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How Tourism Can Help Us See A Better World

Geotourism is a new movement that shows travelers how to improve the places they visit. Here’s a look at how it can work from Chile.

by Jay Walljasper

Published in Ode magazine


Somewhere in the Andes

I am up in the Andes exploring the backcountry of Chile with Jonathan B. Tourtellot of the National Geographic Society. We’re travelling on a road more suited for burros than autos, and I sit motionless looking out the passenger’s window at a spectacular valley below. But I am not appreciating the scenery; I am staring at a sheer drop of at least 500 feet (150 metres) a short distance from our right front wheel, thinking of all the newspaper stories I’ve read about buses full of people plunging to their deaths in the Andes. Do cars tumble over cliffs more often than buses, I wonder, and don’t even make the papers?

I glance over at Tourtellot, who is completely unfazed at the steering wheel, telling me a story about how he came down with pneumonia in the Amazon not long before leaving on a expedition by burro to the headwaters of the Urubamba River. Then there was the time he fired an incompetent guide and went it alone on a journey across Baffin Island, on the Arctic Circle. This harrowing mountain road is nothing to him. He’s far more nervous about how he’s going to find time to shave before meeting the president of the Dominican Republic at a luncheon one hour after he arrives back in Washington, D.C. from Chile. I’m just thankful he’s not shooting photos through the windshield, as he did earlier in the day on a slightly less treacherous stretch of mountain road.

Santiago, Chile

“Get ready!” Tourtellot warns a crowd of American travel writers, “—for tourism on steroids.”

A hush falls over the hotel conference room as he explains that international tourism almost doubled between 1990 and 2005. People are expected to take a billion trips outside their own countries in 2010—a billion and a half by 2015 as many Chinese join the travelling throngs. Multiply that number by four or five, he calculates, to include people taking domestic vacations. In less than a decade, we could see 7 billion tourists roaming the planet.

“Another way to look at it,” he says, “is to realize that if 4 billion people decide to see the Mona Lisa, it would take 309 years, even with groups of 25 viewing it for one minute, 24 hours a day.”

Tourism on this massive scale threatens what’s special in the world. The Galápagos Islands are straining under the weight of invading tourist boats, he reports. The famous beach resorts of the Costa del Sol in Spain might better be called the Costa del Concrete. “More ridiculously, a casino was proposed for Easter Island. Thankfully, I understand, that idea is dead.”

Yet Tourtellot is no Cassandra, fanning fears of a global tourist apocalypse. He responds to nervous faces in the audience by reassuring us that, “Vermont and Tuscany handle a lot of tourists yet they score well. It’s because the people who live there care about keeping the integrity of these places.”

The score he refers to is the ranking of travel destinations he compiles with the help of 400 experts in fields such as economics, history and wildlife biology for National Geographic Traveler magazine, where he is geotourism editor. Geotourism is his own term, which he defines as, “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—the environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents. It is about building a relationship with the place you are visiting—with the local culture, with the natural environment and with the people who live there.”

Tourtellot believes geotourism provides the antidote to tourism on steroids. He thinks geotravellers can improve social conditions, ecological problems and the unique character of the places they visit.

His rankings highlight endangered international treasures like Venice, the Great Barrier Reef, and Angkor, Cambodia, but also call attention to geotourism success stories:

--the West Fjords of Norway, which regularly rank No. 1 for wise management of tourist development in a spectacularly beautiful place; 
--the Mexican colonial city of Guanajuato, which maintains historical charm and a relaxed way of life at the same time as making visitors feel welcome; 
--Kruger National Park in South Africa, where officials have done a good job of making the park an economic asset for local people; 
--The Alhambra, a breathtaking Moorish castle in Granada, Spain, an example of how a destination can regulate the flow of visitors to ensure everybody a positive, hassle-free experience;

Tourtellot urges everyone attending the Society of American Travel Writers’ Conference in Santiago to pay attention to the impact—positive as well as negative—that tourists can make on a place and the people who live there. “We have 6 billion people on the Earth,” Tourtellot says, “and they all deserve a vacation. But we need to be thoughtful about how we are going to do it.”

