geotourism

What is geotourism and why is it important?

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(Last updated on: 09/05/2022)

Geotourism is a term that I hear more and more these days, yet not many people really know what it means! So here at Tourism Teacher I am going to tell you all about the concept of geotourism, what it means and why it is so important in today’s tourism industry.

What is geotourism?

geotourism

Geotourism is a tricky one to define. One way of looking at it is as the term for ‘geological tourism’. To break that down, let’s first look at what geology is. This is the study of the structure, dynamics and evolution of the Earth itself, as well as its natural and mineral energy resources. It is all about examining the processes that have made the planet what it is today.

So, how does that fit into tourism? Geotourism is generally about visiting sites or areas of geological importance. In their book Handbook of Geotourism, Dowling and Newsome define geotourism as follows:

Geotourism is tourism based on geological features. Over time it has been variously described as being a type of tourism that is either ‘geological’ or geographical’ in orientation. Whereas the former view was that geotourism was a ‘type’ of tourism in a similar vein to ecotourism, the latter view was wider and encompassed it thereby representing a new ‘approach’ to tourism. Over a decade ago we espoused the former view that geotourism is a niche form of natural area tourism based on geology and landscape. Four years later we added to the definition by suggesting the fact that geotourism could be undertaken through either ‘independent visits’ or ‘guided tours’ to geological features.

What about geography?

Another , simpler, definition is simply ‘Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents’. This has much less of a science-led focus, and can be applied to anywhere rather than geologically important areas… However, this is the definition used by National Geographic. As such, it relates to geography rather than geology. A long-buried quote from Nat Geo says that: 

Geography –from which ‘geotourism’ derives– is not just about where places are. It’s also about what places are. It’s about what makes one place different from the next. That includes not only flora and fauna, which is the realm of ecotourism, but also historic structures and archaeological sites, scenic landscapes, traditional architecture, and locally grown music, cuisine, crafts, dances, and other arts.

A note on defining geotourism

As with many types of (or approaches to) tourism, there are varying definitions of geotourism. “What is geotourism?” is a difficult question to answer completely, as people have different views on the matter. The best we can do is look at the academic research behind the phenomenon, and see how that relates to real-world travel and tourism. Dowling and Newsome, quoted above, have done extensive research into what geotourism is and the impact it has on the industry. They go on to say:

By now the definition of geotourism had expanded to encompass a number of attributes – geology, tourism, geosites, visits and interpretation. The ‘geo’ or geology part of geotourism includes geological features or attributes which are considered worthy of tourist interest. The ‘tourism’ part refers to the conversion of geological features or attributes into tourism resources as ‘geo’ attractions or tours often at designated ‘geosites’.

However, the definition used by National Geographic tends to be the most popular one. It is succinct and easy to understand – and also has more of an impact (so perhaps more of an importance) than the geology-based term…

What is the difference between geotourism and ecotourism?

Geotourism is not the same as eco tourism. In fact, they are two very different things. Eco tourism tends to generally be more hands-on – beach clean ups, litter picking, conservation work and so on. The two types of tourism have been said to be ‘sisters’, in a way, with eco tourism more focused on nature and ecology instead of built environments. 

Of course, it all depends on which definition of geotourism you feel is most correct. If we take the geographic definition above, which talks about sustaining and enhancing the geographical character of an area, then we do start to see similarities with eco tourism. In this case, however, there are still major differences. Eco tourism is more focused on nature – green spaces, the ocean, sustainability. Whereas geotourism encompasses the people, the culture, the cuisine and so much more.

Geotourism examples

There are many examples of geographic geotourism around the world. The Destination Center says that ‘destination-stewardship leaders have taken a variety of ways to establish geotourism as a preferred strategy. The goal is to help develop a geotourism mindset—a constituency of stewardship—with corresponding protection of natural and cultural distinctiveness, economic benefits, and improved quality of life.

geotourism

This type is about projects which help the community. They are self-aware in name and nature. This might be something like Lake Tahoe’s annual Geotourism Expo. The festival looks to restore the character of a recreational destination which has been long-dominated by generic resorts. Fogo Island, Newfoundland, is also using geotourism in order to reinvent itself as a cultural centre and retreat for artists. To do so it is adapting food, design and materials which are distinctive to this area.

But if we look at Newsome and Dowling’s version, examples differ. There are many sites of geological importance and interest around the world! West Coast Fossil Park in South Africa, for example, is a beautiful geology-based tourist site you can visit. Here you can see ancient fossils and gain some perspective of history. Other geological sites, like caves, craters and waterfalls, are beautiful as well as really interesting. Geotourism in this sense goes beyond just appreciating the aesthetic of a place…

The benefits of geotourism

There are many benefits to both types of geotourism. With Newsome and Dowling’s geological version, the educational tourism opportunities are vast. You can learn a lot more about geology by visiting sites of geological importance than you can do in a classroom. By visiting the Undara Lava Tubes in Australia, for example, you can understand more about the effects of lava on the ecosystem.

geotourism

With the other (geographical) approach, we can also see vast benefits. The whole point is that it enhances or sustains an area and the culture/cuisine/heritage/environment and so on. To this end, it is no surprise that geotourism is seen as a good thing! It ploughs money into local causes and communities, while improving an area so that future generations can visit and enjoy too. It teaches visitors about tourist responsibility, and also protects the heritage of an area – meaning locals can have pride in where they are from. There is also a real sense of community spirit with geotourism projects!

The disadvantages of geotourism

It is hard to see the disadvantages of either type of geotourism. With our geographic type, everything is so totally focused on the improvement of an area or at the very least enhancing what is already there. Money is going to local people and local businesses, and visitors are able to enjoy a place knowing that they are supporting a community. The only issue with this might be a ‘white saviour’ complex of sorts for tourists visiting destinations that are perhaps still developing. I have spoken about this previously in my article regarding slum tourism!

When it comes to the geology type of geotourism, issues can occur with people visiting sites that are particularly delicate. However, if tourists are responsible and respectful when visiting this type of location then there are few disadvantages to geotourism. Geological sites are interesting and provide an insight into how the planet works – people learning about this is definitely a good thing.

Destinations

I’ll split this section in two again – one for geographical and one for geological destinations!

Geographical geotourism destinations

These are destinations that are part of the National Geographic geotourism content marketing platform. They are supported by Nat Geo, providing a “platform for destinations to inventory and promote the places that locals most respect and recommend, in partnership with National Geographic.” The list below is not exhaustive – just some great examples of their destinations and projects!

  • Tennessee River Valley
  • Heart of the Continent: Northeast Minnesota and Northwest Ontario
  • Bay Islands in the Bahamas: Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja
  • Tibet & the Himalayas 
  • Teton Geotourism Center, Driggs, Idaho
  • Fogo Island, Newfoundland
  • The Hurtigruten cruise ship fleet
  • The GeoWisata project in Bogor, Java, Indonesia

It should be said that Nat Geo are no longer adding new destinations to this platform, following their acquisition by Disney.

Geological geotourism destinations

Below you’ll find a list of fascinating destinations. These are all sites of some geological importance or interest.

  • Faial’s Badlands, the Azores, Portugal
  • Aletsch Glacier, Valais, Switzerland
  • Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
  • El Teide, Tenerife
  • Mingsha Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang, China
  • The Matterhorn, Switzerland
  • Meteor Crater in Arizona
  • Niagara Falls, New York
  • Siwalik Fossil Park, India

Geotourism- further reading

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