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Mountain Tourism Sector Reconvened to Explore New Directions

Mountain Tourism Sector Reconvened to Explore New Directions - TRAVELINDEXAndorra la Vella, Andorra, May 2, 2024 / TRAVELINDEX / The 12th World Congress on Snow, Mountain and Wellness Tourism was held in later March in Andorra, attended by over 400 delegates representing 16 nationalities. This year the theme was “Mountainlikers: Sustainability and Wellbeing, the Keys to Mountain Tourism,” which was live-streamed and can now be viewed on the UN Tourism YouTube channel.

Andorra is one of the eight smallest countries in Europe, yet the small country takes big actions. In 1995, Andorra joined the UNWTO (now UN Tourism) and, subsequently, in 1998, organized the first World Congress of Snow and Mountain Tourism jointly with the UNWTO. Since then, the congress has been held every two years (with the interruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic). Seven Andorran parishes take turns hosting the Congress, and this year, the parish Encomp took the helm.

Sustainability at the core of the sector

Sustainability was the foundation for all discussions, an issue even more crucial under the Andorran magnifier. Surrounded by the Pyrenees Mountain Range, Andorra has more than 90% of its surface unspoiled, but climate change is severely threatening its ecosystem.

H.E. Mr. Xavier Espot Zamora, Prime Minister of Andorra, addressed the Congress. With 83,000 inhabitants, Andorra welcomed 9.3 million visitors and 12 million overnight stays. Tourism contributes a staggering 50%+ of GDP. However, “Andorra needs premium tourism to better balance quantity and quality and to ensure the economic benefits are not diminished by negative natural and social impacts.” Said Xavier Espot. As an example, Andorran’s new tourist tax was designed to improve the quality of the sector. He proudly stated that 90% of Andorra’s territory continued to be protected by the Burne Convention, the European Landscape Convention, and the Convention of Biological Diversity, and Andorra was a candidate to become the first country fully recognized as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Mrs. Natalia Bayona, Executive Director of UN Tourism, stated that the mountains were homes for 1100 million people worldwide, and mountain tourism was responsible for 9–16% of international arrivals. With climate change, social and economic inequality, and geopolitical issues, “mountain tourism has unique opportunities to move forward with a positive impact on people and nature,” and “the Congress fits well within the framework of the U.N. declaration of 2023-2027: Five Years of Action for the Development of Mountain Regions.” Bayona cited Andorra as an example of new tourism investment and new projects, all of which had the amazing power to add value to the economy. She concluded her congress addresses by saying, “Together, the sector will make sure that mountain tourism is a key driver for sustainable tourism.”

Encamp Mayor, Hon. Mrs. Laura Mas Barrionuevo, stated that “the sustainability of our parish and the well-being of our tourists are the cornerstones of our tourism strategy. In Encamp, we are clear that natural resources are not infinite, and we must give them optimal use and maximum care.” While Andorra had become the international benchmark for high-level professional sporting events and activities, she stated that to sustain all the livelihood and well-being, Andorra needed to protect water, snow, mountains, and all the fundamental elements. The congress topics, including sustainability tourism, AI, mountain tourism, sports tourism, etc., led to responsible tourism.

Surrounding the sustainability issue, several sessions addressed various challenges and strategies, including Get Inspired: Sustainability Is a Way, How to Boost the Growth of Premium Tourism in Mountain Areas All Year Around, and Emerging Tourism Products: A Trendy Phenomenon or a Structural Change. They focused on building resilience for mountain communities and preserving the local heritage. They also shared Best Practices and urged the stakeholders to achieve a balance between the environment, economic growth, and society. Speakers encouraged the sector to engage more collaboration and to learn from each other.

Strong partnerships to address industry’s needs

To continue to focus on the industry’s needs, Sandra Carvao, Director of Tourism Market Intelligence and Competitiveness at UN Tourism, conducted an interactive session to share information and gather audience’s feedback. Through the Mentimeter app, a series of questions were proposed live, and immediate responses were collected. Among many questions was the Traveler Profile – the top answers were couples/active/wellness, solo/active/adventure, groups/active/adventure; for the question on strategies of Fighting Seasonality, the top answers were diversifying activities, customers focusing on high value; for Future Discussion Topics, the audience named sustainability, respecting and protecting local traditions, environment protection, educating travelers, training staff, and building new infrastructure, etc.

