Azores sustainability and sustainable tourism awards .
WTO (World Tourism Organization) recognizes that adventure tourism is a journey that includes at least two of three elements: (a) physical activity, (b) natural environment; and (c) cultural immersion. With this in mind, the Autonomous Region of Azores, classified as one of the OR (Outermost Regions) by the European Union (EU), meets several of those elements. Therefore, the Archipelago shows several potential for the development of this typology of tourism. However, this insular region faces many challenges. Some of those obstacles are also great opportunities for regional development towards new sustainable models. For example, there is the islands’ geographical location, which enables exceptional territorial development opportunities and growth opportunities. Contextually, the Archipelago’s nine islands afford great variety to the destination, and the tranquil rural landscape fits the perfect framework for unparalleled, charming, and relaxing experiences. Moreover, the Archipelago’s specific characteristics, as its volcanic nature, make the destination a perfect place to be explored. These are just some examples of the region’s potential to develop this typology of tourism, based on nature, and consequently, a vehicle to achieve the so-desired regional sustainability.
- nature-based tourism
- regional studies
- strategic planning
- sustainable tourism
- ultra-peripheral territories
1. Slow adventure tourism
Adventure tourism does not present itself to a straightforward interpretation. It overlays with various distinct tourism sections and has unique characteristics that produce a context for unforgettable experiences. The description of adventure tourism offered by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has been embraced by the World Tourism Organization , who consider it as a trip that involves at least two of the following three components: physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion . In turn, Buckley [2, 3] states that: “(…) adventure tourism broadly means guided commercial tours where the principal attraction is an outdoor activity, which relies on features of the natural terrain and requires specialized sporting or similar equipment, and is exciting for the tour clients”. Therefore, slow adventure is different.
In this regard, Varley and Semple  introduced the concept of slow adventure, which they consider: “(…) a celebration of the (ir)rationality of uncertainty, unpredictability, transience, experiment, and the emotional content of human experience, particularly in the context of the great outdoors and engagement with the “more-than-human world.” According to Varley and Semple  and Varley, Farkic, and Carnicelli , the concept of slow adventure is based on “(…) an appreciation of the journey as an experiential dimension rather than the chore of getting to a destination”. Besides, the authors add that the concept of “slow” adventure is rooted in the Nordic conception of “friluftsliv” as the primary and simple activity of just being, or dwelling, in nature for long periods of time, which allows for the generation of rich experiences, a deep recognition of and spiritual immersion in the natural environment through involving in simple outdoor activities.
In 2015, the SAINT project, co-financed by the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, kicked off. This project focus was primarily to work with micro-businesses to improve their promotion of slow adventure activities and extend their marketing reach to new overseas and domestic consumers, leading to positive direct impacts in terms of more bed nights, extending visitors’ stays and potentially stretching the seasons . The project involved a significant partnership, including research centers, local governments, and SMEs from Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, and Sweden.
In the SAINT Project, “slow adventure“was defined as a form of tourism that avoids the quick-fix adrenalin-pumping hits of convenient adventure experiences in favor of slow, immersive journeys, living in and traveling through wild places and natural spaces—experiencing nature in its timeframe, seasons, weathers and variations (Figures 1 and 2) . The project also defends that slow adventure activities draw upon ideas framed around the partners’ cultures and histories, such as hunting, fishing and wild foods, love of and respect for nature and wildlife, and the relationship between food and the land/sea .
Furthermore, Varley and Semple  consider slow adventure as mainly related to outdoor living and journeying experience. They claim that there are four critical elements to this concept—time, nature, passage, and comfort.
Time: It is inevitably a crucial experiential component. The awareness of time passing during outdoor journeys is felt during the “passage” of the journey itself and natural change such as light and dark, tides, and weather (Varley and Semple, 2015). Time is manifested in a natural awareness of its passing during outdoor journeys .
Nature: The effects of “nature” are acute in slow adventures due to the extended time of exposure. This direct engagement with natural forces insists that participants envelop themselves in their environment and surrender to it even (Varley and Semple, 2015). Nature refers to the natural setting and our effortful access to it .
