Outdoor Adventure Safety Regulations: A Case Study From Maharashtra

Government Regulation Can Enhance Outdoor Safety Outcomes—If Well Designed and Implemented




Introduction


In August 2021, the Government of Maharashtra, a state in India, issued a Government Resolution on adventure tourism, prescribing regulations for safety of outdoor adventure activities. This is a big step for India and its second most populous state, Maharashtra.


We’ll take a look at the regulations, their development over several years, and how they might influence risk management in outdoor adventure programs.


We’ll also look at similar regulations across India and around the world, and how regulations may—or may not—influence outdoor safety. And finally, we’ll explore how regulations fit into the broader picture of good safety management in outdoor, adventure, wilderness and travel programs.



Adventure Tourism Activity Policy, Maharashtra


The adventure tourism regulation now in force in Maharashtra covers land-, air-, and water-based "organized adventure activities" “where there is a clear distinction between organizers and the participants and where responsibility of safety of participants is primarily transferred to organizers.”


Adventure sports competitions, school programs, and activities in nature sanctuaries regulated by the Forest Department are exempt.


Activity organizers are required to inform participants about the “adversities” that may be encountered and “care to be taken,” a risk communication that can help individuals give informed consent to participation.


Safety procedures such as providing directional maps, sirens at risky spots, and safety nets are required.


The regulation prohibits traffic hindrance, and betting is prohibited at the place of the activity. Restrictions on firearms and explosives are also described.


Adequate insurance coverage for the activities is required.


The Government Regulation, or GR, requires adventure tourism operators to take part in a two-step registration procedure.


First, organizers apply for a Temporary Registration Certificate from the Directorate of Tourism, good for one year. During this year, registration holders must acquire the trained staff, certified equipment, and other safety infrastructure necessary to meet detailed requirements outlined in safety guidelines (applicable to their respective adventure activities) from those attached to the regulation.


Organizers then have 18 months from the time the regulation came into force to obtain a final registration certificate. To obtain the final certificate, organizations must meet the requirements outlined in the safety guidelines, and may need to successfully pass a site inspection. The certificate is good for three years. An annual report must be provided to the government during this time.


Those who violate the regulations may be fined up to Rs.25,000/- (25,000 Indian rupees is approximately USD $335), have their equipment and office sealed, and be subject to criminal penalties. Violators may have their registration certificate canceled; the Director of Tourism may “blacklist” them, banning them from conducting adventure tourism activities in the state.


Trekking in the Western Ghats, Maharashtra


The Government Is Required to Provide Support


In addition to setting requirements for adventure tourism operators, the GR requires the government to provide certain support to the adventure tourism sector.


Maharashtra’s Tourism Department is required to create an Action Plan to provide equipment, training and financial assistance to support volunteer rescue groups to conduct rescue operations.


The Department will also establish a training centre for adventure tourism activities on land, air and water.


A state-level committee for adventure tourism is formed, including individuals from various state agencies and outside experts in land-, air- and water-based tourism activities. The group will develop incident investigation procedures, support promotion of adventure tourism, and otherwise advance adventure tourism in Maharashtra.


A divisional committee with government officials and external adventure tourism experts is formed. This group performs on-site inspections and conducts incident reviews.


Finally, an “Adventure Tourism Activity Cell” is created by the regulation. This also is composed of government officials and outside adventure tourism experts. The cell makes decisions on granting registration certificates, recommends outside adventure tourism experts to sit on the state-level and divisional committees, and grants star-ratings to registered Adventure Tourism Activity Organizers.


The full text of the GR, translated into English by the Maha Adventure Council, is available here; the official version in Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra, is here, and also available on the Maharashtra government website.


A Brief Analysis of the Regulation


The regulation is less than a year old, and experience will demonstrate its strengths and opportunities for improvement. However, the regulation is promising, and appears to be a significant step forward in advancing safety and quality of outdoor programs in Maharashtra, which offers mountain ranges, coastline, rivers and forests ready for exploration.


Loopholes

Gaps in regulatory coverage can greatly influence a regulation’s effectiveness. School-based outdoor education programs, sports competitions like adventure races, and safaris in Forest Department wildlife sanctuaries are all exempt from the GR’s requirements.


However, there is precedent for excluding school and non-commercial entities from government regulations on adventure activities.


In New Zealand, schools are exempted from the Health and Safety at Work (Adventure Activities) Regulations 2016, which also exempts certain clubs and associations, among other carve-outs.


In the UK, schools are also exempted from the Adventure Activities Licensing requirements, which also excludes non-profit voluntary associations.


Likewise, the Swiss government's 2019 regulations on safety in outdoor adventure activities (in French) apply only to activities "offered on a professional basis," and exempts nonprofit clubs and associations.


Swiss outdoor safety regulations


These New Zealand, British and Swiss regulations also exclude certain outdoor adventure activities from coverage, whether due to a perception of lower inherent risk, lobbying by special interests during the drafting process, or for other reasons.


Adventure activities, if not covered by this GR, may however be regulated otherwise. Activities in Tiger Reserves and other Forest Department areas, for example, are subject to Forest Department guidelines. The safety guidelines attached to the GR note that in India, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s sport climbing competitions follow guidelines aligned with the rules of the International Federation of Sport Climbing.