A high-level panel was attended by H.E. Mr. Jordi Torres Falcó, Minister of Tourism and Trade of Andorra; H.E. Mrs. Rosana Morillo Rodríguez, Secretary of State for Tourism of Spain; and Mrs. Alessandra Priante, President of the National Tourism Agency (ENIT) of Italy. Moderated by Natalia Bayona, the speakers addressed policies and strategies for conquering climate change and seasonality, balancing depopulated regions vs. over-tourism, tourism investment in innovative projects and products, technology improvement, etc. Speakers pointed out that some strong innovations evolved from remarkable partnerships with the private sector. Europe accounts for 54% of the tourism volume, so by sharing their perspective, these European countries helped enlighten the attendees with useful insights and experiences.

Jordi Torres stated that Andorra hoped to win the Alpine World Ski Championships 2029 bid. To become a better all-season mountain tourism destination, Andorra relied on AI and new technology to help with innovation. Rosana Morillo stated that of the 83 million arrivals to Spain, 11 million came for sports tourism, which generated 17 billion euros. Being a top country for tourism investment, she shared how the Spanish government worked together with the private sector in tourism investment. Italy will host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games with a 4-billion-euro economic impact. Priante stressed the importance of sustaining the long-term benefits of the Games. Additionally, mountains were near the cities, so tourism development should be a cohesive effort in developing municipalities.

The industry is seeing broader partnerships worldwide working towards better sustainable development. A joint project between National Geographic and Andorra Tourism to produce a documentary, Andorra al natural, the environment where ideas germinate, was presented. Javier Corso, a Nat Geo explorer, introduced how six teams of international experts and the Andorran locals experienced Andorra as a sports destination, wellness destination, and premier destination, respectively, and provided perspectives on how to improve tourists’ experiences while preserving Andorra’s pristine natural beauty.

Wellness tourism a major opportunity

Newly added to the congress title this year was wellness tourism. Tourism and wellness are two multi-trillion-dollar industries, and it’s a fast-growing segment that represents huge opportunities. The Global Wellness Institute measured wellness tourism expenditures at $720 billion in 2019, and it further reported the sector’s accelerated expansion post-pandemic.

In 2023, the Hilton trends report stated that overall wellness remains a priority for travelers, as 50% of respondents seek travel experiences that align with their wellness goals and priorities, addressing the mind, body, and spirit. It revealed “rest and relaxation” to be a top driver for travel decisions across generations in 2024. A Hilton survey found that “travelers will reduce other areas of personal spending to prioritize… Their No. 1 reason to travel in 2024 will be to rest and recharge, with more emphasis on sleep than ever before.”

Indeed, the trend of sleep tourism is emerging, and it’s predicted to expand to $400 billion in the next four years. Many hotels move quickly to restructure the suites and rooms with new sleep-aide AI tools, beds, music, massage tools, etc. These specialty suites are selling at premium rates.

The Congress allocated a significant amount of time for in-depth discussions about wellness tourism and health tourism. Speakers represented the public and private sectors, including the Ministry of Tourism of Greece, the European Spas, Health Tourism Worldwide based in Hungary, the CHENOT GROUP of Switzerland, and Iconic Andorra. Discussions were geared toward a better understanding of the added value of visitors’ experiences in the mountain territories. Mountains have healing effects, contributing to psychological well-being and general health. And it became clear that health and wellness tourism is not only a growing trend but also a new way of understanding tourism.

Keynote speaker Alice Morrison, an adventurer, author, and TV presenter, addressed this trend among other topics. She pointed out that the fastest-growing segment for adventure tourism was women aged 45 and older. Intrepid Travel found this demographic grew by 83% yearly. An Intrepid Travel survey with 2000 British women also found that 68% of the 45+ women group listed travel as a top priority, and they wanted soft adventure. Morrison urged the industry to respond quickly by including the whole wellness journey in its offerings.

Caldea of Andorra fits this trend perfectly. The 18-floor-tall spa resort is the largest spa in Southern Europe, featuring indoor and outdoor thermal pools, saunas, spa treatments, etc. With a 30-year operation, Caldea can accommodate guests of all ages for a full scale of wellness experiences. Set in front of the magnificent mountain foothills, Caldea is an architectural beauty, shining under the sun and lighted up at night. Some congress delegates skied during the day and soaked in the Caldea thermal spa with a body massage at night. Andorra is an ideal all-season sports and wellness tourism destination.