“We’re looking for geotourism heroes,” he announces—individuals dedicated to harnessing the economic and cultural power of tourism to sustain and improve their communities. They can be small-scale entrepreneurs like Liz Perdomo, a local woman in the town of Gracias, Honduras, who opened a restaurant specializing in Maya-inspired dishes served on Maya pottery. Or well-connected civic leaders like Julie Packard, who helped turn a rusting cannery in Monterey, Calilfornia, into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which celebrates the unique coastal ecology and culture of that area.

Quoting a study commissioned by National Geographic Traveler and the Travel Industry Association of America, he notes that 74 percent of Americans travelling abroad fit one of the definitions of “geotraveller.” They represent a ready-made market for new, socially beneficial travel opportunities. Build on the geotourism assets of your community, Tourtellot counsels, and they will come.

Inspired by Tourtellot’s talk, I step out into the corridor of Santiago’s Four Points Sheraton and am instantly confronted by the challenges geotourism faces. You could wander around this hotel for hours and never get a clue you’re in South America. It’s all standard-issue globalized ambience, from the abstract shapes of the chandeliers in the lobby to a breakfast buffet identical to one you’d find in Wellington or Winnipeg.

When I go outside for a breath of fresh air, Santiago feels like a slavish imitation of Los Angeles with a few high-rises at the centre surrounded by broad expanses of freeways and big box stores. The skies are thick with auto exhaust. No one here seems to heed Tourtellot’s advice that a place prospers by emphasizing its own unique character.

I’m ready to get out of town as soon as possible and search for the real Chile, but Tourtellot suggests we go to dinner in a neighbourhood he’s heard about. I reluctantly agree, and after a short bus ride find that I am utterly charmed—thrilled, actually—by Barrio Bellavista, an arty enclave wedged between the Río Mapocho and the upscale hilltop suburb of Providencia. The Calle Antonia López de Bello is lined with sidewalk tables full of talking, laughing people while jazz, R %amp% B and updated versions of Chile’s once-famous “Nueva Canción” (“new song”) music stream out of cafés. We snag an empty table, order local wine and empanadas, and Tourtellot, who often displays a distant lost-in-thought expression, sports a big grin. “Now this is geotourism” he exclaims.

People think of sustainable ecotourist destinations as untouched spots far off in the countryside, but Tourtellot is just as likely to explore city streets as mountain roads. “New York is a great geotourist destination,” he explains, “because you go to New York to see New York. It’s the whole feel of the place that attracts you. And cities can usually absorb a lot of tourists without sacrificing their essential character.” Off the top of his head, he lists Amsterdam, Krakow, Kyoto, Quebec City, Évora (Portugal), Bath (England) and Charleston (South Carolina in the U.S.) as other prime settings for urban adventure. Indeed, as we are discovering in Bellavista, even seemingly drab cities offer geotourist hot spots.

Bellavista fits well with Tourtellot’s mission to save the world’s threatened travel destinations. If people can find inspiring, fun travel experiences in many spots, there will be less urge for everyone to flock to world-renowned and overcrowded places like the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon or Kathmandu. “One of the best things about geotourism is how it reinforces the idea that you don’t have to go the ends of the Earth to find an unspoiled place,” notes François Bédard, director of the new World Center of Excellence on Tourist Destinations, affiliated with the United Nations World Tourism Association. “It’s about the character of a place—and almost any place can be of interest if it draws on its qualities.”

Tourtellot was tipped off about Bellavista by Lake Sagaris, a Canadian journalist and activist who has lived in the area for many years. When I later interview her, I realize this neighbourhood offers evidence for another key geotourism goal: that visitors can bring improvements to a struggling community. Bellavista, according to Sagaris, has long been a raffish, rough-at-the-edges place where poor people, bohemians and other outsiders congregate—a rare occurrence in a society still caught in the lingering effects of the Pinochet dictatorship. A few years ago, plans to rip apart the neighbourhood for a new highway through it seemed to doom this experiment in social diversity. No one believed the project could be stopped, but the ever-rebellious residents rose up anyway—and to their surprise, won an agreement from government officials that the road would run underground beneath Bellavista.