Passage: The term “passage” refers not only to the physical journey through a physical landscape (as opposed to the passage over the landscape of the passenger), but it is also a journey of change and transformation, which takes time . Passage, both physical and spiritual, is the navigation through time, space, and the self .
Comfort: This equally has several meanings in the context of a slow adventure. First, there is becoming comfortable with the challenges presented by the journey (sustained effort, for example). Also, comfort may be derived from a reconnection with the place, tradition, and history (linked to time). The traditional, rural life, imagined as slow, rich, and meaningful, can become a “refuge” landscape, a place to escape to . Comfort implies being at ease with unusual challenges throughout the journey and might include reconnection with the place, and even with ourselves and others .
These four elements have in themselves the features that allow the slow adventure to create value to destinations: 1) more time dedicated to experiences will result in higher tourists’ average stay, which is one performance indicator that the Azores need to improve on; 2) respectful, meaningful and responsible interaction with nature is of utmost importance to the Azores since nature-based tourism is its priority product; 3) passage is something that is felt and imprints itself in the participant, making places and events memorable, which can be magnified by the great landscapes and paradise-like places in the Azores; and 4) the deep connection with inspiring outdoors and small rural communities, which are the core features of the Azores, provide comfort and create the potential for repeat visits .
Based on the above-mentioned Slow Adventure was formally registered as a brand within the SAINT Project. Furthermore, the concept behind that brand is the most important legacy of the project, which can be incorporated into other destinations and products. The “Slow Adventure Guidelines,” one of the project’s outputs, refers to the fact that slow Adventure is all about creating a lasting impression and a sense of purpose for the consumer. These products are highly suited to tourism development in un-spoilt rural and peripheral areas. Therefore, recalling the implicit and respectful interaction with nature and communities, this concept goes hand-in-hand with sustainable tourism development. Moreover, it has a vast potential to reduce seasonality, increase the power of territorial marketing, and fight the overloading of natural and cultural attractions .
To highlight the great potential of slow adventure, Varley and Semple  claim that “(…) tourists of the twenty-first century seek unusual new luxuries in the form of time in nature, birchwood fires, cooking their own wild food, carrying their own luggage over rough lands or along remote coastlines in kayaks”. Also, Varley, Farkic and Carnicelli  agree that “(…) stating that slow adventure journeys include elements such as cooking wild food, gathering around a campfire, telling stories, being relaxed and comfortable with where you are and with who you are”. Such experiences are prized and carry a high price tag in the marketplace, as they are currently a scarce resource of rich, meaningful, potentially transcendent and intense experiences .
Besides, the authors mentioned above highlight that many adventure clients take ‘time out’ and value this as part of their peak experience, beyond the easy-to-retell stories of risk, danger, and ‘extreme’ activity [4, 5]. Nevertheless, the literature also tell us that these experiences can only adequately be delivered by well-trained, professional guides who, in addition to the hard skills of navigation, first aid, mountaineering, or kayaking, must be versed in the soft skills of outdoor hospitality, emotional intelligence, and facilitation. That means that the skills required to deliver high-quality slow adventure experiences are considerable. However, they are also valued by many sectors of late-modern society and are regarded as potentially lucrative [4, 5].
All in all, slow adventure is a new marketing concept that builds the experience around the participants’ strong commitment and their interaction with nature and transformative moments. Correctly exploring the concept of slow adventure can be of great importance to remote rural nature-based destinations. However, it is essential to develop skills and train professionals properly .
2. The Azores archipelago in a nutshell
The Portuguese autonomous region of Azores is one of the European Union’s Outermost Regions (OR). It includes nine islands positioned in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a midpoint between the North American Continent and Europe (Figure 3). Thus, this insular region is strategically placed, and it has been recognized as a sustainable nature-based destination. Newly, based on its remoteness and breathtaking nature, it has been frequently classified with adventure tourism by worldwide references like Bloomberg, Departures, BBC, Forbes, GeekyExplorer, Lonely Planet, are just a few examples. Also, its natural and cultural heritage and its generalized rural environment make it the perfect place for slow adventures [7, 9, 10, 11].
