportunities, and to create strong incentives for protecting Alaska's wildlife, wilderness and special places" (www.awrta.org). Its methods include provision of planning tools, website information and alerts, a speakers' bureau, awards, guidelines, and certifications, community presentations, and advocacy in its own right as well as via its sister organization, the Alaska Institute for Sustainable Recreation and Tourism. Recently the organization has introduced major innovations such as the Visit Wild Alaska website and the Adventure Green Alaska Certification program. 1
    • AWRTA also states that tourism is based in "resources held in common," and expresses support for inclusive decisions making, a philosophical basis that tends to support examination of its membership via survey methods in order to gather ideas and measure satisfaction among members. While the above statements and goals, largely drawn from its website (www.awrta.org), indicate an orientation toward sustainability driven by member participation, it remains unclear whether AWRTA is meeting its mission obligations in Alaska as well as it might. Specific topics we aimed to study included AWRTA's advocacy for sustainability of Alaska's natural and cultural resources, responsible tourism and tourism planning for communities. The focus of our research was to use survey techniques including a series of Likert scale survey items and open-ended questions to gather ideas from members, identify barriers currently facing AWRTA, and convey this information back to AWRTA leadership and membership to increase the potential for the organization's success. Research Purpose From our research and literature review, it became clear that very little has been written about ecotourism or sustainable tourism in the Alaskan context, and thus as researchers, we were provided with a rich potential source for an exploratory study. While AWRTA will not likely create a utopia of perfect sustainability in the tourism industry in Alaska in the short term, its success as an example of an organization of businesses striving to be ecologically friendly while still creating a profit for its members provides an important model to other organizations and associations developing in wilderness areas around the country and internationally. The problem is specifically, that if the organization AWRTA is not perceived as effective among its members, it holds less possibility to be a persuasive example of a more sustainable way of conducting tourism. Therefore our research aimed to find out if AWRTA is indeed perceived as effective among its members on various measures. The overall societal goal implicit in our work is AWRTA's organizational improvement over time, even in aspects where members are well satisfied with the effects of their membership in the organization at the point of time represented by our survey inquiry. Results from our survey are illustrated and reported below. 2
    • Survey Findings and Interpretation The full survey instrument can be found at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/awrta. It is also attached as an appendix to this report. Population Studied The size of the population under study has been difficult to assess. The AWRTA website and other associated websites note membership between 100 and 300 members depending on the page referenced1, and AWRTA's Executive Director reported there was a smaller group of active members. She also reported a strategic aim of working to increase membership. We had 43 survey responses, and of those that responded to our survey, it was completed to varying degrees. Many questions were listed as optional (and only the informed consent question was required). We left questions optional for the specific reason that we wanted information from respondents that they felt confident about rather than seeking full participation with the possible side effect of increasing speculation or unconsidered answers. The majority of AWRTA members that responded indicated that they run small businesses with fewer than ten employees (respondents = 23 of 43). Only four of our respondents indicated association with businesses with ten or more employees.2 Three respondents indicated they were nonprofits among the group of 43. Limitations to study associated with our population size • Our sample size will be more or less representative of the population depending on the actual size of that population. • We may have gotten a sample that was not indicative due to self-selection bias. This was a voluntary survey promoted via web, telephone and email outreach. Those who are truly frustrated with AWRTA may not be answering surveys that were distributed by AWRTA on our behalf. • Another potential biasing factor is that the survey took place in the winter months, which could be a downtime for many summer oriented tour businesses. By choosing February and March for survey distribution, we could bias against participation by winter oriented (or active year round) business. For example, the sled dog season is fully engaged now, and if sled dog tourist attractions were among our possible respondent pool, they may not have answered our survey due to high business activity at the moment. 1 i.e. 300 -- (http://www.awrta.org/index.cfm?section=about), Approximately 100- http://www.adventuregreenalaska.org/pdf/aga_launched_09sept08.pdf, Approximately 170 --http://www.awrta.org/index.cfm?fa=memberdir 2 Sixteen respondents may fall into either category as they did not indicate a "business size." In any case, mathematically speaking, it is clear that the majority of respondents are small business (even if all the non-responders on this question were large businesses or nonprofit organizations, small business would still be the most common response). 3