“We saved the neighbourhood,” Sagaris says, which set the stage for Ciudad Viva (“living city”), a grassroots coalition dedicated to revitalizing Bellavista and other Santiago neighbourhoods. The group helps launch microbusinesses, renovates old buildings, turned a busy street into a pedestrian zone, implements recycling program and encourages bicycle transportation—all of which has been fueled by the group’s sustainable urban tourism initiative, which promotes Bellavista to visitors seeking a lively, pedestrian-friendly place. “We’re glad that people want to see what we’ve done. They can come here to learn, have fun and be inspired. That’s the kind of tourism we are interested in.”

We stay one more day in Santiago, strolling down the main pedestrian street, stopping at the central plaza, eating seafood at a gorgeous Belle Epoque public market, riding the spiffy new subway and exploring the university district, where we realize how much the country has changed since the days of Pinochet when we happen upon a political rally with young leftists chanting slogans to the accompaniment of a punk band.

Santa Cruz, Chile

The following day we take our terrifying side trip through narrow mountain roads on our way to Santa Cruz in the heart of wine country—the Chilean version of Burgundy or Napa Valley, according to one of Tourtellot’s contacts at the Ministry of Tourism. We’ve barely checked into the hotel (which Tourtellot gives high marks because it’s new but looks as if it has stood overlooking the main plaza for years) and he’s back out on the street, camera in one hand, a clutch of tourist brochures in the other and a whole list of things he wants to see. I am too weary from the drive to keep up with him, so I explore the town on my own. There’s a bustling main street where I find exactly what I am looking for: extra pairs of socks and more notebooks. That’s the mark of a true geotourism destination, according to Tourtellot: a place where you can buy something other than souvenirs and $9 (7-euro) glasses of wine. I settle down on a bench in the plaza, watching kids play in the fountain, and decide Santa Cruz is probably more “geo” than “tourist.”

Tourtellot and I meet up for dinner, and he orders the only entree on the menu that he hasn’t heard of, even though he doesn’t quite understand the waiter’s Spanish explanation of what it is. His verdict on Santa Cruz: “It certainly passes the authenticity test, but it’s still a little ugly. I find it a little disappointing.” But he doesn’t look disappointed—just the opposite. I press him and he admits, “There’s always something about a place that can get you excited. The changing scenes and ambience. Even how the air feels different from place to place. I like to see it all.”

He’s felt that way as long as he can remember, so landing a job with the National Geographic Society was a dream come true. He’s spent the last 28 years traversing the globe from top to bottom. Out of these experiences grew his ideas about geotourism.

The full extent of the tourism crisis first struck him in 1981 in Iceland, where a decade earlier he had enjoyed an unforgettable swim in a hot spring filled with lava formations. “But it was no longer safe for swimming because too many tourists were coming and peeing in the springs,” he remembers. “The pathways were roped off because tourists were pounding on the lava formations. And this was all happening in a remote place like the north of Iceland. That made me aware the Earth was changing faster due to tourism than we realized.”

Thoughts about how to preserve the world’s special places rolled around Tourtellet’s mind for a number of years, finding their way occasionally into articles and books, and eventually his column for National Geographic Traveler. The term “geotourism” didn’t appear until 1997, after he and his wife Sally came home from a conference on nature tourism in Hawaii. “I had heard a lot of complaining about the lack of a good word to call this. ‘Nature tourism’ or ‘ecotourism’ doesn’t focus on human culture. ‘Sustainable tourism’ is so wonkish. ‘Responsible tourism’ doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. [See accompanying sidebar, “What’s in a word?”] So Sally and I brainstormed about 30 terms one evening, and the next morning we woke up and had both decided that out of them all, the right one was geotourism.”

Tourtellot brought the new idea to his colleagues at the National Geographic Society, and soon found himself (in addition to his work at the magazine) heading up the Society’s new Center for Sustainable Destinations, where he is now pursuing a growing roster of projects: in Honduras; the Maya regions of Guatemala; the Transylvania region of Romania; the Sonora Desert in Mexico and Arizona; the Appalachian mountains of the eastern U.S.; the northeast corner of Vermont and Baja California in Mexico.

Since community participation is an essential element of geotourism, Tourtellot partners with local folks, who know the ins and outs, to promote these places’ distinctive assets to both residents and tourists. Since the National Geographic Society is famous for producing maps, a special Geotourism MapGuide is prepared for each region, highlighting particular attractions like historic sites, cultural landmarks, local music venues, great markets and restaurants.

