Jonathan Tourtellot

About Jonathan Tourtellot

Portal Editor,; Principal, Focus on Places LLC; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; Founding Director, NG Center for Sustainable Destinations.

One Way to Support Paris

FranceDo you want to help bereaved Paris? If you were planning a trip to Paris, don’t cancel it. If you were thinking of a trip to Paris, do it. Terrorists hope to damage national economies by scaring away tourists—Egypt knows this!—and media coverage by its very nature can inflate perceived risk. Look at the true risks, and you’ll see you’re probably in more danger driving to the airport than from being in another attack in Paris. Cancel your trip and then, yes, the terrorists do win.

Two Billion Footprints: Good News Or Not?

[Above—A two-hour wait: Tourists queue in drizzle for the cable car up Mt. Huangshan, China, a World Heritage site. Annual visitation c.4 million.  Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Celebrated on Sept. 27, World Tourism Day is an observance championed by the U.N. World Tourism Organization and intended to point out the value of tourism. Initiated 35 years ago, much of the impetus for World Tourism Day sprang from the desire to convince governments and industry that tourism was bigger and more important than they realized. This is understandable, because tourism is bigger and more important than almost anyone realizes. When tourism works well, it’s fun and beneficial. It boosts the economy, helps preserve cultural and natural sites, and educates the public. When it doesn’t…well, that’s the dark cloud inside the silver lining.

This year’s theme was “One billion tourists—one billion opportunities!” Nice and upbeat, but it smacks of the more-is-better boosterism led for years by an officialdom that calls for ever-increasing numbers of arrivals.

This attitude is naïvely out of date. Better to think more realistically of “One billion tourists—two billion footprints.” Tourism, counted among the very largest industries on Earth, is changing the face of the planet and posing challenges with its relentless growth.

Of all the famous malaprops attributed to the late, beloved Yogi Berra, none rings truer in the tourist world than: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Over the past half century, international travel has increased almost 20-fold in terms of arrivals. Domestic tourism worldwide has kept pace, at four or five times the volume. Growth continues unabated, but the places all these people visit are still the same size. Resorts and vacation homes gobble up coastlines. You can see the press of numbers most clearly in the world’s great cultural sites, from Venice to Angkor to Chichén Itzá.

Early this year, I was privileged to visit Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, famed for steadily calving into an Andean lake. It’s in Los Glaciares National Park, a World Heritage site. It lies far, far south in Patagonia, down toward the end of the inhabited world, 1700 miles (2700 km) south of Buenos Aires. In short, not a place you’re likely to visit on the way to some other region. Yet annual visitation ranks in the hundreds of thousands, with over 600,000 people moving through the airport at the booming gateway town of El Calafate.

If we now see that much tourist traffic about as far as you can get from the human population’s center of gravity, it’s no wonder more accessible, better-known destinations are drowning in it. Florence, for example, must cope with 16 million tourists a year, many of them day-trippers who clog the streets while contributing little to the quality of the city.

World Tourism Day should now carry an additional mission. Not just: “It’s big! It’s great!” But also: “We will learn how to manage it better!” We need deeper, more meaningful and memorable travel experiences and fewer busloads armed with selfie sticks.

Another one of Yogi’s sayings was “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That impossible ambiguity fits tourism leaders who maintain: Quantity, quality, can’t we have both?

In most cases—no, you can’t.

A First: 440 Destinations Rated by Nat Geo Experts Compiled in One Place

[Above: Portion of the 2006 Traveler cover featuring the stewardship survey of 94 World Heritage destinations. Courtesy, National Geographic Traveler.]
Landmark Research There has been nothing like them, before or since. For seven years, from 2004 to 2010, I was privileged to oversee National Geographic’s  Destination Scorecard surveys of experts’ opinions on stewardship for hundreds of places around the world. We published the numerical scores annually as a cover story in National Geographic Traveler.
Now, for the first time, we at the have compiled in our Destination Watch section a master list of most of the destinations surveyed by Nat Geo since 2006. For ease of understanding, we’ve translated the numerical scores into letter grades for 440 places, listed on these five pages:

Those links show destinations by grade. Download this pdf to see all 440 destinations and grades listed by country.

The surveys polled a panel of hundreds of experts on destinations that they knew well. For each place, we asked these panelists to consider six stewardship criteria: environment, built heritage, social/cultural impacts, aesthetics, tourism management, and overall trend. After exchanging comments anonymously, they then rated each destination on a scale from 0 to 10. We calculated the averages and published the results.

You can read more About the Surveys and their methodology. Basically, it was a “wisdom of crowds” approach—in this case, a very knowledgeable crowd. It proved remarkably consistent. In our first survey, conducted in 2003-4 with fewer than 200 panelists, the Norwegian Fjords won the top place, and the Costa del Sol came in with the lowest score. After a five-year interval, we surveyed many of the same destinations again, this time with a very different panel of over 400 experts. Those 2009 results? Norwegian fjords best, Costa del Sol worst.

