Commentary ©2013 by Jonathan Tourtellot, originator of the geotourism concept. May be quoted freely with attribution.
What’s the thinking behind the principles of the Geotourism Charter?
The Geotourism Charter (PDF) as originally put forth via National Geographic lists 13 principles. You can think of the principles as guidelines, as stars to steer by. The operational methods for doing so are a matter for stakeholders in each destination to determine, but a recommended first step is to establish a About Stewardship Councils (PDF) or equivalent.
Here is the reasoning worked out with various destinations for the geotourism principles and their intended benefits to destination stewardship.
1. Integrity of place: Enhance geographical character by developing and improving it in ways distinctive to the locale, reflective of its natural and cultural heritage, so as to encourage market differentiation and cultural pride.
Comment: This is the overriding guiding principle, the one by which all activities should be measured. Sense of place manifests itself in numerous ways: When you enter a town or walk down a street, does the architecture suggest what region you are in? Does the landscape? If you enter a hotel lobby or disembark into an airport terminal, can you tell where you are? Does your restaurant menu have regional dishes or drinks? What music is playing in public spaces? Even smells—especially smells!—can evoke a place and create a sense of nostalgia or longing for it years later and far away.
—In destination management, ask, “Are we sustaining or enhancing the character of our place”? This may require some deep thinking about just what the character of the place is, and what you hope it will become. To maximize long-term geotourism appeal, it’s generally good to avoid internationally generic types of development or projects that will degrade sense of place. New projects should have a touch of unique local flavor, providing an experience that can be had only here.
2. International codes: Adhere to the principles embodied in the World Tourism Organization’s Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, the Principles of the Cultural Tourism Charter established by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the criteria for sustainable destinations put forth by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Comment: Arrived at by extensive international research and cooperation, these codes and guidelines provide the methods for protecting sensitive sites, destinations, and the people who live and work in them.
3. Market selectivity: Encourage growth in tourism market segments most likely to appreciate, respect, and disseminate information about the distinctive assets of the locale.
Comment: Go for appropriate demand: The size of geotourist market segments will vary from one source market to another. The landmark study of U.S. travelers, Geotourism: The New Trend in Travel, established that over 65 million U.S. households for the geotourism profile, roughly half the American traveling households—and significantly, the more affluent half. So tune destination promotion appropriately. Advertising the casinos will attract gamblers. Advertising natural and cultural heritage will attract nature- and history-lovers. Promoting the unique aspects of your place will attract the visitors most likely to appreciate them.
4. Market diversity: Encourage a full range of appropriate food and lodging facilities, so as to appeal to the entire demographic spectrum of the geotourism market and so maximize economic resiliency over both the short and long term.
Comment: An easy way to aim for maximum benefit per tourist (and minimal crowding) is to favor high-price experiential and luxury tourism. This is a solid approach, at least in the short term, but it should not be the only approach. Some types of tourism are beneficial for other reasons: diplomatic, educational, philanthropic, volunteer support, and so on.
International travelers may spend more on average than domestic, but domestic travelers are the ones most likely to vote on public support for historic and natural sites.
—Self-catering visitors may spend more with local merchants, for groceries and supplies, than guests in hotels with pre-established supply chains.
The young educated backpacker tourist may spend less per day than a resort tourist, but often stays longer and spends more with local businesses. Most important, travel experiences in youth create the appetite for return visits later in life, with families and fatter wallets.
—As for using price to control excess traffic at sensitive sites, this again may be a solid approach, but not the only one. There is danger in letting nature and history become the private property of the rich. Consider a mix of policies for controlling traffic volume—by price, yes, but also by lottery, by quota, by first-come, first-served up to a daily limit, etc.
5. Tourist enthusiasm: Ensure that satisfied, excited geotourists bring new vacation stories home and send friends off to experience the same thing, thus providing continuing demand for the destination.
