Tourism when done wrong is a consumer-driven and consumption-measured activity that destroys the quality of life for locals and leaves visitors feeling empty.
Kelly Victor-Burke, a professor at Eastern Michigan University who teaches geotourism, wants communities in Michigan — and around the world — to know it’s possible to “love a place to death.”
What she means by that, she said, is that while tourism is good business, the development it spurs needs to done in a way that can be sustainable and benefit the people who live there.
Eastern Michigan, she said, became one of only two universities in the country — the other is Missouri State — in 2011 that offered a degree in geography with a geotourism concentration. As part of the program at Eastern, she offers a field course.
“Geotourism is a new approach,” Victor-Burke, 51, said. “It takes into consideration not only the place, but what makes places unique and attractive. It’s tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of an area.”
It looks at what makes a places such as Traverse City worth visiting: geology, climate, history and resorts.
Victor-Burke, who enjoys traveling and is a former travel consultant, said she has visited all but a few states in the America, and every continent except Antarctica — and that’s on her bucket list.
We talked to her about geotourism and her advice for communities — and folks in the tourism industry.
Q: So is geotourism really about balance?
A: Geotourism is an umbrella under which all aspects of the tourism industry are housed. Its approach is to make sure the destination is managed in a sustainable way that will meet the needs of the tourist, but also the local population not only now, but in the future.
Q: You use the phrase “love a place to death.” Can you tell us more about that means?
A: In tourism terminology there’s what we call mass tourism, and mass tourism is where attractions are being visited by large numbers of tourists and it’s taking a toll on the place itself. It could be, for example, at our national parks where the number of Americans going to national parks are so great that the infrastructure, like its roads, aren’t able to be sufficient for all the cars, so you might be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a beautiful serene park. At the same time, there are so many cars that the exhaust is leading to air pollution and the animals are being impacted by the constant noise and presence of all the cars.
Q: But, isn’t tourism and the environment naturally in conflict?
A: Not necessarily. I think about how many people are drawn to a place because of it’s natural environment, its climate, the beauty that is there. Yet, when they arrive, they are not expecting to have hundreds of other people on that beautiful secluded beach that they saw in the advertisement.
Q: So how do you achieve balance?
A: This is the big question. It takes a lot of stakeholders, which includes the government. But you also have to have the support of the local business and the local population. It requires all the stakeholders to come together if this is to be achieved.
Q: Any advice for those stakeholders in Michigan?
A: My advice to them is to embrace the foundation of geotourism. Make sure that the uniqueness of Michigan doesn’t get obscured, the little stories that make our state what it is continue to be told.
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Photo Credit: Litter in a canal in Venice, which some would argue has been loved to death already. Chris Booth / Flickr
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