Travis Heggie knows what he’s talking about. It’s just that some folks in the travel and tourism industry don’t want to hear what he’s saying.
Despite a job title that connotes adventure and exploration, Heggie, a University of North Dakota assistant professor of recreation and tourism studies, is making a name for himself nationally as an authority on the pitfalls of travel.
“Yeah, it’s perceived as all play and leisure, but there’s a lot more to it,” Heggie says from his first-floor office in Gillette Hall. “Tourism is an economic powerhouse. There are whole countries totally dependent on it and environmental conservation movements supported by it.”
And it comes with its own set of hidden risks, he adds.
Tsunamis. Lava flows. Rip currents. Sand dune collapses. Boating accidents. Car crashes. Blunt-force trauma brought on because tourists don’t pay attention while videotaping. As director of UND’s Great Plains Injury Prevention Research Initiative, Heggie has heard it all, and he’s got the pictures to prove it.
Some travel destination managers aren’t thrilled by the message, however.
“They know if you get branded as an unsafe tourism spot — good luck overcoming that image,” Heggie said.
But before you call Heggie the ivory tower prince of paranoia or the fearmonger of fun, it’s important to understand he has worked in the trenches in one of the more lethal vacation hot spots on the planet.
A former eruption duty ranger, Heggie has memories of carrying people as young as 2 off lava flows in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as tourists young and old, ill-prepared for the perilous environment that confronted them.
If his graphic details about the human costs aren’t enough to seize attention, his research into the financial bottom line grabs you by the throat. And state and federal policymakers have started to take notice.
On average, the National Park Service spends about $6 million annually on search and rescue operations. In addition, the federal government has paid out as much as $60 million yearly for injury-related legal claims filed by tourists.
Those figures are only the reported federal costs and don’t take into account the share spent by local agencies on search missions. Nor does it account for the cost of investigating legal claims, what Heggie calls the “true tort cost.”
Heggie wrote his dissertation on the dangerous and costly interface between tourists and the Hawaiian lava flows. He documented how he and his colleagues in the Park Service were able to reduce tourist injuries 80 percent by working with the local hospitality industry, encouraging simple preventive measures and pushing subtle reminders on “viewing lava safely.”
As a result of his dissertation and his previous experience as a park ranger, Heggie was selected to be the National Park Service’s first-ever Public Risk Management Specialist and Tort Claims Officer in 2004. He compiled the first cost analysis on how much the service was paying out in tort claims.
“They hadn’t realized how big of an issue they had on their hands,” Heggie said.
Today at UND, Heggie is working with governments and the public to prevent tourism-related injuries, and the legal claims that can result from them, before they happen.
“The whole point is that we need to promote safe recreation and safe tourism,” he said. “The best time to get people the safety message is when they are planning the trip online, before they leave the house.”
One of Heggie’s first big warning salvos was published in the research journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. The paper detailed the number of search and rescue operations in Utah’s National Park units over a five-year period (2001 to 2005), including 79 fatalities. It also touched on the cost of rescuing lost or injured tourists nationwide.
The paper was a direct hit as far as media exposure was concerned. It was repeated in hundreds of media outlets around the world and netted Heggie at least one national television interview.
His findings have spurred Utah to seek creative ways to offset search and rescue costs. About 8 million people visit Utah’s national parks each year.
There are only a handful of other people in the world who specialize in tourism safety and risk prevention. They all know each other and often collaborate on projects.
“What a niche we’ve created,” Heggie said. “We are making waves. All of the stuff we submit is taking off and getting noticed.”