Tourtellot and his colleagues at the centre have drafted a Geotourism Charter—already signed by Norway, the Cook Islands, Romania, Honduras, the U.S. state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora—in which governments commit themselves to the principles of geotourism. The charter and other materials from the centre emphasize high-minded goals such as “integrity of place,” “community benefit,” “tourist satisfaction,” “protection and enhancement of destination appeal” and “conservation of resources.” But it’s up to Tourtellot, who logs many thousands of miles each year talking about geotourism, to translate such ideals into words that can fire the imaginations of everyday people who feel torn between wishing to make the world a better place and wanting to have a fun, relaxing vacation.

“A geotourist doesn’t have to be rich or overly virtuous,” he explains. “Everyone who goes to a convention and hangs around for a couple more days to see the place, at that point they’re geotourists. Anyone who gets off a cruise ship and discovers an interesting town, then decides to come back and explore it another time, that’s a geotourist. Anyone who wants to experience a sense of place.

“With the rise of mass tourism today, it’s easy not to experience much of a place besides the beach, or the golf course or the resort hotel. But I can assure you, it’s a lot more fun to get to know the place and meet the people.”

San Fernando, Chile

From Santa Cruz, we drive to San Fernando, spending the night at the exquisitely beautiful Hacienda los Lingues, which preserves Chile’s traditional upper-class privilege in a rarefied atmosphere of colonial architecture, gourmet food, English antiques and jasmine-scented gardens. There is a family chapel rich in noteworthy art and a stable full of horses with the longest bloodlines of any in the Americas. This is what critics have in mind when they say geotourism caters only to wealthy tastes.

But Tourtellot is quick to counter that geotourism is not just upscale destinations and swank ecotours. “The only aspect of geotourism that costs more than regular tourism is hiring a local guide, but that is well worth the money.” Indeed, he is the most determinedly frugal person I have ever travelled with.

Backpacker travel, which costs far less and in many cases treads more lightly upon the Earth, is a form of geotourism, and Tourtellot devotes considerable time trying to convince tourist officials that they shouldn’t just focus on attracting big-bucks visitors. He mentions an Australian study showing that backpackers spend just as much as deluxe travellers, but over a longer period of time. And more of their money, he notes, stays in the local economy rather than being sucked up by foreign interests.

Valparaíso, Chile

We head north to Santiago, skirting its seemingly endless suburbs, and turn west toward the Pacific and the city of Valparaíso. Perched on hills as dramatic as San Francisco or Hong Kong, Valparaíso is a shabby yet exhilarating place of 265,000. A dozen or so funicular railways climb up and down steep hills separating the port from neighbourhoods once settled by German, Spanish, English, French and Croatian immigrants. After the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the city’s fortunes declined to the point that today its beachfront suburb, Viña del Mar, has a larger population. But Valparaíso is slowly coming back, thanks to an array of grassroots efforts to revitalize its old neighbourhoods.

Upon landing in town, Tourtellot and I ride a rickety funicular up to the top of Cerro Bellavista (Bellavista Hill, which bears a striking cultural resemblance to the Bellavista district in Santiago) and drop in on the offices of the Fundación Valparaíso (Valparaíso Foundation). The offices occupy the top floor of a gaily painted Victorian house that is also home to a craft shop, popular restaurant and theatre company. Launched by a Chilean woman, Pilar Silva de Temkin, and her husband, Todd Temkin, an American poet who came here to teach literature, the foundation has helped catalyze the city’s resurgence.

Todd Temkin explains how he and his Chilean colleagues have started 16 businesses in Cerro Bellavista that cater to tourists; turned the neighbourhood into an official open-air museum bv transforming rundown houses into brightly painted artworks; founded local film, opera and jazz festivals; and brought new life to forgotten plazas. They successfully lobbied city leaders to embrace sustainable tourism as an economic-development goal, including giving grants for families to open neighbourhood B%amp%Bs rather than promoting big hotels. And, most important of all, they led the charge for Valparaíso to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002—an honour for places of exceptional cultural or historical value, which attracts international attention and travellers.

“We have to talk about doing a geotourism initiative here,” Tourtellot excitedly tells Temkin.

A new geotourism hero has been discovered—the Fundácion Valparaíso. And the city itself qualifies as a geotourist treasure, even if no one here yet knows the term.