The islands have exceptional weather and soil conditions that have directly influenced the socio-economic development of the region. Their volcanic origin has resulted in a peculiar and rugged terrain and a stunning geological diversity complete with beautiful landscapes. In the Azores, there are 26 active volcanic systems; eight of them are underwater . Adding to this, three tectonic plates (North American, Eurasian and African) meet in the Azores territory, where there is also a geological rift (Terceira’s Rift). All these combined results in intense seismic activity and very diverse geological occurrences. The region’s environmental and landscape richness, characterized by the intense green color, is also influenced by a maritime subtropical climate, with mild temperatures all year long (and a low-temperature range), steady rain, and significant volatility of the weather conditions [7, 12].
The nine islands combined have more than 2.000 km2. The islands are distributed in a 600 km axis (southeast-northwest direction), granting the region one of the bigger Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the EU [7, 13]. The distance to Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, is around 1.400 km (two-hour flight), and the distance to Boston (USA) is about 3.300 km (five-hour flight). For this reason, the Azores has been considered as an OR of the EU, alongside Madeira (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte, and Saint-Martin (France), under Article 349 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union [8, 14].
Some of the Azores’ main challenges arise from this distance to the main decision centers, beyond its internal market fragmentation and geographic dispersion. The archipelago has natural constraints that demand constant attention, similar to what occurs with another Portuguese Insular Region, Madeira Island [15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. The heterogeneous territory’s fragmentation resulted in very different islands in terms of area and natural resources, with significant land dispersion. For these reasons, five islands—Santa Maria, Graciosa, São Jorge, Flores, and Corvo—have been categorized as the “Cohesion Islands” (being the smallest islands or more significant challenges to their development) and benefit from positive discrimination in the regional economic policies. The remaining four islands—São Miguel, Terceira, Pico, and Faial—are the most developed, although substantial differences exist among them. This context has apparent impacts on the regional economy, including effects on resource efficiency, population concentration, internal market dynamics, and the need to have multiple structural infrastructures, such as ports, airports, health units, or other public services .
In 2017, the GDP of the Azores GDP 4.067 million euros (at market prices), making it one of the poorest regions of the European Union (<75% of the average GDP per capita UE-27) . Public administration has a considerable impact on economics and concentrates a large portion of the jobs. Agriculture and fisheries are historic structural activities in the Azores, and some of their produce, including milk, are vital for local industries, such as dairy. Additionally, tourism is one of the more important economic activities in the region and has been gaining ground in the last few years. Notwithstanding, people in the Azores have low education levels, and unemployment has been high and very difficult to overcome in recent years .
Despite the numerous challenges listed above, the islands’ geographical location has also granted regional development exciting opportunities. Exceeding a new potential for space research and exploration, historically, many transatlantic routes have passed through the Azores, making the islands critical in logistics support to sea and air navigation, both in military and commercial activities. Eventually, it should also be emphasized that the big size (almost 1 million km2) of the EEZ grants the Azores unique opportunities regarding the Blue Economic, logistics, fisheries, nautical tourism, and scientific research and exploration of marine resources .
Tourism is perceived as a sector of high strategic importance for the Azores, which can contribute decisively to the development and growth of the region . The natural and cultural resources of the Azores are varied and unique. They are the base for incredible adventures and extraordinary experiences, many of which are fast-pace high adrenalin activities. In contrast, others are very relaxing and dig deep into the social and cultural roots of the local people.
Besides, in 2015, it was a paradigmatic shift in tourism in the Archipelago. The air transportation paradigm was partly liberalized, stopping the local public airline’s long-time monopoly and conceding the origin of the operation of low-cost airfare groups (Ryanair and Easy Jet). Therefore, the amount of tourists has been growing, promoting a notable novelty in the local market . Hence, the local economy is developing, and investment is being used in tourism activities, varying from accommodation to entertainment.
Concerning accommodation, hotels and related businesses have a large majority of the bed supply and contemplate approximately 78% of the demand. So, looking at this specific accommodation type’s evolution, it becomes easy to understand the Azores tourism sector’s overall growth. Although, it should also be noticed that other kinds of accommodation (rural tourism, self-catering houses, hostels, or guesthouses) are increasingly more crucial to the genuine experience of the Azores (Figures 4 and 5) [21, 22].