Please Join In

Some of these grades need updating, and we will be soliciting your opinions on whether they should go up, down, or stay the same.

As administrator of the surveys, I did not rate any destinations myself. In some cases I thought the consensus was way off, but more often than not it would turn out that the experts knew some things that I didn’t. In few cases, I still disagree! More important, new developments in some places suggest a new grade. I’ll be offering a few comments in those cases at the bottom of each list. You can, too.

We plan to start featuring individual destinations from month to month and asking your opinions about them. If there’s a particular destination whose condition interests or concerns you, please contact us.



Tourism Conflict in the Galápagos

[Above: Souvenir blue-footed boobies for sale in a Puerto Ayora shop, Galápagos. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

A squabble over gift-shop tourist dollars on Santa Cruz island is now threatening to close the renowned, if often troubled, Charles Darwin Research Station, whose work is fundamental to helping keep the islands’ ecosystems as healthy as possible under difficult conditions, including soaring tourism rates. Please read my complete post on the topic at National Geographic Voices.

There has been an unfortunate history of distance between the Research Station and the Puerto Ayora community at its doorstep. One has to wonder: If there had been a geotourism stewardship council in place—with representatives from government, the Research Station, and the retail community all at the table—could this politically motivated impasse been avoided?

Casinos: A Bad Bet

Atlantic City’s recent woes provide a lesson for any destination hoping to find gold in the glitter of casino development. By last month, four of the New Jersey beach city’s 12 casinos were closed, with two more reportedly teetering. Some 8,000 people are now out of work.

What happened?

The key point: Casinos are a manufactured tourist attraction. Usually, their architecture, decor, and guest experience have nothing to do with their geographical location—no inherent link to the character of the destination. (Indeed, they often try to evoke some other place, theme-park style. For some reason, Italy seems to rank high in providing such fake ambiance, from Caesar to the Renaissance to Venice.)

Without sense-of-place as a unique selling point, any destination dependent on casinos is vulnerable to new competitors in more convenient, cheaper locations.

That’s what happened to Atlantic City.

The resort city had been on the decline in the early 1970s. By then, it was known mainly for its street names featured on the Monopoly game board and the Miss America beauty pageant, itself a franchise of shrinking prominence. Introduced in 1976, casinos were to be the city’s salvation.

For nearly a generation, they were. Atlantic City was monopoly come true: the only legal gambling destination east of the Mississippi.

But laws changed, and new casinos sprouted in neighboring states and on Indian reservations. Adding to all this new competition, the strain of the 2008 financial collapse signaled the beginning of the end for the tiring gambling mecca. During the years of casino success, the city had failed to develop its character in other ways, to make itself inherently an interesting, attractive place to visit and live. It depended on the monoculture of gaming, a fatal error.

Even at their height, Atlantic City casinos attracted a large proportion of day trippers, people who rode in on buses from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York just for a few hours of gambling. They didn’t buy hotel rooms, dinners, breakfasts, or much of anything else. Many didn’t even go to the beach. The economic juice came almost solely from staffing and supplying casinos.

Casinos tend to be generic, hardly ever reflective of the locale. They do not attract tourists interested in the place; they attract people who want to gamble. Given the relentlessly increasing demand for beach tourism, there are few seaside cities that really need casinos for economic success. What’s more, the casino scene may deter more desirable overnight tourists who are looking for a less glitz and more focus on the pleasures of he shore.

Atlantic City shows that casino success may be fleeting. Long term, casinos are a bad bet for places that have their own inherent and distinctive attractions such as scenery, nature, and history.

Such destinations would be wise not to go “all in.”

News Roundup: Grenada, GSTC, and Nat Geo Initiatives

Above: View over Cariacou, Grenada. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Grenada Rebrands Itself a Geotourism Destination

The PR firm Inglefield/Ogilvy & Mather Caribbean Ltd. has announced a geotourism rebranding for the Caribbean island nation of Grenada: “Pure Grenada.” Local sustainable development expert Jennifer Alexis, of Ethical Ideas, spent months working on the cllarorative public-private initiaitive. See more at Yahoo finance or the Grenada blog. It now remains to be seen whether Grenada can live up to its promise of becoming an exemplary, authentic, sustainable  Caribbean-flavored destination.

In a supportive move, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) will host its 3rd Symposium and Sustainability Expo for Innovators in Coastal Tourism, in Grenada from July 8 to 11, 2014.

GSTC Names Randy Durband New CEO

The  Global Sustainable Tourism  Council (GSTC)  has announced the appointment of sustainable-tourism consultant Randy Durband to head the organization, replacing Mauro Marrocu, who resigned last year. Durband hopes to revitalize an organization that has been a bit wobbly ever since its U.N. Foundation grant ran out a couple of years ago, the efforts of its dedicated volunteer professionals notwithstanding. The GSTC has overseen the closest thing we’ve got to an international consensus on sustainability criteria for destinations and tourism businesses. Since these criteria need constant review and updating, a stable and vigorous GSTC is in the interest of all.

