That action has been taken by the Hiking Association of Trinidad and Tobago against one of its own members is a rare and welcomed instance of a professional body policing its ranks. Too often there is the feeling that these associations are closed shops in which there is no true accountability to the public.
The association’s expulsion of the Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers group over its failure to cooperate with an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of hiker Richard Baird demonstrates a willingness to take action when action is merited. It is a posture that stands in sharp contrast to the modus operandi of the various professional bodies that have, over decades, failed to penalise members who have violated standards or committed wrongs.
Faced with a choice between protecting the public and protecting one of its members, the association had little alternative but to chose the former. Hiking is an increasingly popular activity. More and more people are developing an appreciation for the natural environment and the need for regular exercise. Additionally, with eco-tourism playing a bigger role in our revenue generation, the demand for safe hiking expeditions will only become greater.
Both experienced and inexperienced hikers need to know they will be in the hands of hiking guides who are properly regulated; who have a set of rules and guidelines designed to minimise risk; who will face serious sanctions for breaches of these rules or who, alternatively, will face serious sanctions for failure to comply with investigation by a regulatory body.
In this instance, Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers appears to have failed to explain its operations or submit documents demonstrating reform of its practices, even as the association came to the view that the group had disregarded certain fundamental safe hike management practices.
According to Mario Russell, the leader of Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers, “It was a simple accident in a hike. Anybody can slip on a trail and fall. It runs with the territory.” But the matter is not as simple as that. The lack of a criminal probe or an action for negligence does not absolve people who run hiking expeditions of their responsibilities. Such groups cannot be expected to foresee every eventuality, but they still have a duty of care for people under their supervision who pay them under the implicit belief that they will do their utmost to safeguard their welfare.
The issue is not just a narrow question of what happened to Baird. It must also properly involve an examination of any surrounding, attenuating circumstances that could have mitigated or contributed to the tragic outcome. Russell cannot ignore the rules of the association or apply them whenever they are most convenient to him. The gravity of the incident deserves far better.
And while in this case Russell was of the view that the police had “no problem” with the facts, it must be remembered that a distinction should be drawn between criminal liability and civil responsibility. But neither of these two standards absolve Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers of the need to comply with professional ethics.
While the Hiking Association has expelled Fitness Walkers/Island Hikers, the question now is will that be enough? Russell has stated his intention to continue operations. His unfortunate stance goes against the spirit of the very organisation of which he was a part and damages the reputation of all hiking companies in the industry.
The association’s actions may now have exposed a deeper matter that requires attention by the State. Clearly, self-regulation by the industry has limits. The time has come for a more robust regulatory framework under the Ministry of Tourism. It’s time to hike hiking regulations.