“Geotourism includes not only the environment but also local people and their culture, heritage and well being.”
National Geographic Traveler magazine found that almost three quarters of the travelers surveyed don’t want their visits to harm the environment of their destinations. And in 2001, the National Geographic Society threw its considerable weight behind ecotourism by establishing the Centre for Sustainable Destinations to promote responsible travel and help preserve the world’s great places. It also introduced a new term to the environmental lexicon: geotourism. As Jonathan Tourtellot, the center’s director, explains, “Geotourism goes beyond ecotourism and includes not only the environment but also local people and their culture, heritage and well being.”
Tourtellot asked, “The question is, what can Arizona offer? Will it offer another subdivision or golf course? Or promote a region like no other in the world?” In a groundbreaking move in December 2005, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico made their intentions clear by signing a National Geographic charter to promote “Geotourism.”
Although this was the fifth Geocharter (others are in Norway, Honduras, Romania and the Appalachian Mountains), this is the first one that includes tribal nations and spans two countries. Key stakeholders include the Arizona Office of Tourism, Mexico’s Sonoran Commission of Tourism, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Tohono O”odham Nation and the Sonoran Institute. The project is much like running a national park but on a vastly bigger scale.
A major goal of the Geocharter project is to develop the Sonoran Desert Geotourism MapGuide along with a supporting interactive web site. The process is de-signed to build local pride in the region, which, in turn, leads to tourism that protects valuable resources. A council of stakeholders launched a website and polled local residents and organizations to see what features should be included in the map. The response was overwhelming with more than 1,000 sites and routes nominated. As Margie Emmermann, director of Arizona’s Office of Tourism, says, “We have achieved one of the most important goals of the project: to inform and educate local people about the significance of preserving their region’s special sense of place.”
On January 28, 2007, Governors Eduardo Bours Castelo and Janet Napolitano of Sonora and Arizona, respectively, unveiled the completed Spanish-version GeoMap, only 13 months after the Geocharter was signed. The English version was released in March. “What has been most satisfying,” says Murietta, “is discovering how geotourism reveals human values and the power of a place.” Based on this success, National Geographic is planning further Geocharters in other great places.
Although the Sonora GeoMap contains hundreds of fascinating sites, Casa Grande, a crumbling four-story adobe building, is particularly poignant. Erected by the Hohokam natives around 1250 AD, it marked the height of a civilization that, with the aid of irrigation, thrived in this arid landscape. About 1350, the Hohokam society mysteriously collapsed. Today the ruins remain as a stark reminder of the fragility of the Sonoran Desert.