World Legacy Awards Revived

National Geographic Traveler magazine has relaunched its World Legacy Awards program for sustainable tourism in cooperation with the annual ITB travel show in Berlin. Successfully conducted for two years in partnership with Conservation International, World Legacy was suspended after organizational changes a few years ago. The renewed program will give awards in five categories:

  • Eco Innovation
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Biodiversity Conservation
  • Community Engagement
  • Sustainable Destination

Applications will be accepted this summer. World Legacy now offers awards parallel to the World Responsible Tourism Awards hosted at London’s WTM annual travel show.

Gulf States Geotourism MapGuide Rolls Out

In an Alabama ceremony, the National Geographic Gulf States Geotourism MapGude project has rolled out its website, now populated with hundreds of locally submittted nominations. Accompanying the website is a National Geographic created 37 inch by 25 inch print version with 200 distinctive points of interest in the four participating states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Funding has come from the state offices of tourism, BP’s Gulf Tourism and Seafood Promotion Grant Funds, and a federal grant given via the U.S. Public Lands Highways Discretionary Program.

Look for more posts on each of these topics in the future.


New Geotourism Activity on Canadian Border, Alaska, & Philippines

Above: Glacier National Park, Montana, part of the
Crown of the Continent. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

On the Border

The destination-based geotourism approach may be a way to join back together what the 9-11 attacks tore asunder 13 years ago: an easygoing U.S.-Canadian border. You still need passports to cross, but these geotourism projects focus on the destination as a whole, regardless of bisection by the political boundary.

Canoeists especially may welcome the latest entry: “Heart of the Continent. This new National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide program just launched in the border lakes region of northeastern Minnesota and adjacent portions of western Ontario, as reported on the U.S. side and the Canadian side. Supervised by the international Heart of the Continent Partnership, the project will create a cobranded geotourism printed map and website for the triangular area reaching from Thunder Bay, ON west to International Falls, MN and south to Duluth, also including Isle Royale.

This marks the third U.S.-Canada transborder geotourism project, following Crown of the Continent (Montana-Alberta-B.C.) and Lakes to Locks (N.Y.-Quebec). Exploration is now underway for yet a fourth, the Okanagan Valley (B.C.-Washington). Notably, one of the earliest MapGuide projects bridged a different, tougher border: Arizona (U.S.) and Sonora, Mexico. It yielded an excellent (I think) detailed print map of the Sonoran Desert but lacked a strong supervisory geotourism stewardship council that would keep the program going.

And in Alaska

Elsewhere in geotourism developments, a statewide group convened by the University of Alaska has launched a geotourism initiative and posted an Alaskan Geotourism Charter. The group is now reviewing ideas for bringing tourism benefits to Alaskan gateway communities. Many feel bypassed by tourists either on cruise-line package tours or transferring by charter flights to high-end wilderness lodges. We expect you will be hearing more about this effort.

And in Philippines

And I myself just finished a geotourism speaking tour in the Philippines, invited by a Manila-based event planner who believes Philippine tourism has lost a sense of identity. Two lectures in Manila and one each with press coverage in Baguio and Legazpi introduced the geotourism approach to some 3,500 Filipino university students and a variety of professional practitioners. Watch for more on this country’s tourism profile in an upcoming post.

Nat Geo Roundup on Geotourism Notes OAS Nod

Geotourism in 2013 on NG NewsWatch

Check out the National Geographic NewsWatch roundup of new geotourism goings-on for 2013.

The most sweeping event has been the San Pedro Sula Declaration on Sept 6, 2013 by tourism ministers of the Organization of American States that geotourism is now the preferred model for tourism development in Latin America and the Caribbean. Also of note are new Geotourism MapGuide projects, a unique Cypriot-Egyptian geotourism conference, the fourth edition of Montreal’s social-enterprise Geotourism Magazine, and much more.


Massive Geotourism Project Underway in U.S. Gulf Coast States

A sprawling new geotourism project is wrapping up its initial request for map-guide nominations in four American states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Organizations in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi have joined in the U.S. Gulf Coast States Geotourism project. Years in preparation, the project is funded partly by BP in compensation for damage to tourism in the wake of the 2010 DeepWater Horizon oil well blow-out. For a full description see the NatGeo press release.

A key goal of National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide projects is citizen participation. Local media have been spreading the word, for example: in Louisiana, including New Orleans, in Mississippi, in Alabama, both coastal and inland. (Note: these media links may expire.) James Dion of National Geographic Maps and Solimar International have been managing the project from the Geographic side. A regional committee, the U.S. Gulf States Southern Crescent Stewardship Council, must now complete review of the nominations in preparation for the official roll-out of the Geotourism MapGuide later in the year.

With four states participating, this Geotourism MapGuide project obviously comprises many destinations. One can hope that the process will deepen local appreciation for their own distinctive natural and cultural heritage, raise perceived value of those assets, and help to build a more sustainable approach to tourism and destination stewardship, especially along the coast.