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Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

How to be a Geotourist

Help Preserve Travel Experiences for Future Generations

No longer content with over-crowded beaches, tourists are uncovering remote destinations on secluded campgrounds from Alaska to Hawaii. Cruise ships take inquiring travelers on polar expeditions to places like Antarctica. The Travel Institute of America estimates 98 million American's have taken an "adventure trip" in the past five years.

Unfortunately, presence in remote areas defeats the very reason we seek out them out. The answer to the dilemma may lie in what we choose to do while on vacation and whether we look at travel as a luxury or a privilege.

Privileged is how Phil Giralte felt as he spotted a gorilla living in its natural habitat at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, near the border of Congo. These gorillas are so rare they can only be found in a small section of East Africa. With numbers in the 300-400 range, they are dangerously close to becoming extinct. "There's nothing quite like looking at a 400-pound silver back gorilla that is only 15 feet away. I can't imagine a world without such an amazing animal," says Giralte.

But this remote part of the world is not without its problems. Poachers are killing gorillas for illegal animal parts and bush meat trade, and capturing young for zoos around the world. Local tribes are trying to live off the land and grow their villages; as a result, they are closing the gap between themselves and wildlife. With so many difficulties, can a tourist like Giralte make a difference?

A registered veterinary technician with the San Diego Zoo in California, Giralte traveled to this remote part of the world to help train staff at the country's only wild animal care center. He teamed up with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and through one of its programs began to learn how his tourist dollars could have a positive impact on the local community.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority issues permits for tourists who want to pay to track rare mountain gorillas in their natural habitat while minimizing their impact on the environment. Using GPS and other techniques, tour groups can pinpoint the migration of gorillas throughout the forest. The Wildlife Authority allows six permits per group and a total of eight hours to find the gorillas with no guarantees they'll be spotted. If a tour group does spot a group of gorillas they are permitted to view them for one hour. This strict time limit allows the gorillas to become acclimated to humans, which Giralte says can take years.

The money from tourist tracking permits is passed on to communities adjacent to the gorilla habitat. "Villagers realize tourists bring much-needed money to the village," says Giralte. Lodging and tourist-based businesses bring jobs to otherwise isolated regions of Uganda. The surrounding villages of Bwindi benefit from the funds while still remaining "authentic."

Authentic is just what tourists are looking for in their travel experiences. According to a recent report entitled "Geotourism: The New Trend in Travel, (.PDF)" prepared by the Travel Industry Association of America, and sponsored by National Geographic Traveler, today's traveler "craves and expects authentic experiences. They want to return from a trip renewed or changed in some way."

Geotourism, is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of the place being visited, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents.

The study found that 71 percent of travelers believe people must live in harmony with nature in order to survive. The nearly 91 million travelers surveyed support controlling access to and more careful regulation of national parks and public lands in order to help preserve and protect the environment.

Keeping an area natural and authentic ranks high among travelers, according to the Geotourism study. "Sixty one percent believe their experience is better when their destination preserves its natural, historic, and cultural sites." In addition, the study showed that four out of ten (41 percent) travelers say their experiences are better when they can see and do something authentic. "Half of all travelers (49 percent) prefer to experience the local culture and support local businesses and their destinations."

The study found that there are at least 55.1 million Americans who can be classified as "geotourists." This group is further broken down into Geo-savvys, Urban Sophisticates, and Good Citizens. Each group is set apart by its unique characteristics and beliefs about travel and the impact it has on cultures and regions. The study narrows each geotourist segment according to age, geographic location, trips taken per year, and specific views on the preservation and implementation of geotourist philosophies.

Becoming a geotourist can be as simple as seeking out travel companies that make protecting and preserving the environment part of their goals, or supporting companies that make energy efficiency part of their everyday practices. Paying closer attention to hotels that ask guests to re-use towels, participating in recycling programs, and using energy-efficient heating and air conditioning are all examples of programs that are striving to reach the same goal of preserving the environment.

Maintaining the history and culture of a specific region is also an important aspect of programs practicing geotourism. The study gives examples such as offering local cuisine, providing opportunities for career advancement for locals, supporting community beautification projects, and giving tours of local neighborhoods and historic sites.

Perhaps most importantly, this study re-affirms that tourists have choices when it comes to how they sustain and improve the locations they visit. There is a vast amount of information available and a growing number of programs that satisfy the inquisitive, adventurous tourist while simultaneously protecting and improving the very places being explored.

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