A Survey of an Ecotourism Membership Organization in Alaska
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.
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
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.
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
Results from our survey are illustrated and reported below.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
How well has
A majority of respondents
indicated that AWRTA is
goals (47.2% indicated
“well” and 13.9% very
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
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
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
How well has AWRTA advanced your business goals?
AWRTA respondents provided mixed
reviews in terms of its fulfillment of
The most common response to this
question was "well," (respondents =14,
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
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
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.
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
The most common response to n
this question was "No" with e
"Don't Know" as the second n
most common and "Yes" as
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
Has your business changed since you joined AWRTA?
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"
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,
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.
Member reports on "what stands in the way of ecotourism success in
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
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.
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
We also ran cross-tabulations on
businesses with ten or more
employees (respondents =4) and
compared this sub-population with
the total population (respondents
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
Fewer than ten employees Entire survey response
Number of respondents Number of respondents
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.
A few conclusions seemed to stand out for emphasis as we worked our way through the survey
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
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
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.
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
• What do the stakeholders of AWRTA want or need to better create awareness in their
community, and among customers?
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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