Supporting Sustainable Mountain Bike Tourism and Rural Destination Development
Ride Albania Mountain Biking
- Invest in your destinations. The quality of your trips depends on the people and places you bring your guests to. So consider destination engagement a part of your priorities as a tourism business.
- Don’t wait for help. Even in developing countries that need financial support from donor agencies, depending only on external funding can lead to a mentality that suppresses local creativity.
- Foster the “good side” of tourism. Focus on maximising the positive impact of tourism, by engaging and working closely with communities in bottom-up destination development.
- Trade, not (just) aid. Deliver benefits through fair business exchange, which requires relationships built on mutual trust and respect, with the understanding that building such relationships takes time, and that they don’t always work out as intended.
- Profit and growth are not the only measures of success. Work on making your destination stronger, and support local communities in navigating the world of travel and tourism.
Supporting Grassroots Destination Development
Tobi Gessler, a Swiss national with a background in the international development aid sector, founded the company Ride Albania Mountain Biking in 2015, combining his passions for mountain biking and for the beautiful nature, people and culture of rural Albania.
As a long-time resident of Albania, Tobi considers himself a part of the community, and has dedicated efforts to support destination development at the local level, helping promote mountain bike tourism in Albania and the Balkan region through various destination engagement efforts in trail development, training, technical support and local partnerships.
For emerging destinations, the line between tourism’s positive and negative impacts can sometimes be very thin. Through his experience in the development sector, Tobi has seen many unfilled promises and thus views the idea of “tourism as a tool for development” rather critically.
However, it’s also definitely true that tourism can bring positive benefits to local communities. So that’s what motivates Ride Albania; to foster and expand on the “good side” of tourism. And engaging communities in bottom-up destination development is among the most important ways of achieving the aim.
Collaborative Tourism Development Beyond the Talk
Ride Albania Mountain Biking is a social and ecological business with two key areas of core competencies: offering small-group guided mountain bike tours as practitioners; and supporting trail and destination development as development experts.
It’s not a simple task to balance and combine these two areas, especially as a small company. However, it’s this combination of theory (destination and trail development) and practice (tour operation) that also allows the company to deliver higher quality experiences. So in this sense, investing in local destination engagement efforts is a way to strengthen business.
In developing countries, tourism development is often financed heavily by international donor agencies. While this kind of support is much needed in destinations like Albania, a major challenge with the donor-supported development model is its bureaucratic nature. For example, to be eligible for funding, it’s often necessary for a local partner to have a nice office and to have enough staff capacity to fulfil often arduous reporting requirements.
When the system is designed to value bureaucracy over tangible and practical assets such as knowledge of the trade and on-the-ground experiences, it’s hard to make any meaningful change, even though everyone likes to talk about the need for more cooperation between the donor/public and private sector.
It is with this partly-critical view of the reality of destination development that Ride Albania seeks to put its expertise to work, both in supporting the local industry and in providing small-group guided mountain bike tours to cycling enthusiasts.
Development through Business Relationships Build on Trust
When talking about working with local destination partners or supporting local communities, in the development world, the local stakeholders are often viewed as “beneficiaries” who receive “help”. Ride Albania rejects this mentality, and focuses instead on fair business exchange. Positive development should be based on all partners seeing eye to eye, and committing to mutual trust and respect.
Building such relationships takes time, and it does not always work. For example, the Ride Albania team identifies and works closely with a local family with an attitude of hospitality, and slowly cultivates the relationship which can over time lead to successfully establishing a rural guest house that becomes a solid source of income for the family.
So far, Ride Albania has collaborated with local hosts to successfully build and bring to market two such rural guest houses.
Even when everything is approached carefully, it’s inevitable that some relationships do not work out as intended. It’s important to accept that, and have the courage to discontinue efforts when partnerships fail, for example due to fundamental differences in key values and directions.
On the other hand, investments in relationship building can pay off in the long term, because these rural guest houses and community hosts enable Ride Albania to take international guests to off-the-beaten-path destinations where they find true human connections.
Wider Impact on Destination Development
Ride Albania’s persistence on community- and collaboration-focused business and development approach has become a kind of “role model” for other local adventure or cycling tourism operators. Those who may previously have assumed it was not possible to earn a living from tourism were inspired by seeing Tobi work on and stick with the way he ran Ride Albania for many years, and started to realise maybe there was something promising and worth pursuing in the field of travel and tourism.
The fact that Ride Albania was able to attract inbound adventure markets may have been the push that many local players needed to try working in this sector themselves.
Beyond the direct impacts on rural host communities and extended opportunities for local businesses, Ride Albania’s destination engagement efforts have led to greater awareness of Albania as a destination and the potential of tourism in the Balkan region in general, connecting these regions to the international tourism markets.
For Ride Albania, a social business focused on building great memories for guests and creating positive opportunities for hosts, the country and the region as a whole becoming stronger and more attractive to adventure-minded travellers is a great sign of success. And this success does not have to mean the company is profiting from the growth. On the contrary, Ride Albania is intentional about remaining “small and beautiful”, with a belief in the positive power of the market; clients will pay good money for quality products.
Tough Questions and Some Solutions
One key reason for the “small and beautiful” strategy is the ever-present challenges with securing local workers. This is a problem that continues to face all tourism players across the region, for all levels of employment, and even for prospective trainees. Rather than pursuing growth in an unsustainable way (which would mean compromising on quality and social impact commitment), Ride Albania focuses on investing in local destination development, while maintaining a small operation for the time being.
A big part of the reason why local workers are shying away from jobs in tourism is the seasonal nature of this industry. There is a wide-spread mentality among those who do work in tourism that they should “work like crazy and make a lot of money in the summer” so they can survive without working in the winter. This is not a particularly sustainable or responsible way of managing work-life balance. Ride Albania instead encourages and enables employees to work in other sectors in the winter, so that they can remain productive and fulfilled during the winter months, as well as to avoid pushing them to “work like crazy” in the summer.
Another way of dealing with the seasonality challenge is trying to extend the season with special offers and new products. While this is an important aspect of Ride Albania’s destination development work, it’s not an easy problem to solve, and there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.