    • Analyses of responses Overall satisfaction with AWRTA (respondents = 36) Three respondents (8.3%) indicated “very satisfied.” The majority of respondents indicated they were “satisfied” with AWRTA (52.8%) No respondent indicated "not at all satisfied." There is room to grow in terms of increasing membership satisfaction. Not very satisfied was reported by a third (33.3%) of those responding. Positive comments included recognition of Hanna Waterstrat Number of respondents as a responsive Executive Director and a sense of excitement with the introduction of the new visitwildalaska.com website. Challenges noted in comments included mention of turnover at AWRTA as a problem as well as awareness of a lack of funding for the organization as a barrier. Critiques included the need for AWRTA to develop more marketing capabilities as well as a need for AWRTA to clarify its mission and aims with members, as well as to take clear, factual stances on environmental issues. Ideas from the research team: Is there room to partner with local universities and professors, or even editorial boards at newspapers, on policy and lobbying stances to clarify the environmental positions or to build an argument for legislative/State-based funding? Candidates for partnership or outreach might include the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, The Anchorage Daily News, or Alaska Pacific University. 4
    • How well has AWRTA advanced conservation goals? (respondents=36) A majority of respondents indicated that AWRTA is advancing conservation goals (47.2% indicated “well” and 13.9% very well”) Positive comments included recognition that AWRTA keeps members Number of respondents informed about environmental and conservation issues. Respondents also indicated that AWRTA has taken principled stances on environmental issues, such as preservation of the Tongass National Forest Critiques included requests to take a stand in regard to activities of major industries in Alaska, including a contention that AWRTA seems to avoid issues associated with the cruise industry, and another contention that AWRTA seems to be silent on negative effects on sports fishing resulting from commercial fishing. Comments and critiques indicated support for taking positions on issues in partnership with the membership. Ideas from the research team: While taking positions is a useful activity, it also is an expenditure of political capital. Taking positions could possibly divide membership, and can be resource and time intensive. Perhaps an element of an upcoming ecotourism conference could be identification of one to two issues where there is wide support for taking a position and setting position definition and dissemination as an actionable goal. 5
    • How well has AWRTA advanced your business goals? (respondents=35) AWRTA respondents provided mixed reviews in terms of its fulfillment of business goals. The most common response to this question was "well," (respondents =14, 40%) Equal numbers of respondents are indicating their belief that AWRTA is advancing business goals "well" or "very well." (combined respondents =15, 43%) as are indicating that AWRTA is not advancing or not very well advancing their business goals Number of respondents (combined respondents =15, 43%) Marketing was indicated as an area for improvement, but respondents also expressed positive views of visitwildalaska.com and Adventure Green Alaska and the potential for these tools. Education and advocacy were mentioned by 3 respondents (8% of respondents) as an essential benefit and means to advance business goals. How well has AWRTA served as a means to preserve local culture (respondents= 36) The term "local culture" was left undefined in the question. As researchers we could have done a better job at definition in this question both for the respondents and ourselves. The majority of respondents indicated "don't know" As was evidenced in comments following questions, respondents mentioned that they could not Number of respondents answer the question given the enormously wide variety of definitions of terms like culture, native, and local that are present in general, but particularly in Alaska. 6
    • One interpretation of the responses of ten percent that indicated "well" that is also evidenced in comments is that some respondents were interpreting local culture as preservation of their own nature-dependent livelihoods and ways of life. This is an interpretation often mentioned in the literature alongside and congruent with a motive of providing economic and social support for traditional (often including indigenous) ways of life through ecotourism. Thus an organizational approach to supporting local culture (as defined by the group) is an area for further research and exploration through future conversations and interviews. Reason for asking the question: As researchers, we noted that AWRTA is currently pursuing cultural aspects as part of its new Adventure Green Alaska program. Thus this is an area for potential strategic consideration for AWRTA as it refines its guidelines, works on its certification efforts and builds arguments through communications, lobbying efforts with first nations and the State of Alaska, and marketing. In the course of our literature review we noted wide attention to preserving native cultures, indigenous cultures and local ways of living and livelihoods as part of the ecotourism movement. For example, Riika Puhakka identifies four efforts as central to a solid certification model: 1) integrating conservation goals and philosophy into nature based tourism, 2) defending rights of local people, 3) stressing economic utilization of nature and accepting some tourism development as a means of strengthening conservation by demonstrating its economic and cultural value (Puhakka, 2009). Batta and Stronza, among others add the important element of developing a capacity to educate visitors about the intrinsic value of nature and the necessity of participation by host communities in attaining and enjoying sustainable economic benefits (Batta, 2006, Stronza, 2001). Have you met with customer support based on your membership in AWRTA? # r (respondents=32) e s p o The most common response to n d this question was "No" with e "Don't Know" as the second n t most common and "Yes" as s third. The commentary indicates that the belief among many of the respondents is that their clients do not know of AWRTA's existence nor the commitment members have taken to maintain ecotourism principles. Ideas from the research team: An indication of lack of knowledge among stakeholders is mirrored in the customer resistance question that followed it. This could provide an argument in 7