Notwithstanding all the innovations that have been running on, there are still fundamental obstacles to overcome, as is the seasonality’s case very pronounced, as it can be seen through the number of guests in hotels and related businesses. Visitors are endeavoring the Azores, particularly in the summertime, when there weather are more stable. Thereby, strategic planning needs to be meticulously studied, and sustainability problems are pivotal in this task . Due to the necessity to preserve the Azores’ competitive benefits, it is imperative to build an adequate model and keep developing new products that grant more value increasingly to the Azores’ experiences as a way to place the destination, respectively. In this regard, nature, slow, and adventure tourism can be frontline outputs of this model.
3. The Azores tourism strategy
The development strategy for Azores tourism is outlined in the PEMTA (Strategic and Marketing Plan of the Azores Tourism) , openly unveiled in 2016 by the Regional Government. The document points the fundamental intentions to be accomplished, the destination’s market positioning policies, and the tourism outcomes that should maintain this strategy.
Thus, PEMTA fixes four decisive aims for Azores tourism. Such goals are in order amidst the life sequence stage of the destination, its resources, tourism agents, and supply and market dynamics: i) Support the Azores knowledge to the final consumers; ii) Place the Azores as an exclusive destination of enthusiastic nature; iii) Encourage continuous cooperation among public and private actors on the implementation of the plan; and iv) Increase the destination’s competitiveness and boost tourist flows .
Moreover, five key principles were identified to accomplish these purposes. Those are the constructs of the strategy, managing all the decisions and actions to be disposed of: (i) nature tourism is the principal tourism product of the Azores, profiting on its natural resources and biodiversity, although it requires an equivalent products strategy; (ii) guarantee the feasibility of visiting all the islands, getting advantage of the reforms in the inter-island transport system; (iii) fix as distinguishing characteristics the closeness to the market, the singularity and the authenticity of every island, the landscape, the safety and security and the peace of the locals; (iv) promote the constant development of the performance of the tourism sector’s particular areas; (v) act on the Azores sustainability, protecting the places and the local communities, by encouraging the principles of sustainability .
In fact, PEMTA proves that the Azores’ market positioning should be based on the idea of a natural destination and unique excellence without outside influences . Also, it should not have a mission to mass tourism; however, it should rather be centered on precise visitor niches that endeavor once in a lifetime experiences. Therefore, the following eight points should be comprehended: i) A Portuguese (European) destination in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean; ii) Environmentally protected volcanic islands of prolific nature; iii) Harmony of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air; iv) Exclusive; v) Mystic beauty; vi) The visitor is welcome as a distinctive guest; vii) Safety and security; and viii) Diversity and quality of the sea and land ventures .
Furthermore, the Regional Government announced the POTRAA (Spatial Plan of Tourism of the Azores’ Autonomous Region) in 2008. It was established as the primary tool to reach the sustainable development of the region’s tourism sector. Consequently, it was also an instrument to lead the diverse economic actors and control the administrative action, setting the strategic tourism products and the tourism supply progression until 2015 .
POTRAA enabled the combination of much more than spatial management tools, expanding its influence to all the region’s tourism strategy. Recognizing that the perception of Azores as a destination was heavily linked to nature and sustainability, the plan set six Strategic Development Guidelines in order with the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals), which were: SDG 1 – Reinforcement and developing of technical, organizational, and regulatory requirements to support tourism development; SDG 2 – Support to the modernization of infrastructure and complementary/support services of the tourism sector, to the internal and external accessibilities and the tourism signage; SDG 3 – Support to the development, qualification, and diversification of the regional tourism supply; SDG 4 – Incentive the tourist demand and the external awareness of the regional tourism; SDG 5 – Support for specific actions respecting the spatial planning of tourism; SDG 6 – Support to the implementation, follow-up, and evaluation of the plan .
POTRAA set a Territorial Organization Model, supported by cartography, surpassing proposing a prototype to administer the tourism supply in each island and a coordinated approach with municipal territorial management tools. The plan also recognized each island’s principal tourism products and strategically ascertained a genuine core tourism product and some other corresponding characteristics. Such products and resources should lead the regional tourism strategy and the local tourism growth according to the islands’ singularities and particular social, economic, environmental, and cultural circumstances .
