Adventure tourism brings its own lions to the legal arena whether it’s dangling from a zip-line racing down the face of a mountain, white-knuckle rafting through a churning river, or getting up close to local grizzly bears.
“There is an element of risk that is integral and inherent in the adventure tourism experience,” says Jon Heshka, an associate professor of sports law at Thompson Rivers University’s law school.
It’s that risk element that attracts tourism clients and challenges owners of such companies to determine “how do we reasonably mitigate the risk and bring it to an acceptable level,” says Heshka, who teaches what he believes is the only sports law course in Canada focusing on adventure and extreme sports.
Mitigating legal liability for individuals who want an element of risk may seem like a legal conundrum, but it’s a growing concern. According to Heshka, Canada has 5,000 adventure (hard, soft, and ecotourism) companies operating today. It’s an even larger issue internationally as more clients stampede to adventure tourism. A benchmark Adventure Tourism Market Report consumer study, undertaken by The George Washington University in partnerships with the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Xola Consulting, pegged spending by consumers mainly in North America, Latin America, and Europe on adventure tourism (excluding airfare or special gear) at a whopping $89 billion in 2009.
Heshka brings hands-on experience in managing risk.
“My background is in adventure tourism and extreme sports, and through that I had exposure to incidents and lawsuits,” he says.
The international group of lawyers dealing with managing risks in this field is tight-knit and on most days, he’s in touch with colleagues throughout the world discussing cases or some aspect of sports law.
And it’s a world Heshka has kicked about in, en route to earning five degrees (bachelors in zoology and political science plus a bachelor and master in education and a law degree). He played semi-pro volleyball in Brazil and worked as a climbing guide and co-ordinated search and rescues for the Justice Institute of B.C. as well as co-authored the 2003 Public Avalanche Safety Program Review for the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
He managed risk and sales in the United States for Petzl, a leader in climbing equipment. He’s climbed mid-mountains in the Himalayas and Andes and throughout Europe as well as Alaska and Canada’s highest peak Mt. Logan.
He’s been called as an expert witness in adventure tourism risk management plus search and rescue for clients that have included the U.S. Department of Justice in Hawaii. Heshka has also consulted for the Northwest Territories government, U.S. National Parks Service, Calgary’s Board of Education, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Not surprisingly, he’s written the book on risk management in adventure travel. The text was co-authored with Algonquin College professor Jeff Jackson, who specializes in adventure risk management. “We had talked about partnering on a book over the years and we decided to do it.” It’s now used in Heshka’s course and elsewhere. Also, copies of Managing Risk: Systems Planning for Outdoor Adventure Programs have gone to law schools in New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, and England.
“We have taken a systems-based approach to risk management,” he says of the text. It provides seven different perspectives in mitigating risk and preventing situations that can lead to litigation, including systems equipment, client information, program planning, organizational planning, business management, human resources, and crisis management. “What we have done is synthesized the things and how they affect and impact one another,” he said.
Heshka brings both the business and legal aspects of outdoor adventure programs to his teaching. He’s a cross-appointment dividing his time between the university’s Adventure Studies Department, where he teaches courses in business administration, risk management, and emergency management, and the law school. His sports law course (which also deals with other aspects besides outdoor adventure) is open to second-year students and he is hopeful that by 2014, there will be third-year course added.
“We are trying to build the entire program,” he says, adding he would like to see the Kamloops, B.C., university host symposiums and conventions on adventure tourism and their related legal aspects so they could draw in high-profile speakers to add to the discussion.