    • support of more marketing and efforts to drive increased paying membership to further support marketing. Secondarily, there is a possibility that perhaps AWRTA membership may have more to do with commitment to principles than a green business seal of approval, as the members are still committed to the project despite this perception and despite mixed levels of confidence about whether AWRTA is advancing business goals. There was once again positive commentary about Adventure Green Alaska and the Visit Wild Alaska website as a step in the right direction toward marketing the commitments made by members. Have you met with customer resistance based on your membership in AWRTA? (respondents=33) The most common response to this question was "No" with "Don't Know" as second most common and no respondent indicating a # r "Yes." One applicant commented e that AWRTA might have a s p negative association among some o in the business community. n d e The results on this question tend to n t indicate that respondents do not s generally believe membership in a "green" organization is hurting their business prospects in Alaska. Again, commentary left by respondents also indicates that AWRTA members do not believe their membership or their commitments made as part of AWRTA -- for example, commitment to ecotourism guidelines--are widely known. © Jason Wettstein 8
    • Has your business changed since you joined AWRTA? (respondents=13) Eleven of 30 respondents, or approximately 37 percent indicated improvements to their business practices because of membership in AWRTA. Examples include working to gain Green Star and Adventure Green Alaska certification, improving business processes, gaining motivation and ideas from colleagues in terms of cultural and ecological resource care and stewardship. Number of respondents Comments also reveal that among those not indicating change, it is because they believe an environmental ethic already existed in their business prior to joining AWRTA, and this ethic was instrumental in their decision to become a member of AWRTA. Member reports on "what supports ecotourism success in Alaska" (respondents=16) There were a wide variety of responses but among the most prevalent responses were indications of the following four themes (in order of prevalence of mention). 1. Awareness building of various sorts: marketing, consciousness raising, publicity 2. Societal change, including demand for ecotourism from consumers (or perhaps a redefinition of consumer as participant that does not consume in the sense of using up, but rather experiences nature). 3. Regulation and work to "green up" all tourism in Alaska 4. Creative, networked businesses and business relationships. Item 4 is particularly supported in the literature we reviewed in preparation for this study. For example, Frederico Neto sees community participation and community planning as essential to success in achieving tourism that sustains local environments and cultures (Neto, 2003). We note that this is also an essential goal mentioned on the AWRTA website. 9
    • Member reports on "what stands in the way of ecotourism success in Alaska” (respondents=19) There were a wide variety of responses but among the most prevalent responses were indications of the following four themes (in order of prevalence of mention). 1. Cruise industry influence: (high throughput industrial model of tourism, vertical integration, political influence). 2. The Alaska Travel Industry Association's lack of attention to ecotourism 3. Lack of State support for AWRTA (with comparison of support for ATIA) 4. Lack of marketing resources, specifically money but also access to newest marketing methods. Member reports on "how could promotion of ecotourism be improved by AWRTA" (respondents=20) Respondents focused on these four areas in order of prevalence. 1. Enhance marketing and visibility 2. Take stances on environmental issues and policy via advocacy and lobbying 3. Members made positive comments about the Visit Wild Alaska website 4. Clarify differences between ecotourism and industrial scale tourism. These items, and particularly item 4 indicate a desire to take on a community role in defining sustainable tourism. Alexandro Koutsouris, an academic contributor to the literature on ecotourism, advocates co-constructing definitions of sustainable tourism through participative, concerted action (Koutsouris, 2009). Items 2 and 4 in particular seem to be calls to engage in this collaborative process. 10
    • Cross-tab comparisons In addition to our work to examine total response to the survey, we ran cross-tabulations on businesses with fewer than ten employees (respondents =23) and compared this sub-population with the entire population (respondents =43). We also ran cross-tabulations on businesses with ten or more employees (respondents =4) and compared this sub-population with the total population (respondents =43). The equal to or more than ten employee business cross-tabulation (respondents =4) seems to present a significant stretch in terms of comparing and contrasting with the entire population given how few businesses fit this category. However, we felt the cross-tab was important to include in terms of possible hypothesis building because the small population presented some points of contrast with the entire survey response. The differences we found between cross-tabbed populations are summarized below: Businesses with fewer than ten employees (respondents =23) were more likely (40.9%) than the entire population (36.7%) to have changed their business practices as a result of membership in AWRTA. Fewer than ten employees Entire survey response Number of respondents Number of respondents 11