According to Silva and Almeida : “(…) regions such as the Azores have great potential for the development of nature and adventure tourism products, but, due to their early stage of development as destinations and the limitations in their carrying capacity, it is necessary to guarantee a sustainable tourism development model”. This model should be directed on the endogenous resources to reach the diversification of tourism products, convince visitors’ expectations, and minimize the impact of tourism activities. Hence, a solid destination planning and tourism development management show to be from pivotal importance to avoid some of the impacts linked with the development and overload stages of a destination lifecycle, like contaminated environments and landscapes, the decline of heritage, water pollution, erosion, and traffic jam. Once, slow adventure matches excellently in this situation and can also be a vehicle to reach sustainable and sustained tourism growth.
In fact, sustainability in the Azores Archipelago is practiced very thoughtfully by the regional authorities, and it is admitted as a decisive factor for the region’s tourism sector. Back in 2007, National Geographic Traveler named the Azores as the Second-Best Islands for Sustainable Tourism. The report included very relevant assessments of the natural environment and cultural variety. Still, it was also pinpointed that unsuitable development was starting to emerge.
Several awards have been granted to the Azores Region. Among them are international evaluations regarding sustainable development and sustainable tourism. Some of these prizes come from important international institutions, such as UNESCO, National Geographic Traveler, QualityCoast, and Green Destinations (Table 1). In 2018, the Azores has conferred the Best Sustainable Destination of the Atlantic award, a significant milestone for the regional tourism sector.
|Top 10 Most Sustainable World Destinations||Green Destinations||Best of the Atlantic||2018|
|Top 100 Most Sustainable World Destinations||Green Destinations||First place in 2014, with 8.9 points out of 10||2018|
|QualityCoast Platinum Award||QualityCoast – Coastal and Marine Union of the European Union||2017: On par with two other Dutch destinations – Goedereede and Westvoorne||2017|
|2014–2016: First and, at the time, only destination with this award||2014–2016|
|QualityCoast Gold Award||QualityCoast – Coastal and Marine Union of the European Union||Best Quality Coastal Destination in Europe||2013|
|Best of the Best – Nature Award||European Commission||Granted to Project “Life Priolo,” which was developed between 2003 and 2008, focused on the protection and restoring of the risk vegetation of the laurel forest of the Azores||2010|
|Second Best Islands in the World for Sustainable Tourism||National Geographic Traveler||—||2010|
|Ospar Convention||OSPAR Commission||12 locations identified for the protection of the maritime environment of the Northeast Atlantic||2010|
|Biosphere Reserves||UNESCO||Island of Flores||2007|
|Island of Graciosa||2007|
|Island of Corvo||2009|
|Natura Network 2000||European Commission||23 Special Preservation Areas||1989|
|15 Special Protection Areas|
|2 Important Locations of the Community|
|UNESCO World Heritage||UNESCO||Landscape of Pico Island||1983|
|Historical Centre of Angra do Heroísmo|
4. The tourists profile and the international attention for the region
Azorean officials have been carrying out essential attempts to accurately comprehend the demands and identify the tourists’ profile that visits the Archipelago. Additionally, to work done during PEMTA’s  progress, there are currently two principal actions that make possible the monitoring of the tourists’ profile and behavior. Thus, the Azores Tourism Observatory (OTA) uses surveys to evaluate the satisfaction of tourists tourists’the Region. Also, the Regional Government, in synergy with the GMT Hospitality, has been an online reputation monitorization study since 2016, enabling the perception of tourists’ behavior in the Archipelago. These two tools merged present a compelling basis for the correct understating of the demand and the precise contingencies to classify new tourism growing opportunities.If we focus on OTA’s 2017 report , it shows that tourists are fascinated with the Azores as well as with the quality of the experience in the destination surpasses their original expectations. It also points pertinent data about the tourists’ profile, consumption behavior, and impulses.
