Photograph by Harold W. Bradley/Dreamstime.com
Geotourism is a partnership between you as a traveler and the people who live at a destination. The ticket to geotourism is "go local." Geotravelers patronize locally owned businesses and guides. You buy from local craftspeople and eat at restaurants serving regional cuisine. You seek out traditional music and dance. As a result, the money you spend helps local people earn a living and preserve the place's authenticity.
The following tips will help you get more out of your trip while creating local incentives to preserve the world's distinctive and precious places. These guidelines are key for opening a wealth of new travel opportunities.
Start Online Search and find your way through geotourism's virtual landscape. Get leads on lodges, traditional food, handicrafts, or little-known archaeological sites. Read tips and blogs from other travelers and people who live in the destination.
Think Contrarian Choose destinations off the beaten path. If the big hotels are on the north side of the island, look for a quiet lodge on the south side. Is Florence too crowded? Try Siena. Similarly, avoiding the high season will mean less competition for hotels, fewer jostling crowds, and more chances to interact with local people. It's often easier on the wallet as well.
Go Green Before you send a room deposit, get the management to answer a few geo-savvy questions: Does the hotel recycle and buy local food? How does it deal with waste water? What has it done to help local people or protect the environment? Does it employ local people in positions of responsibility or provide training?
Consider Volunteering Some local and international organizations recruit visitors to pitch in on projects ranging from building houses in poor neighborhoods to digging for dinosaurs. Check out opportunities on the Internet.
Festivals Plan your itinerary to coincide with local celebrations. Special events open windows into the local culture, and the money you spend on food, lodging, and crafts stays in the community.
Words and Phrases A few sessions with a phrase book and a CD will help make you a part of the place you're visiting. Language skills will also boost your confidence to bargain at a market stall or order at a neighborhood restaurant. Stick to basic phrases, but learn them well enough to use them with confidence.
Get a Good Book Dig deeper into your destination's land and culture by reading up on its history. Then pack a piece of fiction that's set in the area you're visiting. A book about a place is like salt to a cook: It enhances the flavor.
Go Light Make sure you can easily manage your bags yourself. Do you really need a pair of dress shoes, a telephoto lens? A daypack comes in handy for toting purchases at the market or carrying binoculars and a windbreaker on a hike.
Dress Loose in Heat In hot climates, baggy is the way to go. Choose breathable, lightweight fabric, and don't forget to bring full-length pants and long-sleeve shirts where bugs can be an issue.
Layer for Cold In lieu of a heavy coat, bring a system of warm and fuzzy layers, including polypropylene underwear, a fleece vest and jacket, and a sturdy outer shell with hood.
Shoes Active geotravelers are inveterate walkers. Any running or "walking" shoes will do, but first give them a good tryout at home. Planning to explore rivers and shorelines? Pack a pair of quick-drying, easily hosed-off "water shoes."
Go ... Geotraveling!
Think Small Big experiences often come in small packages. If a hotel has only six rooms, you will probably meet the owner and maybe even the owner's family. If a restaurant has only eight tables, the food on your plate probably came from a neighborhood market.
Dress for Success The "in" thing to wear back home may be risqué or even blasphemous in other cultures. Take your cue from the local people. But don't fake native either. Save the head-to-toe sari or lederhosen for admiring friends when you return.
Lunch Break Little neighborhood restaurants crowded with families usually means honest food, low prices, and a true taste of the locale. If you can't understand the menu, or if there is no menu, look around at what others are eating, smile at the waiter, and discreetly point.
On the Move
Archaeological Sites Ancient art and buildings are fragile. The fingers' natural oils can destroy pictographs, and the touch of thousands of hands can erode petroglyphs and rock carvings. Climbing monuments can abrade building stones and sometimes dislodge them. Treat these sites as the museums they are.
Sacred Places Visit sacred sites by invitation or in the company of a responsible guide. Wear modest clothing, talk softly, and keep your camera tucked away. This is a time for quiet reflection.
Traditional Communities Explore a traditional village and maybe meet local residents. Be discreet and respectful of people’s privacy. Don't peer into houses and don't take photos of residents without their permission. Don't pat children on the head.
Slow Down Yes, you can get to that five-star site and be back at your hotel for dinner. But why rush? Stay another day and search out treasures that others pass by. Any extra money you spend will end up in the pockets of local people.
Visit a Farm Check to see if local farms offer accommodations for visitors. Get a firsthand taste of rural life and real home cooking.
On the Links Before you tee off, find out if the course's green goes deeper than its grass. Particularly in arid environments, a golf course has a major impact on water availability, consuming as much as a U.S. town of 8,000. Does the course use local plantings suitable for the local environment? Is it eco-certified?
Shopping Look for crafts and souvenirs in small shops, marketplaces, and cooperatives. If the proprietor is embroidering a blouse as you enter, so much the better. The shorter the distance between you to the producer, the more of what you pay ends up in the pocket of the artisan.
Insist on Quality A handicraft may be locally produced, but is it authentic? Is it a genuine expression of the culture, or an endlessly repeated copy? Did the artisan use natural materials or imported synthetics? Natural or chemical dyes? Gladly pay more for quality.
Get the Inside Scoop Inquire about local guides. Many are first-rate and some have learned their skills from working with scientists. As an added bonus, they’ll have lots to tell about how community members interact with their environment for food, medicine, and religious observances. Your patronage encourages their passion for nature and the community's commitment to conservation.
Celebrations Be on the lookout for parades, fairs, and festivities of any kind. A community that dresses up for a party is eager to show its stuff to admiring guests. Benefits multiply when you buy local handicrafts, food, and lodging.
Encore Signs announcing a musical evening or dramatic performance may be aimed at local residents, but they’re also a tip-off to the geo-savvy traveler that something special may be in the offing.
Be a Geostudent
Follow Your Passion Like the local cuisine? Take a cooking lesson. Dazzled by local textiles? A weaver can show you how it's done. Always wanted to learn to dance? Maybe now's the time to tango. Just a couple of classes will deepen your knowledge of a place's life and culture.
Verbs and Pronouns Language schools are popping up in many countries. Even a week of courses can do wonders for your self-confidence. Many schools offer students room and board with local families for a total cultural and linguistic experience. Check for websites that rate schools where you're staying.
Bus With a Bonus Hop a bus. They go just about anywhere, and then some. A bus ride gets you shoulder to shoulder with the local people. In some countries, buses also offer a unique opportunity to travel in a genuine piece of folk art, colorfully painted and sometimes even adorned with a set of steer horns above the windshield.
Take a Hike, Ride a Bike Get to know a destination step by step, and meets its people eye to eye. Wander the side streets and country paths. Rent a bicycle and see where it takes you. Better yet, rent a canoe, kayak, or whatever floats the locals' boat.
Odds and Ends
A Word of Caution Get up-to-date information on what's safe and what's not. Consider hiring a local guide when visiting remote areas. It may not be wise to go out alone, particularly at night. Keep your valuables secure and cameras and camcorders out of sight. When in doubt about safety, get advice. Geotourism should be an adventure, not a security risk.
Back Home After unpacking, take a couple of hours to give credit where credit is due. Go online to rate places you stayed. Write notes or send emails to hotel owners or guides who deserve special thanks. Be a geotourism ambassador.
And Finally … Tell your friends and family about your experience as a geotraveler. Describe your trip, including what made it authentic and the people you met along the way. Encourage others to help protect places on their next trip and become geotravelers themselves.