Maharashtra wildlife


What is Acceptable Risk?

One of the issues with which regulators--and adventure providers--must grapple is deciding what is an acceptable level of risk.


The GR, like any good regulation, is a dynamic document. We can expect that the issue of quantifying acceptable risk may be further developed in future revisions of the GR.


Similarly, the current English-language and unofficial translation of the original Marathi GR is undergoing a revision process that is expected to enhance clarity on this topic.


How have other regulators addressed the issue of acceptable risk?


The UK's health and safety system, as outlined in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, that nation’s primary occupational health and safety legislation, requires risks to be reduced to a level as low as reasonably practicable, abbreviated ALARP.


New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 uses essentially the same standard, using the synonymous term SFAIRP, so far as is reasonably practicable.


Australia’s Work Health & Safety Act 2011 likewise requires protection from risks so far as is reasonably practicable.


Site Inspection

Application of the on-site inspection discussed in the GR can increase the likelihood that adventure tourism operators will conform to safety standards. While it’s fairly easy to provide documents stating one conforms to risk management procedures, it’s harder to hide deficits from a skilled and impartial third-party observer on site.


Other safety legislation adopts an on-site inspection as a requirement. For instance, New Zealand’s Safety Audit Standard for Adventure Activities requires adventure operators to pass an external safety review, including observations of practice.


That said, auditors must be knowledgeable in how to conduct thorough audits, understand outdoor safety standards deeply, and be fully impartial. This is a relatively high bar, and it may take some time for a suitable pool of sufficiently qualified auditors to be developed in Maharashtra.


The inspection is specified as an “on-site” audit. For expeditionary programs that take place in the field rather than in a basecamp setting, an effective audit will need to evaluate participants during travel.


In addition, the on-site inspection component does not appear to have the level of development seen in the New Zealand and New Zealand analogues, which provide detailed guidance on topics including inspector competence, conduct of inspections, and assessment criteria.


However, it’s reasonable to expect that over time, this level of infrastructure to support a high quality of safety auditing in Maharashtra (Maha, for short) may emerge, just as the process has developed over many years in other jurisdictions.


Promising First Steps

The regulation promises to provide support for rescue operations, establish a training centre, and develop a star rating system. These have great potential to significantly increase safety outcomes if carefully and well developed, and sufficiently resourced on an ongoing basis.


Countries that are high-income and where outdoor recreation is a significant part of the economy—such as Iceland, New Zealand and Switzerland—tend to do well with establishing and enforcing high safety standards. In Maha, tourism is a significant economic driver (though not the main one in the highly industrialized state). However, India is not a high-income country with a low social risk tolerance. This means that considerable political will and sustained effort will need to be expended for these ideas to mature into highly functioning systems that are sustained over the long term.


Guidelines Accompanying the Regulation


The Government Resolution, 16 pages long, references detailed Safety Guidelines that provide specific operational standards for outdoor activities.


Those documents, comprising 267 pages of highly specific good practice standards, address safety guidelines for land-, water- and air-based activities: everything from trekking, "camping below 8,000 feet," waterfall rappelling, ATVs, nature walks, kiteboarding, sea kayaking, parasailing, air safaris, paramotoring, and hot air ballooning, among others.


Medhaghat Waterfall in Maharashtra. Waterfall rappelling is popular in Maha.



One appendix, “Annexure B,” is devoted exclusively to describing a Safety Management System for Adventure Activities. The document was based off the ISO 21101 international standard, “Adventure tourism—Safety management systems—requirements.”


The majority of the other appendices provide activity-specific information. For example: Appendix C, Safety Guidelines for Land-Based Activities, provides 118 pages of exquisitely detailed guidance on topics including pre-trip planning, suggested staff-to-participant ratios, behavioral norms such as drug use and intimate relationships between staff and participants, altitude gain limits in alpine travel, activity-specific equipment recommendations, recommended topics for safety briefings, first aid training for trip leaders, belaying technique for climbing traverses, bicycle chain lubrication, rappelling (abseiling) rope recommendations, required diameter of trekking ropes and ropes course cables, zipline braking systems, suggested first aid kit contents, and much more.


These guidelines have the appearance of a comprehensive policies and procedures manual for a well-established outdoor program. They include a mix of requirements, recommendations and suggestions.


The guidance is customized for the Indian context, discussing the importance of knowledge of Hindi, referencing specific locations (Gangotri, Leh) and activities (Sandhan Valley trek), cautioning not to disturb local ceremonies (jatra/urus), and respecting local customs such as vegetarian cooking when camping in temple sites.


A canyon on the Sandhan Valley trek, Maharashtra


An Enormous Accomplishment—But Continued Work is Required

Developing and making available well-developed guidelines for adventure providers in Maharashtra is a monumental achievement. Requiring conformity to the parts of the guidelines for which adherence is compulsory is another impressive accomplishment.


It will now take a significant investment on the part of regulated adventure providers to absorb this massive amount of material, create and enact internal procedures to conform to their contents, and establish how to document that conformity, as required by the GR. (The regulations provide an about 18 month period in which to do this.)