In this regard, the medium age of tourists that visited the Archipelago in 2017 was 42. The preponderance was male (53,2%) and married (52,3%) with high qualifications, once 42% claim to possess a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Several of them were on medium or leading professional positions (44,1%) and had an average monthly income of around 1.500€. In fact, the information about the income has a powerful influence from Portuguese tourists. These tourists comprise approximately 50% of the demand and have an average monthly income of approximately 900€ - much lower than, for example, German tourists (more than 1.800€) . Furthermore, the report also shows that tourists commonly visit the Azores as their primary option (82,3%) for holidays and leisure (85,8%), and numerous of them are first-timers (83,9%). However, they expect to return (63,6%). Normally, the purpose of visiting the Azores evolved from word of mouth endorsement from colleagues, friends, and family (36,5%), yet the internet also played a pivotal role (35,6%). These tourists habitually planned their travel from one to three months before (47,6%), and they traveled with their spouse or partner and their children (70,3%) [6, 33].
The enthusiastic natural resources and the essence of the Azores’ experience have become very appealing factors for international travelers and the tourism press. In the last few years, several reports about the Azores as a tourism destination and its potential for adventure have been published. Associations with iconic destinations, such as Iceland, Hawaii, and New Zealand, have been regularly made among many other paradisiac locations and have contributed to the region’s expanding awareness . In the beginning, the European market was the central objective, although lately, the North American market is considering what is going on in the Azores Region. According to Couto et al. : “Sustainability, nature, food, and local culture are essential factors in this context and grant the Azores an almost idyllic image for great holidays and travels.” Nonetheless, adventure experiences and the diversified tourism activities are also earning much publicity, addressing the Azores as one of the most desirable locations to experience some of them, including whale watching, canyoning, or hiking and diving. Beyond sustainability and sustainable tourism prizes and certifications, the Archipelago has been awarded other grants concerning tourism and its endogenous resources. Some of these awards are also very impressive when reflecting on the Azores Region’s new adventure tourism experiences and products .
5. Closing section
Based on the above section, it is possible to understand that the Azores Region’s slow adventure is a perfect match. The Azores Islands are peaceful, secure, and comprehensive of nature to explore. The Archipelago’s nine islands provide great diversity to the destination, and the tranquil rural landscape fits the ideal framework for unparalleled, charming, and relaxing experiences. The islands’ volcanic nature makes them perfect places to explore, with stunning landscapes, unique occurrences, unexpected phenomena, and incredible examples of human creativity and perseverance. An exciting game seems to continuously unfold, as the green of the land and the sea’s blue guide the local people’s everyday lives .
Similar to other studies [7, 9, 10, 13], the Azores tourism strategy embraces nature as an essential resource for its development. In this sense, culture is also a priceless asset [7, 21]. Thereby, these two assets connected give different possibilities for adventure tourism products and a long-term strategy structure. Sustainability has also been viewed as a decisive factor for Archipelago development and has an indispensable role in the regional policy [7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 34].
Another critical factor, previously verified in other peripheral territories, as borderlands, is the marketing and advertisement [35, 36, 37]. This factor in the region has been placing the Azores as an adventure destination . According to Couto et al. : “The conventional adventure has been the focus, but the international press has also given attention to products that fit the slow adventure concept, like beekeeping, slow volcanic cooking, weird seafood, wellness and hot springs, wild nature experiences, family travel, hot water baths in the sea, good wine, hiking in volcano craters, experiences in fishing boats and agritourism.”
Moreover, tourists that visit the Azores Archipelago have character traits that allow slow adventure an unprecedented potential . Meanwhile, companies are expanding their portfolios, although they are still needing in delivery and marketing ability and can also benefit from even more concepts for new products. Nevertheless, these are great possibilities to profit on the SAINT project’s methodology, intending to promote local companies and match the demand’s expectations [21, 33].
In short, it is secure to state that the Azores Archipelago has a huge potential to welcome the slow adventure idea and promote products and experiences beneath the international label driven in the SAINT Project .
This research is financed by Portuguese national funds through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, I.P., project number UIDB/ECO/00685/2020 and also by the project GREAT - Genuine Rural Experiences in the Azores Tourism with the code: ACORES-01-0145-FEDER-000089.