Advice for a Basque Destination

[Above: Gaztelugatxeko Doniene hermitage sits on an islet on Urdaibai’s Bay of Biscay coast. All photos courtesy Urdaibai Magazine.]

How should undiscovered coastal destinations handle tourism?

Earlier this year, Urdaibai Magazine, based in the Basque country of Spain, interviewed Destination Stewardship Center director Jonathan Tourtellot about how to build  responsible tourism activity in this coastal region containing the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. With permission, we present an English-language version of that interview. The answers could apply to any seaside destination that is seeking a better approach to tourism. You can read the original, in either Basque or Spanish here.

Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984, Urdaibai, northeast of Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay (Bizkaia in Basque) combines a maritime and rural environment with deep cultural traditions. The place is striving to be one where “humans and nature coexist in a framework of respect and sustainable development.” The interview follows.

  1. Urdaibai Magazine: What are the global challenges facing tourism today ?

Jonathan Tourtellot: Overtourism, climate change, and a decision-making mindset that assesses tourism value only in terms of industry transactions—money—with little if any regard to the quality and character of the destinations on which tourism depends.

Urdaibai’s marshes and estuary form core of the Biosphere Reserve.

  1. U.M.: What basic measures do you think should be taken by a small and still underdeveloped tourism territory, as is the case of Urdaibai’s Biosphere Reserve, to integrate tourism activity in a sustainable way?

J.T.: Measure tourism success in terms of value, not volume: Value in terms not only of revenue, but how well tourism benefits are shared by the community and how well they help preserve the natural and cultural heritage that visitors are coming to experience. Invite the kinds of tourism that bring other benefits to the community as well, from education and volunteer help to philanthropy and appropriate business development. Do not measure success just by number of tourist arrivals. That’s quantity, not quality.

  1. U.M.: In order for the tourism to be an activity with a positive impact on the population and the territory, what kind of actions should we avoid when planning our tourism promotion and promotion strategy? What could we regret?

J.T.: Well, let’s look at what not to do! Avoid developing look-alike tourism resorts, hotels, and attractions that could be seen anywhere. Generic facilities are a good way to attract generic tourists—people who seek only better weather than they have back home and who will happily go elsewhere if another destination offers the same thing cheaper.

Everything developed for tourism should reflect distinctive aspects of Urdaibai, or Euskadi, or Spain (in descending order of importance). That mix of authenticity can provide tourists with a rich experience that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. What’s more, revenues from visitors who are sincerely interested in the Urdaibai area will benefit local people and encourage them to protect of the natural and cultural heritage upon which their income depends.

  1. U.M.: You are the creator of a concept as attractive as “geotourism”: the geographical tourism, which could be interpreted today as a paradigm of sustainable tourism. How do you define geotourism? In this context, what should be the tourist’s attitude to make their impact positive and to help ensure that tourism does not become a global problem?

J.T.: The definition of geotourism as we put forth via the National Geographic Society is “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Our research shows that people interested in those things—“geotravelers”—stay longer and spend more than the average tourist.

An aside: An alternate, much narrower definition of “geotourism” focusing explicitly on geology has gained traction in connection with the international geoparks movement. While clearly different, the two usages are compatible and complementary. In terms of tourism quality, each adds interest to the other, as set forth in the Arouca Declaration (downloadable in four languages) made in 2011 at the International Geotourism Congress in that Portuguese city.—J.T.

If you’re a traveler with a geotouristic attitude, you want your presence to help enhance a place rather than degrade it. The simplest way to do this is to support the businesses that support the quality of the place—businesses that not only practice basic sustainability but also showcase the nature and culture of the place. Spend your money there, not with an international franchise hotel or eatery just like the ones back home. Each Euro you spend is like a vote. Support variety, not sameness. You’ll have a richer trip and take home more memories.

Santimamiñe cave drawings in Kortezubi, Urdaibai date from more than 12,000 years ago.

And of course, you need to be a responsible visitor and encourage the same behavior in others: Recycle your trash if possible, respect local culture, and treat historic sites with care. And do put away that selfie stick. Sure, take a couple of shots of yourselves, but then turn the camera instead toward the place and what it has to offer. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If you’re visiting just to prove you have been to one more destination, you’re no geotraveler, just a selfie narcissist taking up space and adding to the overtourism problem. Instead, learn everything you can and tell the people back home about it. Put those things on Instagram and Youtube, rather than your own face.

  1. U.M.: Compatibility: Is tourism interested in the culture, historical heritage, the character of the territory, its natural environment, and the peculiarities of the societies it visits—is such tourism compatible with what is understood as “the tourism industry”?

J.T.: Yes and no. Yes, if “industry” is defined as any business that relies mainly on tourism, then it certainly is part of the industry.

This open-air Erregelak dance is one of numerous traditional Basque dances.

No, if it is mass tourism, high on volume and low on value per tourist footprint. What’s more, destinations catering to mass tourism tend to repel the tourists with the geotourism array of interests. Crammed beaches, amusement parks, and lots of T-shirt shops are not what they are looking for.

  1. U.M.: As certifications for quality, process, origin, etc. gain importance in all areas of society, do you consider it necessary for destinations obtain tourism certifications of sustainability and commitment to the environment?

J.T.: Certifications or ratings (my preference) help, partly to differentiate yourselves from those destinations that care nothing about sustainability, partly to encourage any less-motivated stakeholders within your own destination, and partly to monitor your own progress.

  1. U.M.: The National Geographic Society has been a pioneer and a world reference in the dissemination of natural wealth, culture, heritage and science and of the combination of these disciplines with travel and adventure, coming to create a style, a way of seeing the world. From your perspective as a representative for sustainable destinations, what do you think is the role of the specialized press in the development of respectful, integrated, and non-invasive tourism?

J.T.: Travel media have a variety of ways they can improve the conduct of tourism. It’s better to honestly inform than promote. If you do a good job as a travel journalist, the story you tell and show your public will do the promotion job for you. Increasingly, media need to encourage alternative destinations and sites—some media have already started doing this—to avoid overcrowding the famous places. Media need to encourage responsible travel and do the same with their advertisers. Even more than other specialties, travel media are notoriously close to their advertisers, a reality forced by the expensive economics of travel. Now, media may need to help educate their advertisers in how to promote destinations, tours, and accommodations more responsibly. Better to take focus off of generic resorts and golf courses and encourage advertisers instead to focus on the unique characteristics of the destination they are marketing.

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Jonathan Tourtellot

About Jonathan Tourtellot

CEO & Portal Editor, DestinationCenter.org; Principal, Focus on Places LLC; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; founding Director, former NG Center for Sustainable Destinatio

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