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Geotourism is “best practice” tourism that sustains, or even enhances, the geographical character of a place, such as its culture, environment, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.

For the past eight months I have been working with the Center for Sustainable Destinations , National Geographic Maps and the Four Corners Region Geotourism Stewardship Council on a GeoTourism mapping project for the greater Four-Corners Region of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

I love this project.  I see it as a way for us here in this region to tell our own story and steer the inevitable tourism in a way that benefits our community. It is a way for us to say that we want tourism money to benefit our communities, our culture and our environment.

The other reason why I tend to like the work of the Center for Sustainable Destinations and the concept of GeoTourism is that, as a geo-traveller myself, I want to support the quality of my destination. That is, I want to support the people of the places I visit as they have every right to enjoy a thriving economy and healthy lifestyle that is culturally appropriate for them. Further, I want to be sure that when I visit the far-flung reaches of the globe that I am respectful of local customs and the local environment. And I want my trip to be authenticate. I’m not interested in cultural Disneylands. I want to immerse myself in the place and the people.

In my opinion, GeoTourism is a concept that I can run with. By promoting a virtuous cycle in which tourist dollars provide an incentive to locals to protect the very reason tourists come I see a way for diversity to survive and thrive in the age of rapid cultural hegemony.

This is idea born from the concept of ‘ecotourism’ but GeoTourism also protects archaeology, living and traditional culture, landscapes, food, local and regional art, craftmanship AND the environment. We are protecting the character of place, rather than generic, corporate branding. Does it work?  Well, take a look:

And so we have begun creation of the Four Corners Region MapGuide, an interactive website created through a collaborative process that highlights the natural, historic, and cultural assets unique to our area. This is a fabulous opportunity for our regin. For the past several months, dozens of we Stewardship Council members have been out on the ground, meeting with hundreds of villages, towns, cities and organizations. We’ve also led a sustained media outreach effort and have spent hours and hours on the phone and internet working to make sure our neighbors can access and use the website. Now, we are nearing the completion of the initial outreach process and the rev-up to the February 2011 official “release” of the online MapGuide.

The concept of GeoTourism was introduced publicly about eight years ago in a publication of the Travel Industry Association of America (now known as the U.S. Travel Association) and National Geographic Traveler magazine

The term “GeoTourism” was coined in 1997 by National Geographic senior editor Jon Tourtellot and his wife, Sally Bensusen in an attempt to go beyond the limited concept of “eco-tourism” and “sustainable tourism”.  They’ve succeded.

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The National Geographic Society has drawn up a “Geotourism Charter” based on the following 13 principles:

1. Integrity of place: Enhance geographical character by developing and improving it in ways distinctive to the local, reflective of its natural and cultural heritage, so as to encourage market differentiation and cultural pride.

2. International codes: Adhere to the principles embodied in the World Tourism Organization’s Global Code of Ethics for Tourism and the Principles of the Cultural Tourism Charter established by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

3. Market selectivity: Encourage growth in tourism market segments most likely to appreciate, respect, and disseminate information about the distinctive assets of the locale.

4. Market diversity: Encourage a full range of appropriate food and lodging facilities, so as to appeal to the entire demographic spectrum of the geotourism market and so maximize economic resiliency over both the short and long term.

5. Tourist satisfaction: Ensure that satisfied, excited geotourists bring new vacation stories home and encourage friends to experience the same thing, thus providing continuing demand for the destination.

6. Community involvement: Base tourism on community resources to the extent possible, encouraging local small businesses and civic groups to build partnerships to promote and provide a distinctive, honest visitor experience and market their locales effectively. Help businesses develop approaches to tourism that build on the area’s nature, history and culture, including food and drink, artisanry, performance arts, etc.

7. Community benefit: Encourage micro- to medium-size enterprises and tourism business strategies that emphasize economic and social benefits to involved communities, especially poverty alleviation, with clear communication of the destination stewardship policies required to maintain those benefits.

8. Protection and enhancement of destination appeal: Encourage businesses to sustain natural habitats, heritage sites, aesthetic appeal, and local culture. Prevent degradation by keeping volumes of tourists within maximum acceptable limits. Seek business models that can operate profitably within those limits. Use persuasion, incentives, and legal enforcement as needed.

9. Land use: Anticipate development pressures and apply techniques to prevent undesired overdevelopment and degradation. Contain resort and vacation-home sprawl, especially on coasts and islands, so as to retain a diversity of natural and scenic environments and ensure continued resident access to waterfronts. Encourage major self-contained tourism attractions, such as large-scale theme parks and convention centers unrelated to character of place, to be sited in needier locations with no significant ecological, scenic, or cultural assets.

10. Conservation of resources: Encourage businesses to minimize water pollution, solid waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and overly bright nighttime lighting. Advertise these measures in a way that attracts the large, environmentally sympathetic tourist market.

11. Planning: Recognize and respect immediate economic needs without sacrificing long-term character and the geotourism potential of the destination. Where tourism attracts in-migration of workers, develop new communities that themselves constitute a destination enhancement. Strive to diversify the economy and limit population influx to sustainable levels. Adopt public strategies for mitigating practices that are incompatible with geotourism and damaging to the image of the destination.

12. Interactive interpretation: Engage both visitors and hosts in learning about the place. Encourage residents to promote the natural and cultural heritage of their communities so tourists gain a richer experience and residents develop pride in their locales.

13. Evaluation: Establish an evaluation process to be conducted on a regular basis by an independent panel representing all stakeholder interests, and publicize evaluation results.

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