Comment: Word of mouth has typically been the way most people decide on a destination. Social media raise its importance exponentially. One way to encourage word of mouth is to delight visitors with experiences they’ll want to talk about back home.
6. Community involvement: Base tourism on community resources to the extent possible, encouraging local small businesses and civic groups to build partnerships to promote and provide a distinctive, honest visitor experience and market their locales effectively. Help businesses develop approaches to tourism that build on the area’s nature, history and culture, including food and drink, artisanry, performance arts, etc.
Comment: Geotourism depends substantially on active community involvement in creating great travel experiences and benefiting thereby. Local people are the ultimate geotourism asset.
7. Community benefit: Encourage micro- to medium-size enterprises and tourism business strategies that emphasize economic and social benefits to involved communities, especially poverty alleviation, with clear communication of the destination stewardship policies required to maintain those benefits.
Comment: The last line of the geotourism definition requires that residents benefit from tourism, and be aware that they do. That means additional employment, additional small business development, and tax benefits that residents can actually see in their bills. It also means additional cultural enrichment, pubic education, and enhanced community assets. The right amount of tourism patronage—not too much, not too little—can for instance help float small businesses, museums, and performance venues that could not survive on local patronage alone. Public policy should also steer economic and educational benefits to impoverished and underprivileged groups.
8. Protection and enhancement of destination appeal: Encourage businesses to sustain natural habitats, heritage sites, aesthetic appeal, and local culture. Prevent degradation by keeping volumes of tourists within maximum acceptable limits. Seek business models that can operate profitably within those limits. Use persuasion, incentives, and legal enforcement as needed.
Comment: In one sense, sustaining the appeal of a place can be compared to sustaining any business: Don’t use up your resources (and do charge enough to pay for them). But places are not just businesses. They are total experiences that can inspire real love. So in this deeper sense, protecting the various aspects and assets of a place are akin to protecting home and family. Call it brand allegiance or call it quality of life. Either way, the locale should inspire that greatest of geographical compliments, “I love this place!”
• That means protecting natural habitats that provide the locale’s characteristic scenery and ecological base for iconic plants and animals.
• It means avoiding incompatible land uses that degrade the visitor experience or the resources on which it is based.
• It means maintaining the historic sites and structures that make visible the unique story of your place.
• It means maintaining and improving distinctive aesthetic appeal, whether rural landscapes, wilderness, or city streetscapes. New construction should best exhibit characteristics reflective of the local area. (An exception would be deliberately iconic and unique architectural wonders such as the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower, or anything by Frank Gehry. You may or may not like the design, but it isn’t generic.) The enemy of geotourism is sameness, especially international sameness.
• It means using tourism to help support and reinvigorate locally distinctive arts, music, and cuisine.
• And it means: Avoid overcrowding, also known as “people pollution.” The famed Yogi Berra tautology, “Nobody goes here anymore; it’s too crowded” has a moral: Without management, high-quality tourism falls to high-quantity tourism. For businesses, as you approach the Yogi Berra limit, think of growing in quality, not quantity. If self-regulation isn’t working at sensitive sites, establish and enforce legal limits. Otherwise, the goose with the golden eggs will be trampled to death. (See also comment on Principle 13.)
9. Land use: Anticipate development pressures and apply techniques to prevent undesired overdevelopment and degradation. Contain resort and vacation-home sprawl, especially on coasts and islands, so as to retain a diversity of natural and scenic environments and ensure continued resident access to waterfronts. Encourage major self-contained tourism attractions, such as large-scale theme parks and convention centers unrelated to character of place, to be sited in needier locations with no significant ecological, scenic, or cultural assets.
Comment: Tourism-related sprawl and its accompanying characteristics of environmental impacts, traffic, scenic degradation, and loss of character is a major hazard of resort regions—seacoasts, mountains, and lake country especially. Keeping in mind that the destination as a whole is the authentic tourism product, you are wise to care for it accordingly. Note that real estate values tend to track accordingly. Is there a way to undo damage already done? Of course, but it depends on the situation. Restoration may require nothing more than landscaping and a different coat of paint, or you may need to use dynamite, as a couple of Spanish resorts have done.
