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HomeMr. JONATHAN B.TOURTELLOT Communicating Sustainable Tourism: reaching the Geotourist___

Mr. JONATHAN B.TOURTELLOT Communicating Sustainable Tourism: reaching the Geotourist___


Director of Sustainable Tourism, National Geographic Society – Geotourism

Editor, National Geographic Traveler

A word about the National Geographic: We are a non-profit organization. You can think of us as an educational NGO. Our mission is the increase and dissemination

of geographical knowledge, and we do this mainly through our media. We reach 70

million readers through our various magazines. One of them is National

Geographic Traveler, which is, according to industry data, the world’s most widely

read travel magazine, at 5.7 million. We reach 200 million people through our

cable television channels in 25 different languages and hundreds of millions more

through other television programs, through maps, through books, through our

website, home videos and so on.

Geography is, of course, about place. And tourism is also about place, but not

necessarily all tourism, as we will see. In order to highlight this basic relationship

between tourism and ‘sense of place’ we’ve introduced a new term, geotourism,

which derives from “geographical character.” Here’s the definition of geotourism:

tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of the place being

visited. By that we mean its environment, its heritage, its aesthetics, its culture

and the well-being of its citizens.

People often ask, “What difference between geotourism and ecotourism?” That’s

easy: eco-tourism focuses only on nature; it’s a niche. Geotourism talks about

everything that goes into making a place a place. Without question, it is sustainable

tourism, but it focuses on the importance of place. It focuses on recognizing that

there are opportunities to build on character of place, and so enrich both the travel

experience and the quality of the locale.

Let’s look at three overlapping types of tourism and how they each relate differently

to character of place.

First, TOURING. This is the origin of the word “tourism.” This style of travel

depends totally on both human and physical character of place, whether you’re

looking at a human-heritage site, like Machu Picchu, or a natural locale as with this

hike in the mountains of Maui. Tourism of this type tends to have fewer impacts on

the locale, while providing maximum benefit for local businesses and local people.

The touring style requires preserving all the different elements that add up to

character of place.

The next type, which we can call ‘R AND R’ tourism – for Rest and Recreation –

depends only on the physical nature of the place. You have to have beaches, you

have to have a ski slope, you have to have lakes and rivers; but you do not

generally depend very much on the human character of place—on local culture or

heritage. This particular type of tourism encourages ‘resort sprawl.’ It can literally

change the face of the earth, as resorts and vacation home subdivisions spread

along seacoasts and into scenic mountain areas. You can see it on satellite

pictures. It is a major development issue.

The third type of tourism we can call ENTERTAINMENT style. Here we have theme

parks, convention centers, sports arenas, casinos, and outlet shopping malls that

stock national and international brands. This type of tourism doesn’t depend on

character of place at all. You can do it anywhere. You can do it in the middle of a

desert. And in fact one of the best known examples of it does rise from the middle

of a desert – it’s called Las Vegas. This type of tourism is industrial strength: high

volume, high impact. If it is not sited and designed properly, it is the type most

likely to have high negative environmental and aesthetic impacts. (For that reason,

Las Vegas is actually in a comparatively good place for what it is.) Entertainment

Style tourism does provide a lot of jobs. Because it tends to involve large

companies, it has a lot of policy clout at high government levels. Governments

make decisions based on this type of tourism.

Let me show you the next thing that tends to happen. When there is no policy

about how tourism is handled, the destination—except for major cities—often sees

a natural drift from the first style toward the third, driven by unguided market


Here’s how it works. Touring Style tourists are the first to discover a place. Then,

as the destination increases in popularity, more hotels and resorts transform it into

R and R Style, from which it’s easy with yet more development to end up with

Entertainment Style. By this time, the place no longer has the quality that first

attracted Touring Style visitors, and they abandon it. Seacoast destinations are

particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing. They can basically lose the original

character of the destination through too much traffic and crowding. This happens so

often that, in fact, academics have a term for it: The Butler resort life cycle.

When governments, as they often do, measure success in tourism in terms of

quantity and not quality (“We counted ten thousand more tourists this year!”), they

accelerate the trend toward overwhelming their destinations. It is very important

that tourism success be measured, not by counting heads, but counting up the

economic and social benefit to the location. Without policies to conserve what

tourists are coming to see, the place may eventually find that it has no attractions

at all.

Attracting the geotourist means focusing attention on a holistic way on all of the

natural and human attributes that make a place worth visiting. That, of course,

includes flora and fauna, historic structures and archaeological sites, scenic

landscapes, traditional architecture, and all of the things that contribute to culture,

like local music, cuisine as well as the agriculture traditions that support the

cuisine, local crafts, dances, arts, and so forth.

