Bellows_2006-Pioneer_of_Geotourism - imithBellOWS Pioneer...

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Unformatted text preview: imithBellOWS Pioneer of Geotourism Jonathan B. Tourtellot on sustaining travel. LTHOUGl-I it’s UNUSUAL to interview one of our own, TRAVELER geotourism editor Jonathan 'Tourtellot has become an increasing- ly influential voice in tourism circles; Calling for new thinking to help pref serve the places we love the most from being wrecked by the ever growing pressures of mass travel. The so—called sustainable tourism movement is all the rage these days, but Tourtellot has been i doggedly pursuing its principles for more than a decade, helping this mag“ azine become a leader in covering the issue. “I was interested in combining travel with my other great interests, which are science, the environment, and culture,” he says. “And that led me deeper and deeper into areas oi'how tourism interacts with places.” Tourtel- lot has worked at the National Geo~ graphic SOCiety for more than 25 years and has been an editor at this magazine for 15 years. He oversees the annual “Places Rated” Destination Scorecard you’ll Find on page 112. He is head of the Society’s Center for Sustainable Desti— nations1 writes our “Destination Watch” column, and coined the term “geo- tourism,” a word gaining wide currency. How would you differentiate among ecotourism. sustainable tourism, and geotourism? Ecotourism focuses specifically on nat— ural areas. I’m convinced that there are elephants roaming Africa and trees growing in Costa Rica that would not be there without ecotourism. Sustain- able tourism has a lot of syllables and ' seems to say, “Keep everything the way it is.” We needed a term. that would bring the ecotourism principle out of its niche and cover everything that makes travel interesting. Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a placei the environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and well—being of local people. Is this concept just the flavor of the moment? N o, it has to have legs because the issue is not going away, just as global Warm— oping countries. Inexpensive, authentic local hotels can cater to the educated, backpackrstyle traveler. They are usualr ly run by locals. You get local Food. There is interesting local architecture. The middle range is more of a chale lenge. That is where you see the big institutional—type concrete hotels that cater to tour groups.They really have ' only two ways to differentiate theme selves. They can be cheaper or they can be more interesting. Stressing authentic- ity allows them to be more interesting. ing and the need to protect the environ— ment are not going away. We are right on track to seeing over a billion tourist trips internationally in the year 2010. Multiply that by four or five times to get a handle on domestic travel. The chale lenge of managing tourism in a way that protects places instead of overrunning them is simply going to become larger. People still pay lip service to these kind of is- sues. Are businesses starting to pay attention? The business community has pockets of . real vision, and this may be underrated, particularly by the environmental move ment, which often sees businesses, in general, as an enemy. Luxury hotels are interested because they look to what makes their locations different—and that is where the importance of a place’s authentic attributes becomes paramount. The issue is important for the other I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of destinations that are choose ing to preserve local character. A few developers are paying attention. I talked to one in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which I criticize Frequently for the na— ture of its excess development. He said, “You know, if I could go back, I’d knock down 80 percent of the houses I built in my career and do it in a different way.” A lot of what goes on is simply because of institutional inertia: This is how we do development, so let’s do it the same way again. There is opportunity in the business and development community to sun—t looking at creative ways to main tain and enhance a sense of place. How do we better communicate the importance of cultivating a sense of place to consumers? The first time the word “geotourism” ap peared in print was in a study sponsored by TRAVELER and the Travel Industry i;.iatnasrar _ . neuteringthatatsvsniianeaan.act end of the market, particularly in devel— ' and characterised nannies efforts to keep-there that waif—,2” ;- sunlnaaasaisim NVU 12 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER moment: Association of America. It looked into American travelers’ behaviors and atti- tudes. We discovered that by far the largest proportion of people who trave el a lot and have good household in— comes—who make a real economic difference in the places they visitfihad “geotouristic attitudes.” They are inter~ ested in culture and nature and cuisine. They are interested in protecting those things. Only one segment was not that way, what we called the “self- indulgents”ithose who believe every- thing was put on Earth for their benefit. The study also showed that consumers don’t have good guidance on what to do. And that’s the job of travel journalists— to give people a better handle on how to travel. If you spend your money on hotels, restaurants, and tour operators that support the character of the place, you'll have a more interesting trip. Then you are a “power traveler.” Every dollar that you spend becomes a vote registered in that community: ‘This is what I like. This is what I want to see more of here.” Will people pay more for responsible practices? I don’t think we should have to pay more in many cases. Why should you pay more for a hotel to use energy-efficient lightbulbs that will save them money anyway? What is worth paying more for is great service. One of the underrated professions in the world is the truly great tour guidcgsomeone who will give you memorable experiences to take home. What disappoints you when trying to commu- nicate the importance of this issue? It's the assumption, particularly by de- veloping destinations, that the way to do tourism is golf courses, casinos, and concrete hotels. They’re okay, but if the entire world becomes nothing but that, we won’t have many interesting ways of traveling anymore. Building this way is based on assump- tions that are being proved wrong. “Hey, it worked for Spain, didn’t it?” It did not. The lowest-scoring place on our first Destination Scorecard was the Costa del Sol. Many call it the Costa del Concrete. The coast is pretty much ruined. But for a poor country that needs tourism, it’s easy in the short term to buy the Span~ ish model. In later decades you pay the penalty— you end up with a destination that looks just like any other, vulnerable to being undersold. which destinations are doing it right? The higheranking places in our Destina- tion Scorecard are successes. But I’m not sure any place on Earth is doing it per, Fectly. Norway is doing things well. Ver- mont is. The Seychelles are reputed to be doing things well. Another is Charles- ton, South Carolina. A delegation from Oman visited Charleston to see how you do historic preservation, and I’m glad they did because Oman’s other model is Dubai. And Dubai isn’t an example of preserving a sense of place; it’s an ex- ample of how to create an econOmic powerhouse out of a patch of desert. Who are your geotourism heroes? A lot of my heroes are at the grassroots. At conferences I show a picture of a lady in Gracias, Honduras. She runs a little cafe where she serves traditional Maya and Lenca Food, on dishes fired in a traditional Maya kiln. Even the walls of the cafe are painted in the earth tones that the ancient Maya used. She is a geotourism hero. If you had children, what would you tell them about the need to preserve the places. we love? 2 I would tell them how I have seen places change, because our children are living in a world that will change even faster. Take the icon of the paradise island, the little cartoon island with three palm trees. By the time you are six years old, you have seen that image in countless places. Go try to find a real one. There are still wonderful places that haven't been “discovered” yet. There are great places in the [1.8. Midwest. I’ve had some of the best times ever in places like the Midwest. We’re in dane ger of losing a few really special iconic places, but we are not in danger of 10s ing everything. Not by a long shot. I NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER ...
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