Alaska’s visitors spent $3.7 billion here during 2011 and 12, according to a state report.
Although the financial benefits of tourism are undeniable, there can be a downside; commercialization of scenic areas and overcrowding are two drawbacks. But one man wants to change how communities are affected by tourism. The concept of Geotourism focuses on enhancing the character of a unique place.
First, lets make it clear – geotourism and ecotourism are two different things. Jonathan Tourtellot coined the word “geotourism “and he is the originator of the concept of “destination stewardship”.
“It is all focused on what your place is all about. Because you are emphasizing differentiation. Market differentiation is key to this, because you cannot be undersold if what you have is unique.”
Tourtellot says Ecotourism is an 1980s concept that uses tourism to protect a natural environment. Geotourism takes the concept further – it makes the destination itself the product, and relies on a cooperative effort among many people and entities.
Tourtellot established National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations and ran it for almost a decade. He says, mass tourism ultimately destroys the distinctive place that initially attracted visitors. He says, geotourism is counter to mass tourism, because it doesn’t focus on numbers but on the type of tourist a destination wants to attract:
“But rather look at how much they are spending, who are they benefitting, who’s getting the money and who is getting the benefit of their presence.”
Tourtellot believes visitors are likely to seek out places that maintain their character, and can demonstrate that character to the visitor, through stories and demonstrations, even by serving unique local foods
“And a lot of these things you see, are expressed through small and medium businesses and non-profit groups. and that is both good for the community, because it enriches the local life, and it is good for the traveller, because it adds texture to the travel experience. Local people should benefit. And how they benefit is part of the interesting challenge of doing this right, whether it is a broom maker in North Carolina, or here’s an Inuit soapstone carver on Baffin Island. “
He says geotourism redirects tourism to the real meaning of the word — to tour.
He had little data on Alaska, but in Belize, Tourtellot compared the numbers of visitors who arrived on cruise ships with the number of dollars they spend there. Tourtellot calls cruise ship passengers “less adventurous tourists”, and said 800,000 of them spend about 31 million dollars compared with 236 thousand tourists who traveled to Belize in other ways and stayed overnight at least once, adding 150 million to Belize’s economy.
“To put it another way, the stay over passengers contributed five times as much, with only one third of the numbers, as the cruise ship passengers. This is a colossal difference in benefit per passenger. “
Tourtellot has lotof data on American travelers. He says about 154 million of them have traveled during the past three years. But will geotourism work in Alaska? Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, says “yes”
“And I do think some communities are already doing it, maybe just not calling it geotourism. I think for a small to medium sized community, having those that are involved in tourism decide what kind of tourism and what kind of image they want to present from their community is all about tourism planning and reaching out to the markets of tourists that they want to attract to their community.”
Leonard says large and small businesses can learn about marketing programs through associations like ATIA.
A strong geotoursim program for any community begins with local leaders, Tourtellot says. Part of that is marketing. He says, you have to get people to think of Alaska as more than Denali, bears and the Inside Passage.