Real Product or Marketing Plot?
Geo-tourism is a term coined by the National Geographic Society (NGS) and derived from “geographical character.”1 Geo-tourism is “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of the place being visited – its environment, its heritage, its aesthetics, its culture and the well-being of its citizens."2 Thus, geo-tourism is comprised of all aspects that make a place distinctive and unique. The focus is on the place, in its true form; building upon what currently exists, in order to give the place a certain character thus enriching the travel experience and quality of the locale, but does not come at the cost of doing harm upon the land.
A key element of geo-tourism is the idea of sustainable tourism, i.e. ensuring that the product is not abused or harmed.3 It means that all of the components that give a place its character – the natural habitats, heritage sites, scenic appeal and local culture – are preserved, thus allowing visitors to enrich themselves with the customs and culture of the locale.4 A Geo-tourism Charter has been created for countries to sign that describes the facets of what a country that engages in geo-tourism would comprise of (See Appendix A). We would like to argue however, that in order for destinations to become marketable, they must become consumable products, which by definition is “something produced by human or mechanical effort”5 and the need for the tourist to be involved in and consume the geo-tourism environment that defines it, classifies geo-tourism as an “experiential product.”6
This paper aims to prove whether geo-tourism is a real product or a marketing plot used to attract a growing number of geographically aware tourists. To investigate the question, this essay will examine the different countries that have signed the Geo-tourism Charter by using defining elements of the tourist gaze, polysemic structure and place myth. Finally, it will identify motives, similarities and differences of the countries that chose to commit to a geo-tourism strategy so as to conclude whether geo-tourism is indeed a real product or marketing plot.
Change in Tourism Discourse to a Geo –Tourist
Through the years tourism has changed from being based on the premise of religion and work to a more leisure based pleasure, in which travel is considered to be a right as opposed to a luxury. However, in the 90’s a new trend has emerged whereby tourists are shying away from mass tourism and laying in the sun to cultural- and ecological-based travel. The postmodern traveler has access to new destinations in an increasingly connected, “small” world, and despite the heightened threat of terrorism, both “baby boomers” and youth still venture to new locations. This is especially exemplified through the amount of young people backpacking in gap years before going to University. There has been a record 14.7 percent increase in the number of students (i.e. 25,310 students) who have accepted places in post-secondary institutions but deferred their entry until autumn 2002, according to statistics on University entrance released by the University and College Admissions Service.7 The baby boomers, who account for nearly 36 percent of adult American travelers (i.e. 55.1 million people), represent a potential geo-tourism market based on a recent study by the Travel Industry Association.8 71 percent of those surveyed said it is important that their trips not damage the destinations visited.9 The researchers identified that about 35.7 percent of travelers were inclined to engage in geo-tourism and that another 37.8 percent were potentially interested.10
What is a geo-tourist? What are their characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors? A survey of 154 million Americans concluded that the “geo-tourist” not only has distinctive characteristics, but also a distinctive set of behaviors and ideologies towards tourism and the experiential factor.11 These geo-tourists have been segmented into various groups depending on their characteristics and behaviors: geo-savvy, urban sophisticates, good citizens, and traditionals.12 What really distinguishes geo-savvy tourists from other tourists is their above average interest in environmentally-oriented travel. In addition, they are extremely careful in their tourist realm so as not to damage the environment. They believe that it is important to learn about other cultures, leading them to be three time more likely to enjoy primitive travel to wilderness areas and twice as likely to enjoy adventurous outdoor travel with challenging risks and elements of excitement or to travel to remote locales.13
This overall change in the tourism discourse has accelerated the need for national actors to market the attractiveness of their respective countries via destination marketing. These actors attempt to influence the tourist gaze, which is defined as a tourist’s perception towards a place, through four variables, being image marketing, infrastructure, attractions and people.14 Geo-tourism incorporates cultural and environmental concerns regarding travel into an official strategy, which impacts and resonates economically on local tourism networks.
In October 2004, the government of Honduras announced its plan to become the first country with an official “geo-tourism” strategy. Honduras is located in Central America, and is considered to be a developing country, with 53 percent of its population living below the poverty line.15 The President believes that geo-tourism will play a pivotal role in poverty alleviation.
According to the President’s views, poverty is reduced not from a top-down approach, but from the bottom up approach. Investment in geo-tourism infers technical assistance and training to locals who will then receive direct economic benefits from tourism. This recognition from the President and the Charter suggests that since tourism is a service provided to the tourist as consumers, investment in locals is important as they will become the “actors” providing the interaction of the tourist experience on the “stage” of their home town. Other tenets of geo-tourism Honduras agreed to follow include: following international codes for sustainable tourism; establishing policies and practices based on cultural and natural preservation; and building community-based tourism partnerships that emphasize economic and social benefits to locals.16 Accordingly, geo-tourism principles will be integrated into every aspect of product development and marketing.
