Rhode Island embraces concept of ‘geotourism’

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – 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 and 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 geotourism 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.”

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.


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