Postgraduate Lives: 'We spent a week in the Andes building a greenhouse'

Ben Spurway is doing an MA in adventure tourism management at the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies

Ben Spurway is doing an MA in adventure tourism management at the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies

I got a bit lost after my first degree - a leisure management BA at the college. I'd been keen to work in outdoor pursuits, but the placements I'd done for my course put me off. There's a sausage-factory feel to the activities when you're first instructing. A lot of two-hour kayaking sessions. Good fun for a while, then rather monotonous.

So, I tried customer services and IT for a bit. Then I discovered a more meaningful type of outdoor pursuits. I became a trainee instructor with the Outward Bound Trust, which is about personal development through outdoor activities. Rather than a kayaking session, for example, you do a seven-mile kayak journey from one end of an estuary to another, which teaches your students about preparation, team work, putting up with the elements, and so on.

The MA is about giving you the skills to manage a niche tourism business. And an opportunity to research the industry. The programme is quite flexible. Take the marketing and communications module - you can look at how these aspects are managed by a company similar to the sort of business you want to manage.

My big thing is eco-tourism. Helping communities to help themselves. After two years full time at the Trust, I started freelancing for them (or doing my own thing - raft instructor, driving around New Zealand in a van...) and did an expedition in Argentina.

We spent a week in a village in the Andes helping the locals to build a greenhouse and become more self-sustaining. I was struck by how their rubbish was suddenly damaging the environment because Western culture had given them access to cola bottles, etc. In a river bed there was this disgusting, uncompostable pile of rubbish.

My MA research will be on the viability of setting up an eco-tourism business. Most adventure-tourism businesses are small to medium-sized, and money is tight. I'm not interested in tourism with a green label, like the big hotels that say they are green because they ask guests to re-use towels - they're just saving on laundry!

A lot of the taught aspects of the course are transferable to other industries. We do resource management, decision-making, risk management. That's risk management in the economic sense, although of course we also look at operational risks. Adventure activities are getting more hair-raising. For example canyoning - plunging down a log flume without a log - is a growth area.

The course is opening doors for me. I'm making lots of contacts and have had plenty of job offers in the past few months, including one to develop sustainable tourism in north Devon. I'm funding myself by doing freelance outdoor training - getting executives to climb walls and hang around in trees They learn teamwork skills to relate to their jobs. The work correlates beautifully with my course. I'm doing just enough paid work to cover my basic costs. I've also got a career-development loan, and friends and family buy me beers. I'm working harder than ever, but, to stay sane, I still swim, run or cycle every day before college.

g.mccann@independent.co.uk

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