PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Traveling to a seaside New England clam shack for fried clams. Listening to jazz in New Orleans. Visiting a small organic coffee farm in Guatemala.
These trips would all make for very different summer vacations, but they have something in common: They could all be considered “geotourism,” a relatively new term for travel that focuses on a destination’s unique culture and history and aims to have visitors help enrich those qualities — rather than turn the place into a typical tourist trap.
The term is so new that few tourists use it. But it’s on the lips of travel professionals who describe it as a step beyond the better-known environmentally friendly ecotourism.
While geotourism encourages treading lightly on nature, it’s also about authenticity and making a place better by visiting and spending money.
“People do tend to like things that they’re not going to experience somewhere else. They’re looking for things that are not homogenized,” said David DePetrillo, Rhode Island’s tourism director. “People are seeking a more experiential vacation.”
Rhode Island in May became the latest region to sign the Geotourism Charter by the National Geographic Society, joining Arizona, Guatemala, Honduras, Norway and Romania in a commitment to the ideals of geotourism.
The state will form a “Geotourism Collaborative” to come up with ways to preserve its unique assets, whether it be Narragansett Bay at the heart of Rhode Island or its Colonial-era architecture in Newport and Providence.
Other areas have made maps with the help of National Geographic highlighting geo-tourism destinations, including the Appalachian region and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Now more than ever, it’s easy to move quickly around the globe. While that can be a good thing, it also means places are “under various forms of assault,” said Jonathan B. Tourtellot, who became the National Geographic Society’s first director of sustainable destinations in 2001. Tourtellot coined the term “geotourism,” and it first appeared in print in a 2002 study about the idea by the Travel Industry Association of America and National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Tourtellot wants to bring the focus of tourism back to the character of a place.
“The enemy of geotourism is sameness,” he said. “There’s a great deal of creeping sameness in the world.”
One of the best examples, he said, is Spain’s Costa del Sol, sometimes mocked as the “Costa del Concrete” for its overdeveloped coastline.
“It’s not necessarily that a big hotel on a beach is a bad thing,” Tourtellot said. “It’s how the hotel is designed. It’s where the hotel is located. What’s a bad thing is nothing but ugly, look-alike hotels going on for mile after mile.”
Gregory Leinberger has never heard of geotourism, but the seasoned traveler likes the idea. The 25-year-old hairstylist, who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, has bartered for goods in a Moroccan souk, visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and witnessed the Muslim call to prayer in Istanbul. He wants to be “as foreign as I can get” when he travels, he said.
Without knowing it, he’s the ideal geotourist.
“I want to be engulfed in it,” he said.
“I think that’s when you really learn something.”
Among the foundations of the geotourism philosophy is its benefit to the local population.
When destinations highlight the things that make them special, it not only draws more tourists, it also helps the local community appreciate its own uniqueness. That, in turn, motivates them to preserve the cultural or natural resources that keep tourists coming.
“So it’s not all the Wal-Marts and McDonalds that they aspire to. It gives them a sense of pride in who they are and what they do,” said Don Holecek, professor of tourism at Michigan State University and director of the university’s Tourism Center.
Supporters of the geotourism concept say it also creates jobs that employ local people and income for local business owners.
In Guatemala, small coffee growers that might struggle to make ends meet are opening up their farms to tourists in a geotourism initiative, said Lelei Lelaulu, president and chief executive of Counterpart International, a Washington-based non-profit international development agency.
Counterpart International joined with the government of Guatemala and Anacafe, which represents 75,000 Guatemalan coffee producers, to sign the geotourism charter.
“People can go and visit these small farms and get to taste the coffee ... look at the farm and incredibly interesting machinery, but also learn about the local Maya culture as well,” Lelaulu said.
While they’re there, it’s an opportunity for tourists to talk with residents about local issues. It opens up the minds of both sides, he said, and even has elements of peace-building.
Lelaulu cites a 2006 report by the United Nations’ World Tourism organization, which estimated that worldwide, international tourism alone generates $2 billion a day in receipts. Seventy countries earned more than $1 billion in 2005 from international tourism.
The report also forecast that by 2010, international tourist arrivals will reach 1 billion annually. That’s about three international trips for every person in the United States.
“I see tourism as the largest voluntary transfer of cash from the rich to the poor, the ‘haves’ to ‘have nots,’ in history,” Lelaulu said.
AP Photos -Evelyn’s Drive-In in Tiverton, R.I., offers customers clam cakes, lobster rolls and fried clams. While geotourism encourages treading lightly on nature, it’s also about authenticity and making a place better by visiting and spending money.