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OAS Nod Leads Off a 2013 Geotourism Roundup

On September 6 this year, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the ministers of tourism of the Organization of American States voted that their countries should adopt the geotourism approach—defined in 2002 by the National Geographic Society as “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Whether the 30-plus nations of Latin America and the Caribbean will actually follow the geotourism principles remains to be seen of course, but nevertheless, for those of us working to promote the geotourism approach:

Wow.

You might ask what’s so revolutionary about the proposition that people travel to experience different kinds of places? It should be obvious, but in a world where “tourism development” has increasingly meant building lookalike hotels, condos, casinos, and golf courses, the geotourism idea reminds industry and government that “tour” means experiencing a place, not just playing a slot machine or attending a convention. The OAS move suggests there’s a growing realization among destination leadership that protecting and celebrating your own uniqueness is a smart market move.

The vote on the Declaration of San Pedro Sula on Geotourism in the Americas occurred at the OAS’s XXI Inter-American Congress of Ministers and High-level authorities of Tourism. For more on the topic see the OAS newsletter article and (in Spanish) Honduran newspaper coverage.

The venue was fitting, as Honduras was the first country to sign the National Geographic Geotourism Charter, back in 2004, and is now reinitiating the geotourism approach in the Bay Islands off its Caribbean coast.

That makes Honduras one of several countries—Canada, the United States, Hungary, Egypt, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, and others—where some geotourism type of initiative has been underway or proposed in 2013. Indeed, Guyana promptly pointed out that its strategy was already geotouristic.

Geotourism Around the World in 2013

  • In Canada, several townships in Nova Scotia have on their own initiative signed the Geotourism Charter. They are working toward a Geotourism MapGuide project with National Geographic, as is a transborder group for what they call “Heart of the Continent,” in the glacial lakes country of western Ontario and northern Minnesota.
  • In Montreal the fourth annual edition of the volunteer-run social enterprise Geotourism Magazine has turned out to be as popular with Montrealers as with visitors, providing tips about the city that even residents didn’t know.
  • In the U.S.A, the energetic Sierra Nevada Geotourism Project currently has two of its “GeoExplorers” doing a camper tour of the region to highlight its assets and help communities recover from this year’s unprecedented Rim Fire. Other Sierra geotourism programs include the John Muir Geotourism Center in Coulterville, CA, and at Lake Tahoe an annual “Geotourism Expo.”  Now in its third year, the Expo highlights the region’s nature, history, and culture, including the Washoe tribe—a needed counterpoint for a traditional resort area dominated by generic ski resorts and sprawling second home developments.
  • A University of Alaska group is seeking to form a statewide geotourism stewardship council, focused particularly on encouraging more people to visit that state’s far-flung communities. Listen to Alaska NPR account at the 23:00 mark.
  • In the shadow of the Grand Tetons, Driggs, ID is planning a Teton Geotourism Center, augmented by an emphasis on distinctive local food and drink.
  • A National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide project for the Gulf States has been underway this year. Just to the north, in Chattanooga, TN the East Tennessee River Valley Geotourism Council held its first conference in August this year.
  • In Hungary, a group is applying for Norwegian funding to help develop a geotourism  program in two under-traveled regions.
  • In Cyprus, a joint Cypriot-Egyptian Geotourism Conference, September 15-16, partnered the Troodos region of Cyprus (the country’s “green heart”) with the St. Catherine’s Bedouin community of Egypt’s Sinai, for an initiative stressing youth and women.  The event extended the geotourism initiative launched early this year in Egypt’s New Valley region, now more or less on hold while the Egyptian situation stabilizes.
  • In eastern Sri Lanka, another Geotourism MapGuide project is set to start up this month, funded by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. Click here for all current and past Geotourism MapGuide projects.

The Meaning of Geotourism

This roundup would not be complete with out a nod to the other “geotourism”: Some geologists, especially those involved with the UNESCO-affiliated geology-themed geoparks, use the term to mean travel focused explicitly on geology. The two definitions—one a general approach, the other an academic technical topic—are mutually quite compatible in the field. After all, most tourists are not interested solely in geology, but also in its relation to nature, culture, and so on.

Antigua, Guatemala combines history, culture, and volcanoes. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Antigua, Guatemala combines history, culture, and volcanoes. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Accordingly, geopark managers reconciled the two usages in the 2011 Arouca Declaration on geotourism. As the originator of the National Geographic definition, I think that if people want to insert “geology” into it, they should go right ahead: “ . . . geographical character of a place—its environment, geology, culture, etc.” Read more on this.

Geography and geology aside, the real point of the geotourism approach is to encourage governments and travel industry leaders to care for destinations by thinking in terms of everything that makes one place different from another. To see the place the way a curious tourist does, as a whole: “Happy to be here. What have you got?” To help that visitor take home memories and stories that encourage other people to visit. These visitors spend money, creating an economic incentive for residents to protect all the special things their place has to offer, whether historic architecture, a duck-filled wetland, colorful hot springs, traditional music, a scenic view, even local cuisine.

That’s a win-win-win—for the visitor, for the resident, for the local economy. Better yet, we all learn something and have fun in the process.