According to the 2002 Geo-Tourism Study by the National Geographic Society, there are more than 50 million geo-tourists worldwide with high expectations for a unique and authentic experience.17 They are well educated with high incomes, appreciate diversity, and are committed to sustainability.18 In terms of Honduras, tourist gaze is influenced by the fact that compared to the other countries in the region, Honduras is the only one that has a combination of all of the following diverse resources: archaeology, culture, beaches, diving, nature, and colonial towns.19
Honduras has decided to differentiate themselves through their innovative SAVE strategy that stems from geo-tourism20 (See Appendix B). The SAVE initiative is an acronym that suggests the different ways the country plans to differentiate itself with the hopes of increasing geo-tourism and as a result, boost their economic position. The SAVE initiative will help to increase Honduras’ position on the global tourism map, and therefore, if they attract the type of tourists they anticipate, they can enhance their economy, and hopefully aid their poverty situation by getting locals educated and involved in the whole plan.
On August 31, 2005, Norway became the first country in Europe to sign the National Geographic Geo-tourism Charter. Norway entered into this charter as a means to increase tourism to its country from its recent 7 percent decline.21 As a result, Norway has decided to use this geo-tourism strategy to market its country as a “a premier tourist destination, uniting both nature and culture.”22
The Norwegian Tourist Board’s (NTB) primary geo-tourism initiative has focused on developing an official national scenic road and as a result has begun to construct Norway’s tourist gaze in much in the same way that the polysemic structure glorifies an event. The spectacle is the constructed tourist gaze of scenic roads and provides tourists with an opportunity for a breathtaking experience showcasing Norwegian landscape, in particular the fjords that have been engraved by glacial ice in river valleys, all being part of the symbols in creating genres. Coupled with its landscape, tourists are able to partake in various outdoor activities, namely skiing, diving, fishing, glacier walking and rafting, allowing them to engage in the experience product. Much like in a festival, it is the interaction that makes the experience.
The NTB has also been concentrating on promoting its country as a safe place to visit. In comparison to other European countries, Norway has a very low crime rate and has never been faced with threats of terrorism, which in today’s world can be a differentiating factor.23 Furthermore, the NTB has centered upon instilling its Norwegian culture and rich history into the lives of its tourists though using a narrative of its folklore. Norwegian heritage is synonymous with its legendary Vikings. By having the chance to sail on Viking ships along the fjords, tourists are able to experience how the Vikings travelled years ago.24
“Romania has majestic castles, medieval towns, great hiking and wildlife.”25 In spite of these characteristics, the tourist gaze on Romania has not been beneficial in attracting tourism in the past. It was not until after the fall of the Communist government that Romania utilized its features leading to an expansion in its tourism industry. In 2003, tourism brought in $449,000,000 US with room for growth.26 Romania has acknowledged the benefits of geo-tourism, when managed well, can leverage Romania’s competitive advantages in the global tourism marketplace,”27 and “put more emphasis on [Romania’s] beautiful natural and cultural heritage.”28 Romania subsequently became the third country to sign National Geographic’s Geo-tourism Charter. “When tourists go to a destination to see an aspect of the place’s geographic character, their tourist dollars help to support and maintain the geographical diversity and distinctiveness of the place that they are visiting.29 Politically, as Romania is aiming to enter the European Union (EU) in 2007, the doubts of the Functioning Market Economy status, the improvement of the public administration, including the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption30 can be countered by building its economy around the tourism to help win favor within the EU. Finally, the accompanying association with National Geographic will help to raise awareness about Romania and its geo-tourism activities at minimal expense, as well as the funding given by UNESCO by preserving World Heritage sites.31
However, due to the mystery surrounding the country,” as the wild, wild west of Eastern Europe,”32 Romania is seeking to employ “place myth” surrounding its attractions to couple its geo-tourism strategy. The notion of discovery will add to the Romanian Tourist Board offerings of “authentic experiences”33 such as immersing tourists in century old traditions such as weekly produce markets that were part of the fabric of Romania’s cultural heritage, visiting the Romanian countryside with an American Guide, and the steam railway at Viseu De Sus that runs along settlements in the valley and allows tourists to get a view of woodland and rushing rivers. Because of the safety issues surrounding Romania, each one of these “authentic experiences” is staged for predictability to ensure that tourists get to experience what is advertised. The produce markets run according to a publicized schedule so while the aura surrounding the markets is similar to that of markets hundreds of years ago, they are organized to reflect these traditions. Anglophone guides are available to ensure tourists maximize their experience. Romania is clearly making strides towards the development of experiences that are uniquely Romanian and reflective of its cultural history and makes use of its natural attractions.