It’s additionally important that it benefit local people. The reason for this is to build

that virtuous cycle wherein local people are benefiting from tourism, and that

benefit in turn provides them with an incentive to protect what tourists are coming

to see. It also provides local pride. Whether it involves the environment, as here

in Samoa, or local crafting traditions, as here in North Carolina. An important part

of this, that I have come to recognize more and more as I have worked in this field,

is the importance of interpretive information—not only for tourists, but also for

residents. The best interaction is for local people to help visitors to learn what the

place is all about. And when you understand a place and appreciate a place, you

become more interested in protecting that place.

That word ‘enhances’ is another important distinction in geotourism. Geotourism

recognizes that you can improve things a bit. It can be done in two different ways.

One is constructive tourism, by creating something suitable to the place that makes

it better than it was before. Reykjavík, Iceland, for instance, put an elegant

rotating restaurant on top of an ugly, conspicuous water tank. You get a

magnificent view of the city from there. That’s constructive tourism. The second

way is restorative tourism, which helps to save something that might otherwise

disappear, as with the old wooden ship that sailed the coast of the State of Maine in

the United States. The last handful were saved when someone realized tourists

would pay to sail on them. The Maine schooner fleet is in every way a success – an

environmentally light footprint, beautiful to look at, and a fine heritage experience.

What, then is the geotourism market? How much do consumers really care about

sustainability? In the United States, National Geographic Traveler sponsored a

study by the Travel Industry Asscociation of America to find out. The Geotoursm

Study is the first one we know of in the States that asked people extended

questions about what they did when they traveled and correlated that with their

attitudes are about sustainability. And, by “sustainability,” we didn’t just ask about

the environment, but also about historic preservation, aesthetics, culture clash, and

so on…

We found that over half of the American traveling public thinks that it’s harder to

find unspoiled places than it used to be. Almost three-quarters say they don’t want

their visits to harm the environment of their destinations. Eighty percent want

outstanding scenery.

A cluster analysis on the data revealed that the top four of eight segments did most

of the travel and spent most of the money. From the destination’s point of view

these are the four most important segments. We found that three of those four

were very interested in sustainability, plus one of the bottom segments. These are

the geotourists. They enjoy character of place, and they are predisposed toward

doing what they can to protect their destinations. When we asked whether you

would support travel companies that protect the character of a place, the four

geotourist segments came out highest. What’s more, these are the tourists most

likely to read magazines, guidebooks, and newspaper articles about travel.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot in these media about sustainability or about how

well a destination is managing itself.

Here’s some of what we are doing about that at National Geographic? Well, we are

trying to tell people about it. We have an online Sustainable Tourism Research

Center. In Traveler we cover these topics in my “TravelWatch” column, and we give

recognition to companies and tourism projects in a “Best Practices” sidebar.

In Traveler Magazine here, in addition to a column that I write, we also report in

every issue on ‘best practices’ and give a particular example, such as the ECEAT

environmental agro-tourism program in Poland.

In cooperation with Conservation International, we presented the first World Legacy

Awards last year, announced in Washington by Queen Noor of Jordan. These are

last year’s winners. At the top is Ko Yao Noh, an island in Thailand, which won for

destination stewardship; in the middle ATG Oxford, which won for its Heritage-

Tourism work in Tuscany; and at the bottom is Wilderness Safaris of southern

Africa, which won for Nature Travel. This year we have added a fourth category,

General-Purpose Resorts and Hotels. The next awards are to be presented in early


In our March issue, we’ll be publishing the results of what we believe to be the

world’s first Index of Destination Stewardship, based on the informed judgements

of over 200 experts from various fields and countries around the world. Some are

probably in this room right now. The Index rates 115 well known destinations

around the world on the basis of sustainability, tourism management, and success

in retaining the assets that attract visitors. It should be interesting to say the least.

Lastly, we believe that many travel writers are also concerned about the decline in

unspoiled destinations. We have chosen Tourcom, then, to announce release of the

first version of this Travel Writer’s Guide to Sustainable Tourism and Destination

Stewardship. We invite all interested travel journalists to help create ever-improved

versions of this manual over months and years to come. Tourism has become far

too important a force in the world for us not to weave these important matters into

our reporting. If WTO’s figures are right, millions of jobs depend on it, including our


Co-Founder & Managing Director - Travel Media Applications | Website

Theodore is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of TravelDailyNews Media Network; his responsibilities include business development and planning for TravelDailyNews long-term opportunities.

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