A new kind of tourism: Geotourism promotes authentic and responsible enjoyment of natural features

Sep 26th, 2014 | By | Category: Pack your bags

« By Vanessa Grieve »

There is only one Yellowstone National Park in the world and only one Grand Teton. Many other hidden gems are scatter in and around these two natural fea- tures in three states.

Promoting the unique natural, historical and cul- tural features of the region and ensuring they are maintained for future generations’ enjoyment is part of the region’s geotourism model.

The term geotourism was first coined by National Geographic, said Cynthia Rose the executive director for the new Teton Geotourism Center.

“(Geotourism) highlights what makes a locale unique and special, geographically as well as cultur- ally,” Rose said, while “sustaining and preserving the assets of your region.”

One way the region aimed to promote geotourism along the Teton Scenic Byway was by opening the Teton Geotourism Center, located at 60 S. Main St. in Driggs. The center opened Aug. 1 and is the first geo- tourism center in the world.

The center combines information on local attrac- tions, culture and history through the use of exhib- its and visitor information services, and promotes responsible enjoyment of the natural surroundings. Rose said the location is much more than a visitors center.

“A lot of visitors centers don’t have these kind of exhibits and (what) we do in terms of traveler ser- vices,” Rose said. “It’s a lot of similar kinds of things, but we try to be super friendly and engaging and (en- courage visitors to) not just drive through the area.”

They ask visitors about their interests and can direct them to geological, historical and cultural at- tractions “to find something to make their visit mem- orable” and have an “authentic local experience.”

Tim O’Donoghue, who serves on the Teton Geo- tourism Center board of directors, coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Geotourism Stewardship Council and chairman of the National Geotourism Council, became involved in geotourism while serv- ing as the executive director of Jackson Hole Cham- ber of Commerce in 2007.

“Geotourism is really meant to support commu- nities — to maintain their community character,” O’Donoghue said. “They’re not going to come have an experience they could have anywhere else.”

Geotourism is different from general tourism in two key areas, O’Donoghue explained. The first is in partnership with the National Geographic Society that helps create a map guide and maintain a website for different program locations.

The second aspect is the program’s emphasis on cultural, historical and environmental aspects “more than economic.”

O’Donoghue said the process has a grassroots feel as it garners input and nominations from local businesses and destinations.

The Greater Yellowstone Stewardship Program started in March 2009. The council collected 600 nominations for inclusion on a map guide from the Greater Yellowstone area, including parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The nominations were whit- tled down to about 225 for the printed map guide. Those selected and others are on the Greater Yellow- stone Geotourism website at www.yellowstonegeotourism.org.

The website highlights a number of accommoda- tions, natural attractions, historical points of inter- est, activities, museums and cultural events from Bear Lake State Park in St. Charles to headwaters of the Missouri near Three Forks, Mont., and from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Lima, Mont., to Meadowlark Ski Lodge in Buffalo, Wyo.

National Geographic defines geotourism as “tourism the well-being of its residents.”
This “sustainable tourism” avoids “loved-to-death syndrome.” The idea is to preserve not only natural features for years to come, but also a location’s heri- tage and culture.

The model strives to give visitors an authentic, en- riching experience and giving them in-depth opportunities to engage in local culture and traditions and enjoy the area’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

On the economic development side, geotourists are encouraged to patronize local businesses and guides, and event ask environmentally conscious questions such as if a place recycles materials, water, or use less electricity at night.

More geotourist tips can be found on the National Geographic website at http://travel.nationalgeo- graphic.com/travel/sustainable/geotraveler_tips. html.

The National Geotourism Council provides over- sight for eight geotourism centers in the United States and Canada in partnership with National Geo- graphic.

One key is helping tourists learn the history and heritage of a place where people have lived for hun- dreds of years.

The National Geographic Society started the pro- gram because of “the concern that the world is be- coming smaller and smaller due to more and more tourism destinations building themselves out with the same place and … destination you could find any- where else,” O’Donoghue said.
O’Donoghue said many places were losing their identity and not utilizing the elements that made them unique. The advent of “sustainable tourism” means destinations have an option to sustain their community, economy and natural resources.

The 5,000-square-foot Teton Geotourism Center devotes about a 1,300-square-foot space for its 18 exhibits.

Rose said there are “many more stories” to be told than those housed in the inaugural exhibit.
The exhibits show and tell visitors about the differ- ent kinds of recreation and wildlife in the area. There is an exhibit about mountain men and two of history’s 17 rendezvous that took place in the Teton Valley. There are also exhibits on drift boats, snow, agri- culture and the world’s oldest dog race, the Annual American Dog Derby, which took place in Ashton. Rose said the Ashton dog sled races will celebrate 100 years in 2017.

“We see ourselves as mostly a launching site,” Rose said. “Our goal is to have people come in and get a feel for what goes on along the Teton Scenic Byway.”

Being the first geotourism center, the organization is still trying to develop what that means in conjunction with the Greater Yellowstone Geotourism Initiative, Rose said.

About 400 people attended the grand opening Aug. 1. In mid-August, about 100 plus visitors were still walking through daily. Looking at the guest book, Rose said by mid-September guests from 20 different foreign countries — China, Germany and Brazil to name a few — had logged their stop at the site.

“It’s so interesting (that) people form that many countries are coming through here. We don’t have bus tours coming through here,” Rose said.

The center is still completing work on a 350-400-square foot changing exhibit room as it waits for grants and other funding. Tentative plans for the changing exhibit room include roving exhibits be- tween museum stops and use the space for different community activities. Ideally, the room will be com- plete early next spring.

Rose said funding for the Teton Geotourism Center came from the Federal Highway Scenic Byways Pro- gram grant, matching funds from Driggs Urban Renew- al Agency, the City of Driggs and private donations.

The Teton Geotourism Center’s traveler’s section is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week with bathrooms, free wi- fi, free brochure racks and a map of the byway area.

The entire center is open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. To verify hours, call 208-354-2607.

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