The tourist gaze of the Cook Islands has been the perfect image of paradise in the South Seas with its white sand beaches for relaxation and to escape reality. This Polynesian chain scattered across a thousand miles of ocean receives more tourists per capita than any other South Pacific destination.34 However in today’s world where a beach and Anglophone natives are widespread, the national government’s current aim is to achieve the definition of geo-tourism: “tourism that sustains and enhances the well-being of resident Cook Islanders and their environment, culture, aesthetics, and heritage,”35 as a differentiating tourism strategy and move away from becoming a destination that is “hard for the outsider to tell from any other white-sand and palm-tree place.”36 Making the constructed gaze more visible may re-engage Cook Islanders with an appreciation of the uniqueness of their culture and heritage, which is currently being forgotten.
To implement a change in tourist gaze, the government decided to divide the island into two regions thereby encouraging visitors to view all of the Cook Islands and gain a full understanding of the heritage of the country. The southern group is home to the two most populated and visited islands, and the northern group, which is remote, consists of corals and abundant marine life. Geo-tourists are encouraged to visit these outer islands to explore the unique areas of Cook Islands, i.e. rare wildlife, local cuisine, and handicrafts sold directly by the residents who made them. The northern region of the island offers programs to teach tourists how to make traditional weaved baskets, jewelry, and quilts, again, offering the engagement needed in an experiential product.
The effects of this are economic gains throughout the producer, supplier and complimentary networks as well as a changed tourist gaze through a new form of staged product, this time not focused on creating a similar safe environment but instead a differentiated one.
Each geo-tourism destination has chosen to adopt this tourism marketing strategy in reaction to tourism trends and for the accomplishment of a greater goal, a goal that differs depending on the location. What remained the same was the process by which destinations went about executing the geo-tourism strategy. Elements of geo-tourism are selected based on features already inherent in the locale – a pre-existing component of its environment, its culture, its heritage or its aesthetics. The focus here is on finding something inherent in the land, something real, and marketing it as a geo-tourist attraction and product.
While each one of the destinations profiled has acknowledged the consumer trend towards the tourist gaze and natural, authentic tourism experiences through implementing the all- encompassing geo tourism strategy, it has done so with differing motivations. Honduras is looking to use geo-tourism as a means to boost its economic situation and alleviate rampant poverty through a structured investment system to boost economic inflows generated from the service of tourism. Norway seeks to use geo-tourism to increase its marketability as a tourist destination and to reverse a declining trend in tourism to that country through creating a spectacle with its sights, attaching folklore of the Vikings as a narrative and directing the tourist gaze towards differentiating symbols such as the fjords. In addition to the economic benefits of increased tourism, Romania is using a geo-tourism strategy to change its unflattering tourist gaze to evolve into a place myth and ultimately, through its success aid in its political motivations to become a member of the EU. The Cook Islands have realized that its beaches are no longer sufficient as a stand-alone driver for tourism; as a result a focus on geo-tourism is its way of differentiating itself from other sandy destinations by including a more holistic, cultural experience.
To conclude, this essay has looked into the effect of how changing customer needs in tourism have influenced a country’s tourism strategy towards geo-tourism, a strategy based on the presentation of authenticity where exposure to “reality” itself has become the new marketable product.
Firstly, consumers are no longer looking for the mass-produced, completely staged product. This trend has required that tourism marketers shift their focus towards differentiated staged products. As such, geo-tourism in its various forms serves as a means of differentiation and a response to the tourist gaze, even if implemented as an economic, political or marketing solution. However, while a geo-tourism product can be considered a more authentic experience, as it encompasses more culture as an experiential product than a completely staged product, it remains a staged product regardless so to add economic benefits for local networks and keep predictability, safety, economic and the full experience marketed to the tourist.
Secondly, as to whether geo-tourism is a real product or whether it is a marketing plot, the discourses of geo-tourism have evolved over time, and will continue to change in the minds of travelers. Currently, geo-tourism is perceived by tourists as an experience that is appreciated by individuals who hunger for natural wonders and culture throughout globe. In the future, however, with the deterioration of the earth’s resources and rarity of natural undisturbed landscapes and ecosystems, geo-tourist sites will likely become more mainstream, as the tourist gaze is known to search for the “unusual”. This is proven through the popularity of visiting cultural landmarks such as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Finally, the strategy outlined in the Geo-tourism Charter, as has been proven in this essay, has been implemented in different countries for a variety of reasons, setting the framework for tourism to be a beneficial, sustainable and viable option for many countries that were experiencing hindrances previously. Therefore, although advertising their country as a geo-tourist resort may be a marketing plot to attract tourists, the product behind the marketing entails a new approach to tourism that captures a new and aware tourist segment, seeking more out of their vacation than the traditional beach and sun, and ultimately aids the country as a whole by expanding the economic benefit to tourist networks.
