"Geotourism": Tips for Traveling Without Trampling

Heather Morgan Shott
for National Geographic Traveler
October 7, 2003

Tourism to the world's biodiversity hot spots, which include Laos and Madagascar, increased by more than 100 percent between 1990 and 2000, reports Conservation International. Travel elsewhere is also on the rise, despite recent setbacks like the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a result, heavy traffic and unsustainable practices are often ruining elements that make a destination unique and worth visiting, says National Geographic Traveler geotourism editor Jonathan Tourtellot. With careful planning, however, you can do more good than harm on your next trip. Here's how.

Why has tourism increased so much?

As long as the population increases, wealth increases, and transportation technology improves, the tourism industry will keep growing. In fact, tourism has risen at such a phenomenal rate that it is now considered one of the largest industries on Earth. What's important for travelers to realize is that we have a huge impact on the places we visit—we're not just outsiders looking in.

What happens when tourism is badly managed?

It can destroy a place. Coasts, for example, are extremely vulnerable. Everyone wants to go to them. Everyone wants to own a second home on them. And there's just not enough coast to go around. Coasts are also important for biodiversity, because much of marine life has its nurseries in coastline areas. So development there is a highly sensitive issue. Same thing goes for attractive mountainsides like the Rockies of the West. That's why when development occurs on a large scale it's important that it be carefully clustered and well planned.

What happens to a destination after years of heavy traffic?

Here's an example: at the Petrified Forest [in northeast Arizona] it's very easy to bend down, pick up a little bit of petrified wood, and pocket it. People think it's only one pebble, in such a vast area, so it makes no difference if they take it. But since millions of visitors over the years have thought the same thing, all of the pebbles have disappeared. Meaning there's been an enormous loss of what makes the Petrified Forest so special. So when you're talking about an entire location like a town, a stretch of coastline, a wild area, or a national park, it's important to listen to park rangers when they tell you where to go and not go, what to do and not do. Small sites like the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, are most vulnerable because all the foot traffic is concentrated in one tiny spot. In this situation, the destination is partly responsible for managing traffic flow to minimize damage to the site.

What happens when tourism is managed well?

It can save a place. When people come see something special and unique to an area—its nature, historic structures, great cultural events, beautiful landscapes, even special cuisine—they are enjoying and learning more about a destination's geographical character. That's why I'm promoting the use of the new term geotourism, which means to sustain or enhance the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. Here travelers spend their money in a way that helps maintain the geographical diversity and distinctiveness of the place they're visiting. It can be as simple as spending your money at a little restaurant that serves a regional dish with ingredients from local farmers rather than at an international franchise that serves the same food you can get back home.

How else can tourism help benefit a destination?

Great tourism can build something that wasn't there before. My favorite example is the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. It was built in a restored cannery building, on historic cannery row—which is a good example of preserving a historical building rather than destroying it. The aquarium, which has about 1.8 million visitors each year, brought people's attention to the incredible variety of sea life right off the coast of California. And it played a major role in the development of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Once people saw what was there, they wanted to protect it.

Tourism can also preserve things that would otherwise disappear. A good example of this is the Maine Windjammer fleet, a collection of old wooden sailing vessels that used to ship cargo up and down the coast. Once the era of steam came about, these vessels began disappearing. Fortunately, before they were gone entirely, somebody realized that people would pay to take vacations on them. They're lovely to look at, they leave a very small environmental mark, and meals that are served on board are prepared with local ingredients. Now they have even built new vessels. Tourism has brought back, in modified form, a way of life that we almost lost.

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