    • Businesses with ten or more employees (respondents =4) were more likely (75%) to indicate that AWRTA did not advance their business goals or did not advance them very well than the respondents in the entire population (42.9%). Ten or more employees Entire survey response Number of respondents Number of respondents Attached comments among the small group of businesses (cross-tabbed as businesses with ten or more employees) include lack of traceable customer referrals from AWRTA, a customer base from cruise ships (and a perception of anti-cruise ship bias) and need for more marketing. Likewise, 75% of these businesses were not very satisfied overall with AWRTA -- but half of these business thought that AWRTA advanced conservation goals "well" on the four point Likert scale (consisting of very well, well, not very well, not at all). We would like to re-emphasize that this cross-tabulation in particular only provides potential for formulating hypotheses. Given the small number of respondents (n=4) in this cross-tabbed population of businesses with ten or more employees, generalizations in regard to organizations with ten or more employees in the larger AWRTA membership should not be made without more data and exploration. How could AWRTA's ecotourism guidelines be improved? (respondents =14) In terms of the guidelines improvement question, responses (respondents =14) were at a relatively lower rate than other questions (which could indicate a possible lack of familiarity with the guidelines). Calls were made to be more inclusive in the guidelines (less restrictive in requirements for accepting members). There were also calls to take a stand (be more restrictive and more grading/measurement oriented). Calls for more clarity in guideline language were also present in three responses. Overall, the responses to the guidelines question indicated the need for further discussion. We also note that this guideline discussion may be occurring already or superseded by the evolution of the Adventure Green Alaska Certification program. 12
    • Conclusions A few conclusions seemed to stand out for emphasis as we worked our way through the survey responses. The respondents are not without criticism of AWRTA, but they value the organization. Supportive evaluations are particularly the case among small businesses, and particularly on measures of AWRTA's work toward advancing conservation. Many respondents still need to be convinced that membership in AWRTA advances their business goals. Advancing business goals may or may not be the primary motivator for members' participation in the organization, but it is one among the motivational factors. There is support for issue definition and taking positions on conservation/environmental stewardship issues in Alaska among respondents. There is recognition that both employee turnover and lack of resources has hurt AWRTA in the past. Members are calling for increased attention and results in terms of marketing benefits, sometimes while also recognizing a lack of financial resources at AWRTA. There is interest in and positive feelings for the Adventure Green Alaska certification and Visit Wild Alaska website. Respondents believed that a major opportunity and challenge for AWRTA and its membership is building consciousness of ecotourism among visitors to Alaska. 13
    • Ideas for Further Research Possible areas for further study of AWRTA have been mentioned in the paper, but additionally, one or more of the following questions would seem to be fruitful areas for further exploration through interviews with leadership and identified members who have expressed a willingness to engage in further post-survey contact: • How do organizations like AWRTA promote themselves in the ecotourism community? • What resources does AWRTA have to promote itself better in its community? • If stakeholders contribute ideas to better promote AWRTA’s organizational development and gains, does the organization have the resources to make this possible? • What is the most effective way to promote organizational gains to stakeholders in the ecotourism community? • What do the stakeholders of AWRTA want or need to better create awareness in their community, and among customers? Acknowledgements We are excited about AWRTA as an organization and believe in the potential of its members to create positive change and enhance an ethic of conservation in Alaska. We would particularly like to thank Executive Director, Hanna Waterstrat for her support of our project, advocacy on our behalf with the Board and membership, confidence in supporting the need to tap the ideas, perspectives, and evaluations of membership, as well as her efforts to help us reach members via distribution to the AWRTA listserv. Questions or comments The authors provided this analysis on a pro-bono basis as a for-credit project in the context of a yearlong graduate school course, Analytical Techniques for Public Service at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The project is an essential part of the requirements for attainment of a Master of Public Administration. Particularly because it is an opportunity to enhance our learning and build our capabilities, we welcome your questions and comments on the findings or process. If you have questions or wish to seek further clarification on a particular point, please call Jason Wettstein at (360) 451- 3167 or Danny O'Neill at (360) 704-8710. We can also be reached via email at jasonwettstein@yahoo.com or onedan27@evergreen.edu. 14
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