APPENDIX A – THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC GEO-TOURISM CHARTER
This global template is designed for nations but can also be adjusted for signature by provinces, states, or lesser jurisdictions, and for endorsement by international organizations.
Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.
The Geotourism Charter
WHEREAS the geotourism approach is all-inclusive, focusing not only on the environment, but also on the diversity of the cultural, historic, and scenic assets of _______,
WHEREAS the geotourism approach encourages citizens and visitors to get involved rather than remain tourism spectators, and
WHEREAS the geotourism approach helps build a sense of national identity and pride, stressing what is authentic and unique to________,
THE UNDERSIGNED parties to this Agreement of Intent commit to support these geotourism principles, to sustain and enhance the geographical character of _________—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents:
Integrity of place: Enhance geographical character by developing and improving it in ways distinctive to the locale, reflective of its natural and cultural heritage, so as to encourage market differentiation and cultural pride.
International codes: Adhere to the principles embodied in the World Tourism Organization’s
Global Code of Ethics for Tourism and the Principles of the Cultural Tourism Charter established by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
Market selectivity: Encourage growth in tourism market segments most likely to appreciate, respect, and disseminate information about the distinctive assets of the locale.
Market diversity: Encourage a full range of appropriate food and lodging facilities, so as to appeal to the entire demographic spectrum of the geotourism market and so maximize economic resiliency over both the short and long term.
Tourist satisfaction: Ensure that satisfied, excited geotourists bring new vacation stories home and send friends off to experience the same thing, thus providing continuing demand for the destination.
Community involvement: Base tourism on community resources to the extent possible, encouraging local small businesses and civic groups to build partnerships to promote and provide a distinctive, honest visitor experience and market their locales effectively. Help businesses develop approaches to tourism that build on the area’s nature, history and culture, including food and drink, artisanry, performance arts, etc.
Community benefit: Encourage micro- to medium-size enterprises and tourism business strategies that emphasize economic and social benefits to involved communities, especially poverty alleviation, with clear communication of the destination stewardship policies required to maintain those benefits.
Protection and enhancement of destination appeal: Encourage businesses to sustain natural habitats, heritage sites, aesthetic appeal, and local culture. Prevent degradation by keeping volumes of tourists within maximum acceptable limits. Seek business models that can operate profitably within those limits. Use persuasion, incentives, and legal enforcement as needed.
Land use: Anticipate development pressures and apply techniques to prevent undesired overdevelopment and degradation. Contain resort and vacation-home sprawl, especially on coasts and islands, so as to retain a diversity of natural and scenic environments and ensure continued resident access to waterfronts. Encourage major self-contained tourism attractions, such as large-scale theme parks and convention centers unrelated to character of place, to be sited in needier locations with no significant ecological, scenic, or cultural assets.
Conservation of resources: Encourage businesses to minimize water pollution, solid waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and overly bright nighttime lighting. Advertise these measures in a way that attracts the large, environmentally sympathetic tourist market.
Planning: Recognize and respect immediate economic needs without sacrificing long-term character and the geotourism potential of the destination. Where tourism attracts in-migration of workers, develop new communities that themselves constitute a destination enhancement. Strive to diversify the economy and limit population influx to sustainable levels. Adopt public strategies for mitigating practices that are incompatible with geotourism and damaging to the image of the destination.
Interactive interpretation: Engage both visitors and hosts in learning about the place. Encourage residents to show off the natural and cultural heritage of their communities, so that tourists gain a richer experience and residents develop pride in their locales.
Evaluation: Establish an evaluation process to be conducted on a regular basis by an independent panel representing all stakeholder interests, and publicize evaluation results.
APPENDIX B – HONDURAS’ SAVE INITIATIVE
This initiative’s goal is to increase the knowledge oriented towards conservation of the natural landscape, and to inform public policy makers of the need for such preservation.
The engagement of international experts is thought to help improve the country’s human resource development.
Having people volunteer to help will add value to the attractions.
Establish high standards for natural and cultural interpretation. Educating people about the geo-touristic site both nationally and internationally will increase the consumption of Honduras as a geo-tourism product.
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