Research report to aid the sector

A research report, Understanding and Quantifying Mountain Tourism, released in 2023, was presented in detail by Michel Julian, Senior Programme Officer at UN Tourism, and Enric Martínez, Director of Pas Grau International (Andorra). The 80-page and seven-section report was jointly developed by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Mountain Partnership Secretariat, and the UNWTO.

The report stated that the mountains were home to 15% of the world´s population and host about half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. 150 countries identified as mountain destinations as per the existence of mountains accounted for 87% of international tourist arrivals. “Walking and hiking,” “nature tourism,” and “rural tourism” were the predominant activities in mountain destinations, according to the report survey.

The report outlines a broader framework for global mountain tourism, which identifies practical issues and common challenges faced by the sector. The report’s details included how to understand mountain tourism (such as visitors’ motivation, etc.), the estimated global and regional mountain tourism shares, trends and challenges, case studies of four countries, and recommendations. The need for capturing more data was also pointed out.

The report is a comprehensive piece of work for policymakers, researchers, and business practitioners. The full report is available for view and download at: https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/epdf/10.18111/97”89284424023

Building human capital

Tourism is a sector of human capital. Focusing on people means focusing on teams, clients, and the community. Andorra is the host of the UN Tourism Academy, which offers more than 250 programs to over 40 countries. A congress session on education and training hit many key points, including the critical role of equipping human capital with essential knowledge and skills to thrive in a digitalized world; the three-party partnerships with the public + private sectors and academia to drive for better data collection and research analysis to provide a solid foundation for policy and decision-making. Such a partnership would best serve the business world; On a personal level, monitoring small progress and engaging in 1% daily enhancement could lead to a major improvement over time.

The timely topic, the importance of AI was discussed to encourage the adaptation of the use of AI tools. A nine-element model of “Sustainable Tourism Strategy Powered by AI” was shared which includes data centralization, sustainability dashboards, dynamic pricing, etc. AI will help improve accuracy, prediction and data-analysis, etc., therefore to improve overall efficiency and productivity for a business.

Learnings beyond the conference floor

Delegates participated in various social events and continued to network and learn. A welcome dinner event for VIP guests was held at 3 Estanys restaurant near Grau Roig, featuring traditional Andorran dishes and singing artists and music. The 100-person crowd also rode piste-basher along the winding snow road and watched the Encamp-based professional dance company, Esbart Sant Romà, performing a small sketch of the ÀNIMA CLARA show.

Tailor-made tours offered a taste of Encamp’s rich tourism resources as well as its vibrant business activities carried out in the 12,000-person community. Among the many sites, the Ethnographic Museum Casa Cristo is a three-level stone/wood house lived by a family in the early 20th century with well-kept original furniture, household items, and agricultural tools; the Sant Romà de Les Bons was built in the 11th century directly on the bare rocks of the hilltop, with an amazing view overlooking the valley, where the ancient and modern settlements mixed together in harmony; and EI Pas de la Casa, a small mountain town, also one of the highest in Europe, boasts a premium skiing resort in Andorra along with a vibrant retail sector. Delegates gained appreciation for Andorrans’ grit and survival wisdom over their long history.

Fabiana Gorassini, Head of the Tourist Information Centre of Sauris Zahre of Italy, while reflecting on the fragile mountain ecosystem, specifically appraised Encamp’s effort in preserving the old village: “There was a certain balance; practically, the new part did not disturb the characteristic traditional houses, and they were clever about that.” Gorassini’s own Italian village became the Best Tourism Village of UN Tourism in 2022. She commented that, being part of the BTV network, her village gained world visibility and benefited from the best practices shared by this worldwide circuit. Attending this congress and being enlightened by new tourism trends, wellness tourism, product development, training, etc., helped her community identify new ways to improve.

The overall congress provided delegates with a full scope of exchange and learning experiences. The interactions and networking opportunities added value for all. For business practitioners, especially, the takeaways included new ideas and tools for business development. The 12th Congress can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=12th+congress+on+snow+and+moutain%2C+wellness+toruism.

The 13th World Congress on Snow, Mountain and Wellness Tourism will be held in 2026. The Andorran host parish will be Ordino, a Best Tourism Village awarded by UN Tourism in 2023.


Haybina Hao reporting for Travelindex on travel, agritourism, adventure travel, destinations.

Haybina is an international travel industry journalist and reports in both Chinese and English. Linkedin