—By contrast, manufactured tourism attractions—theme parks, casinos, franchise shopping malls, water parks, etc.— do not generally rely on sense of place, and are therefore best placed where their high economic impact will do the most good, and their heavy scenic and environmental footprint the least harm. Nondescript countryside, semi-arid areas, and depressed sections of urban areas are examples of excellent locations for these. Note that even with manufactured attractions, it is possible and desirable to introduce sense of place through local design elements, music, art, food, and so on.
10. Conservation of resources: Encourage government and businesses to minimize water pollution, solid waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and overly bright nighttime lighting. Advertise these measures in a way that attracts the large, environmentally sympathetic tourist market.
Comment: Environmental responsibility is increasingly demanded by consumers and meeting organizers. It calls for a more proactive response than such low-hanging fruit as linen re-use and low-voltage light bulbs. (Oddly, some hotels shoot themselves in the budget by not even doing that.) Options for action include
• readily observable tourism benefits such as support for wildlife habitats,
• behind-the-scenes aid for ecosystems that support the food chain and reduce unpleasant, pollution,
• entertaining education for visitors on ecology, on the science of climate change, and on astronomical wonders (dark skies required).
Promote to the lucrative tourist market most likely to appreciate these things. (And don’t do it with unsightly signage that degrades the scenery.)
11. Planning: Recognize and respect immediate economic needs without sacrificing long-term character and the geotourism potential of the destination. Where tourism attracts in-migration of workers, develop new communities that themselves constitute a destination enhancement. Strive to diversify the economy and limit population influx to sustainable levels. Adopt public strategies for mitigating practices that are incompatible with geotourism and damaging to the image of the destination.
Comment: No matter how thoughtful and creative, planning is easy compared to execution. Without support from political and business interests, long-term visions tend to yield to short-term needs and expediency. On the 2004-2010 National Geographic destination stewardship surveys, the higher-scoring destinations tended to have substantial public support for sense of place, and opportunity for public outcry when the vision is violated.
12. Interactive interpretation: Engage both visitors and hosts in learning about the place. Encourage residents to show off the natural and cultural heritage of their communities, so that tourists gain a richer experience and residents develop pride in their locales.
Comment: It’s said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. One of the most rewarding ways for local people to gain appreciation for their own natural and cultural heritage is to present it to visitors, whether as professional guides, docents, students, business proprietors, hospitality workers, or even through chance encounters. For a visitor, learning something about the destination from your waiter or hotel maid can enrich the travel experience. For their part, those more-knowledgeable citizens will encourage good care for the locale. And make some money, too. Taxi drivers know that good stories—preferably truthful!—lead to better tips.
13. Evaluation: Establish an evaluation process to be conducted on a regular basis by an independent panel representing all stakeholder interests, and publicize evaluation results.
Comment: Determining the measures of success is essential to this principle. Sheer number of tourists is the crudest, least meaningful, and most dangerous metric—but also the easiest to obtain. Better is to measure (or estimate) benefit per tourist. Stay-over visitors, for instance, can contribute three to five times as much to the economy as day-trippers. While many less affluent places would obviously gain from more tourists, other places that already have a decent tourist flow should be on guard not to exceed “social carrying capacity,” the point at which crowding begins to detract from the experience—especially crowding by the generally less-beneficial day-trippers. Day-trippers can help a lot where there is little tourism to begin with, but too many can easily lead to discouraging more desirable overnight visitors, as well as decreasing residents’ quality of life. A more constructive approach is to encourage longer stays and repeat visits.
—In tourism, more is not necessarily better. “Better” is better.
About Jonathan Tourtellot
CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; Editor, Destination Stewardship Report; Principal, Focus on Places LLC; founding Director, former Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations