First-Ever IRF World Whitewater Rafting Summit Held in Costa Rica

Attendees at the World Rafting Summit taking a break from the presentation rooms to paddle the Pacuare.

With the focus on managing risk for a prosperous future, the first-ever World Whitewater Rafting Summit, presented by the International Rafting Federation (IRF), gave the world of rafting safety a huge shot in the arm Oct. 8-12 in downtown San Jose and on the beautiful Pacuare River

The summit  drew rafting outfitters and safety leaders together from more than 25 countries to learn from one another to make the sport safer for everyone. With many countries going through the learning curve and growing pains of adopting safety standards, the Summit convened experts in the rafting field — including regulation, certification and operations — to modernize procedures and protocols worldwide.

“Costa Rica is one of the first countries to follow a model of cooperation between the government and the private sector for the certification of guides and rafting companies,” said Rafael Gallo, president of the Costa Rica Sports Association for Adventure and Paddling (ADAR) and owner of outfitter Rios Tropicales. “The country has become a leader in adventure tourism and we have to continue to keep setting the bar high.”

“This Summit is important for the international rafting industry because we are discussing and sharing information on issues such as risk management, safety, environmental conservation for rivers, the importance of clean water, reforestation, as well as training, education and certification of guides,” added Gallo, IRF Honorary President and event organizer.

The Summit, which was held under the auspices of the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT), also presented Costa Rica as a pioneer destination in rafting and at the forefront of adventure tourism. “Rafting in Costa Rica enjoys international prestige as a sport and adventure tourism attraction…but it is not a risk-free activity, so we’re pleased that this World White Water Rafting Summit focused on risk management in our country. We strongly support it as a symbol of our institutional commitment for a safe tourism destination,” said María Amalia Revelo, Minister of Tourism in Costa Rica.

Getting such cooperation from the government in other countries hasn’t been so easy. “It is frustrating to work as private outfitters trying to get a certification process in place in Peru,” said Pepe Lopez, who has run Apumayo Expeditions in Peru for over 30 years. “The government is hard to work with.”

And the same wetsuit bootie doesn’t always fit the same foot.“ To have a homogenized system that works for everyone in difficult,” added Joe Willis Jones, IRF President and Chair of the IRF Board of Directors at the Summit’s opening presentation. “To figure out one solution for everyone is difficult. But you should have some sort of regulation in place in order to be on the river at all — at the very least some minimum requirements, including some level of training, permitting system and insurance.”

Finland Rescue3 Europe Instructor Mark Hirst illustrating upper body first aid techniques.

The get-together started with a guide training workshop on the crown jewel Pacuare River, drawing guides from around the world to go over safety protocols as varied as swimmer rescue, raft righting and ropework. From there, it moved on to the Convention Center in downtown San Jose for two days of seminars, presentations and panel discussions, and a welcome by Costa Rica Minister of Tourism Maria Amalia Revelo.

Presenters from 10 nations, including New Zealand, Finland, Mexico, United States, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and the United Kingdom, led engaging and interactive sessions during two days of the Summit. Keynotes included Joe Willis Jones, IRF President and Chair of the IRF Board of Directors; Julie Munger, co-founder of Sierra Rescue International and the Western Regional Director for Rescue 3 International; Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the Minister of Environment and Energy for Costa Rica; Ena Buenfil, owner of Mexico’s Huaxteca Expeditions in the waterfall-strewn San Luis Potosi region; Tim Marshall, IRF Raft Guide Instructor, Chair of the New Zealand Rivers Association, and owner of New Zealand’s Ultimate Descents; and more.

Attendees practicing the latest first aid techniques at the summit.

Topics included advances in raft guide certifications; swift water rescue and wilderness first aid techniques; environmental risk management; social media concerns; language barriers between guides and clients; and more.

“Many countries are seeing an increase in Chinese tourists who are seeking rafting trips, and clear communication is paramount,” said Gallo in a panel on the subject.

Participants learned about and shared experiences of practices used around the world, while government representatives and safety standard creators learned about IRF proposals on different rafting topics.

On Thursday, keynote speaker, author and social entrepreneur Ken Streater of the US gave a talk on outfitters, before Abigail Polsby of Sierra Rescue updated attendees on Wilderness First Responder Training. Scotland’s Jim Davis, owner of Ace Adventures and a member of the Scottish Rafting Association, then presented a discussion on insurance and litigation issues affecting the industry, followed by Finland Rescue3 Europe Instructor Mark Hirst addressing language barriers, something common among European outfitters. Gallo then wrapped things up with a presentation on training Colombia FARC guerillas to become raft guides, and co-founding Colombia’s Paddling for Peace initiative.

Environmental message also delivered

As well as safety protocols, the summit also included a big message about river preservation. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Minister of the Environment and Energy for Costa Rica, delivered a powerful message to participants on Oct. 9 that no more dams should be built in Costa Rica. Instead, he pointed to solar energy as the future power source for the country that currently generates 97% of its electricity from renewable sources (primarily hydroelectric dams). The following day, Ian Ponce, representative of the UN Climate Change Commission, spoke at the summit to ratify the participation of the IRF in the Framework of Climate Action for Sport. According to Ponce, sports organizations need to play an active part in achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement, that is, climate neutrality by 2050.

Both Ponce and Rodriguez were at the Costa Rica Convention Center attending the PreCOP25 international meeting that precedes the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in Chile in December.

The summit did its part in helping preserve the environment and was awarded the Ecological Blue Flag of Costa Rica in the category of special events. The Summit achieved a perfect score of 100 for implementing all the requirements for a sustainable use of resources.

When all was said and done, the summit was followed by a “One River, One World, One Family” Friendship Float on the Pacuare River, where more than 150 guides and outfitters from the world over shared rafts with one another, all in the name of making the sport safer for everyone.

The IRF plans to hold World White Water Rafting Summits every two years in different locations around the world, with the next Summit in 2021 again to be held in Costa Rica. “An important message that we have left after this first meeting is that we need to unite to grow the industry,” Gallo added. “We must shorten the distance between each encounter. Between 1995 and 2015 there have been no worldwide rafting exchanges, and now we achieved it. At the close of this first Summit, we feel very satisfied because we met our goals; and we see the necessity to meet every two years going forward.”