Tourism should always sustain and enhance the distinctive geographical character of a place, and that requires cooperation from tourists.
The first time I heard about ‘geotourism’ was last summer, while traveling in Alberta. I picked up a map of the Rocky Mountains at a tourist information center. Made by National Geographic, the “Crown of the Continent” map doubled as a geotourism guidebook, explaining where to go and how to have the most eco-minded, sustainable, local experience possible in the region.
Curious about the concept, I dug deeper. The term ‘geotourism’ was coined by National Geographic back in 2002, as part of its ongoing mission to care for the many places it visits and showcases, and to encourage other travelers to consider all aspects of their influence while visiting a particular place.
Geotourism is defined as “tourism that sustains or enhances the distinctive geographical character of a place – its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and the well-being of its residents.”
So how does one translate these ideals into practice? National Geographic suggests the following ways for being a geotraveler, and, therefore, someone who treads as lightly as possible on the Earth while admiring its many splendid sights:
Do research in advance. Explore your destination through the Internet as much as possible. This is your chance to plan ahead of time, to familiarize yourself with the unusual, lesser-known interest points, and to read reviews about other travelers’ experiences. Read tips and blogs from people who know the area well.
Get off the beaten path. Look at maps and choose destinations that are away from the main routes, i.e. “If the big hotels are on the north side of the island, look for a quiet lodge on the south side.” Plan to go in the off-season to avoid crowds. Seek out local festivals, celebrations, and pow-wows, which are a great window into local culture.
Go green. Before booking a hotel, inquire about environmental practices, such as recycling, food sourcing, employment standards, etc. It may be harder to find a place this way, but asking these questions will encourage owners to consider implementing better practices down the road.
Consider volunteering. Volunteering is an excellent way to get to know a place more intimately, as well as the people who love it. From the map: “Repair hiking trails, pull invasive weeds, restore streamside habitat, catalog historical artifacts.”
Buy local. When you support local businesses, your money goes directly back into the community; and the shorter the distance between you and the producer, the more of the money goes straight into the pocket of the artisan. This is a win-win situation for all: “When you support the people who support the place, they’ll usually reward you with a richer, more memorable trip.”
Get out of the car. Go for a hike. Hop on a bike. Ride a bus or other mode of public transit. Rent a canoe or kayak. This is how you’ll meet people, make eye contact, get to know the landscape well. Explore paths, side streets, and country paths. If you are driving, opt for lesser-traveled routes, even dirt roads when possible. Drive slowly, keep the dust down, and give space to wildlife.
Leave no trace. Pack out all garbage if you’re in the wilderness. Use reusables everywhere you go, i.e. water bottle, napkin, cutlery, carrying them in a daypack. Refuse straws at restaurants. Buy unpackaged produce from local markets. Drink your coffee standing at a bar like the Italians do, rather than accepting a takeout cup.
Slow down. Don’t be in such a rush. Don’t overbook yourself. Do justice to the place you have come to see. Getting to know a smaller area better is ultimately more satisfying than racing to see as much as you can. By staying another day, you’ll discover cultural gems that other tourists would probably pass by.
Go home with stories. Pass on the word to fellow travelers and friends about your wonderful experiences. Explain why it felt like an authentic experience. Tell them about the people you met along the way. As National Geographic says, “Encourage others to help protect places on their next trip and become geotravelers themselves.”