It will also take an investment on the part of the regulatory bodies to build the expertise to skillfully evaluate adventure providers, and to provide them the ongoing support necessary to help them successfully meet these standards.


When the New Zealand government instituted compulsory safety standards for adventure providers, they also provided funding for the sector to build a set of resources, known as supportadventure, to help outdoor programs understand and meet the new requirements. A similar arrangement for Maharashtra may prove important for the state government to foster.


Guidelines Created in Partnership with Industry

The detailed guidelines were developed with significant input from the Maha Adventure Council (MAC), an Indian nonprofit formed to help outdoor adventure programs achieve high standards of quality, safety, and environmental responsibility. The group, which includes outdoor adventure experts in a wide variety of fields, was formed in part to help ensure that regulations created by government officials could be informed by the views and unique knowledge of adventure specialists, and thereby made as useful and effective as possible.


The Indian Mountaineering Foundation, Association of Paragliding Pilots & Instructors, and Adventure Tour Operators Association of India were also involved.


Paragliding is popular in Maharashtra.


If the regulation is to be successful, the fact that there was close industry participation (with a genuine interest in supporting the regulation’s safety promotion aim), and buy-in to the final product, may be a deciding factor.


Guidelines To Be Continually Updated

Annexure B of the regulation notes that “‘Safety Guidelines’ are dynamic in nature and will need periodic revisions on the basis of analysis of field data, developments in the field of adventure, and suggestions from the Adventure community.”


MAC leadership recognizes that the guidelines will require revision from time to time, and the Council can be expected to provide guidance to the Directorate of Tourism towards this end.



A History Maharashtra’s Adventure Tourism Regulation


The 2021 regulations didn’t come from nowhere.


As India developed over recent decades, interest in outdoor activities increased. Newly formed adventure companies filled the demand.


By the early 2000s, however, as both participation rates and the number of safety incidents increased, lawsuits in Maharashtra began being filed.


In 2007, following the death of a child who died on a Himalayan trek and the subsequent lawsuit, the Mumbai High Court directed the government of Maharashtra to develop a comprehensive safety policy and safety guidelines for organized adventure activities.


Trekking in the (Nepali) Himalaya


This led to the state government creating adventure tourism regulations in 2014. As explained in the preface to the current GR, however, these were challenged in the Mumbai High Court by outdoor specialists, who asserted the regulations were impossibly difficult to implement.


After a process of revisions, a revised GR was issued in 2018. This was again challenged in court by outdoor adventure providers.


The Tourism Directorate, Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), and newly-formed Maha Adventure Council then came together in 2020 to agree on improvements to the regulation, to take into account ATOAI guidelines, MAC expertise, and the relatively new ISO 21101 Adventure Tourism standards.


The result is the 2021 regulations and accompanying Safety Guidelines.


Maharashtra Government Sees Multiple Benefits to the Regulation


The state government sees value in improving safety for adventurers in Maharashtra, and the economic benefits that the regulation may bring.


As the GR was approved, Valsa Nair Singh, Principal Secretary of Maharashtra’s Tourism Department, said, “There are lots of fly-by-night people in the profession who are not following regular safety procedures. We have brought in registration and guidelines so that the safety and security of tourists is not compromised.”


State tourism and environment minister Aaditya Thackeray, who has an interest to “catapult the state onto the global tourist map,” added, “There were no rules related to adventure tourism and accidents were also happening…We want to encourage adventure tourism and send a message that it is safe for them. We want Maharashtra to lead in tourism once Covid pandemic is over.”



Outdoor Safety Standards in India and the Himalaya


The 2021 adventure tourism regulations represent one point in time in the development of outdoor safety practices in India and the Himalaya.


The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India, founded in 1994, has developed detailed safety guidelines for 31 activities (18 land-based, seven air-based, and six water-based). The second version of the standards was released in 2018.


These have been officially acknowledged by India’s Ministry of Tourism. In the 2021 GR, the state of Maharashtra directs that adventure operators based in that state who wish to conduct adventure tourism outside Maharashtra should follow ATOAI’s safety guidelines in those locations.


As India’s outdoor adventure industry developed over the last 40 years, other countries which share the Himalaya with India developed organizations, standards, and safety systems.


Outdoor safety standards in Nepal, for example, grew with the development of a variety of outdoor industry associations there, and the country passed climbing safety regulations in 2016.


In October 2021, the southern India state of Kerala passed adventure tourism safety regulations, similar to those in Maharashtra. The requirements, for 31 land, water, and air-based activities, were developed in consultation with outdoor adventure industry experts. Registration of adventure tourism operators is required, as is an on-site inspection is mandated. The registration is valid for two years.



On Regulation


Company executives, particularly in countries such as the USA where corporations hold outsize power, often resist the establishment of government regulations. These regulations, after all, may increase a company’s expenses, and limit the executives’ capacity to grow ever more wealthy.


And poorly executed regulations can cause unnecessary hardship for organizations—as the petitioners to the Mumbai High Court asserted in 2014, when protesting an earlier version of Maharashtra’s outdoor safety regulatio