The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) defines adventure travel as “a type of tourism, involving exploration or travel with perceived (and possibly actual) risk, and potentially requiring specialized skills and physical exertion.”

A broad definition that covers a lot of travel and tourism in Vietnam: almost anything outside a hotel, cruise, beach, museum, or cooking class is adventure travel.

It might be obvious that rock climbing in Cat Ba, trekking in Sapa, or caving in Phong Nha would be adventure travel. What about a speed boat trip to the Cham Islands? Adventure travel. A cycling tour through Ninh Binh? Adventure travel. A scooter ride up the Hai Van Mountain pass? Adventure travel. Why? Because all these activities involve some level of risk, physical activity or skills.

Caving in Phong Nha is one of many adventure travel activities (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

For example, the boat operator for the speed boat trip to Cham Islands needs special boat handling skills. And let’s not forget that there’s a risk of drowning in case of an accident.

So what are the International Standards for Adventure Travel? In my work I have come across five relevant sets of standards:

  • ISO 21101:2014 Adventure tourism – Safety management systems – Requirements,
  • ISO/TR 21102:2013 Adventure tourism – Leaders – Personnel competence,
  • ISO 21103:2014 Adventure tourism – Information for participants.
  • Adventure Travel Trade Association – International Adventure Travel Guide Qualification and Performance Standard
  • British Standard BS 8848: a specification for the provision of visits, fieldwork, expeditions and adventurous activities outside the UK

That’s a daunting number of documents, some of which might cost upwards of $100 to download, and then much more to get certified. It should also be noted that these are voluntary standards.

Disclaimer: before going any further I should point out that this article is about international standards, not Vietnamese standards or Vietnamese law, which I won’t be commenting on in this article.


Trekking in Sapa or Mu Cang Chai also counts as adventure travel (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

Let’s look at what these standards have in common and what they actually mean for your operations. At their core these standards are all about making sure you have systems in place to manage risk. This can be broken down into five main areas:

  1. Performing risk assessments to identify major risks and hazards that might be encountered on your tours and activities.
  2. Putting safety management systems into place to reduce the identified risks to an acceptable level (i.e. zero, or very low chance of occurring).
  3. Providing participants with specific information before the trip so that they know what risks are involved, what safety measures they have to follow, what to bring and what to wear. It is vital that they are properly prepared and have accepted the risks they are undertaking.*
  4. Ensuring that guides and staff are properly trained, qualified, and that they are experienced to conduct the adventure activities that they are leading.
  5. Documenting all of the above so you can demonstrate to an auditor, inspector, or judge that these safety procedures were followed.

*Marketing tip: there’s no such thing as TMI (too much information) when it comes to tour and activity descriptions and pre-trip information. More details are more convincing.

So why bother? Well hopefully you are in the tourism business because you care about your guests and want them to have a safe trip. But there are also other advantages:

  • Your guests and staff will be safer. This is the #1 priority.
  • Clients book the right trip for their fitness, experience and abilities – they turn up better prepared and aware of the risks.
  • In case of an accident – you can show it was an accident and not down to negligence. But hopefully you avoided the accident in the first place.
  • There’s a marketing advantage – guests are more likely to book if they are confident your activities are safe.

The decision to seek certification would depend on the nature of the activities you are providing: the riskier the activities, the more important it is to seek certification.

Certification means your systems will be audited, and any gaps or shortcomings are identified and resolved in the process. You’ll be able to say that you are certified in your information packs and marketing materials, which will appeal to potential outbound tour operators, especially if they work to the same standards. The decision to seek certification would depend on the nature of the activities you are providing: the riskier the activities, the more important it is to seek certification.

At the very least, think of these international standards as a framework for best practice and start to implement an international standard safety management system now.