"Geotourism" Survey Shows Millions of Travelers Care

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated October 24, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

Are you a Geo-Savvy? An Urban Sophisticate? You're not an Apathetic, or you wouldn't be reading this item. But you might be a Self-Indulgent, in which case we need to talk.

These are some of the travel types revealed in a first-of-its-kind study commissioned by National Geographic Traveler magazine and conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). The wide-ranging survey, which TIA has now published, compares Americans' attitudes toward travel with their feelings about environmental and cultural quality.

TIA calls the survey the Geotourism Study, based on a new term that I worked out with my wife on a long drive in 1997. Here's the definition of geotourism: Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and the well-being of its residents. The study aims to see how much the traveling public would support policies designed to keep destinations healthy.

The survey asked 150 questions. Statistically, the 3,300 responses represent the opinions (accurate to plus or minus two percent) of the 154 million American adults who traveled in the past three years. The results blow away some stereotypes and raise questions about others.

Only 27 percent of Americans, for instance, prefer the classic guided group tour. Are we a timid tribe? No consensus: More than half of us would avoid places where people don't speak English, but almost as many would like to visit places with cultures very different from ours.

Most significantly, 71 percent say it's important that our visits not damage the environment, and 61 percent say a travel experience is better when the destination preserves its natural, cultural, and historic sites. Not surprisingly, we prefer our destinations unspoiled, and 54 percent of us feel there are fewer such places than there used to be. In short, the survey found that the majority of those who spend significantly on travel care about their destinations.

When TIA crunched the numbers, they fell into eight travel types, to which the survey team affixed snappy names. Here they are, in increasing frequency of travel. The first three groups don't do much of it; the last two do a lot.

Wishful Thinkers are the largest of the eight groups (22 million adults), youngest (average age 32), least wealthy (U.S. $53,000 household income), and least traveled (fewer than nine trips in three years). These parents, country folks, and students all yearn to travel more, if only they had the time and money.

Traditionals—about 16 million of them—travel conservatively. Lots of older folks here, especially women, not too wealthy, some of whom might take the occasional church-group tour.

Apathetics—20 million inert bodies—just aren't interested in anything about travel, but do it from time to time anyway. Probably pried off the sofa by a spouse or a boss.

Outdoor Sportsmen—21 million, most rural of the groups—travel mainly domestically, often for hunting and fishing. They like backcountry, not cultural events.

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