From: Levi J. Long, Arizona Daily Star
Published December 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Arizona Promotes 'Geotourism'

We all know about the world-class spas and golf resorts.


But Arizona is also home to the Sonoran Desert, and with help from the National Geographic Society, some regional tourism offices are hoping to capitalize on the Arizona-Sonora region's cultural heritage. In the process, they hope, they can keep a unique desert region safe from harmful tourist expansion.


On Saturday, the directors of the Arizona Office of Tourism and the Sonora Commission for Tourism Promotion signed a bi-national charter to promote "geotourism." Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, its environment, culture and heritage, and the well-being of its residents. The concept is different from ecotourism, which focuses on the environment to the exclusion of local people, said Jonathan Tourtellot, director for the National Geographic Center of Sustainable Destinations in Washington, D.C.


"In a way the concept of geotourism is old," Tourtellot said. "It used to be called touring. It meant looking at the history, people and place of an area." Tourtellot, who coined the term geotourism in 2003, said the tourism industry has changed over recent decades, concentrating on "rest and relaxation" and "entertainment" destinations. But now, he said, we're going back to the whole package -- the environment, the people, the culture and history.


Tourtellot said Arizona is now in the distinct position of figuring out what sort of stewardship the state would like to promote.


"The question is, what else can Arizona offer?" he said. "Will they offer another subdivision or golf resort? Or promote a region like no other in the world?" Within the last two years, other geotourism charters have been signed in Honduras, Norway, Romania and in the Appalachian Mountain region.


The Arizona and Sonora Charter is the first bi-national charter for the National Geographic program. The region covers 62 million acres in Southern Arizona, California, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.


The project is also collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management and the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson nonprofit.


The group's efforts will include creating a geotourism map, and an interactive Web site and guide.


Joaquin Murrieta, a staff member of the Sonoran Institute who is acting director of La Ruta de Sonora -- a tourism program in the institute -- said the institute wants to make sure the people in this region's communities are highlighted.


"It's community-based participation. We want the voices of the people to be at the core of the program," he said.


Geotourism is a growing concept, with 55 million Americans considered "geotourists," according to a 2003 study by National Geographic and the Travel Industry Association of America.


Baby boomers make up the bulk of geotourists.


The study said they are also people who are pro-environment, have an intellectual curiosity, a highly developed social conscience, and take part in educational and culturally oriented activities in their communities.


The travel industry association said more than one-third of geotourism travelers in the study would pay more to use a travel company that strives to protect and preserve the environment.


Monica Durand, marketing director for La Ruta de Sonora, said its clients tend to fit that mold.


"Our clients are people interested in conservation and cultural resources of the region," she said. "They are people who want to have a meaningful travel experience." La Ruta de Sonora offers more than 20 tours during the season, from October to the end of April, Durand said.


One tour follows the missionary trail of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and another lets visitors explore the Gulf of California. Tours start at $649 and range up to $900 a person. Since the institute began offering the tours five years ago, they have brought in about $500,000 a year.


"We know geotourism is growing. It's a bright future," she said.


To see more of The Arizona Daily Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.azstarnet.com.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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