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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of ecotourism, but what on Earth is “Geotourism?”
—Sally Kardaman, Sumter, SC

“Geotourism” describes tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a given place, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of local residents. The idea is that tourism can be a positive force that benefits both travelers and local environments and economies.

National Geographic Senior Editor Jonathan Tourtellot coined the term in 1997 to distinguish it from “ecotourism” or “sustainable tourism,” both which more narrowly focus on travel’s ecological impacts. In addition to a “do-no-harm” ethic, Geotourism seeks to enhance prospects for sustainable development based on the specific character of a given place rather than on standardized international branding, generic architecture and food, etc. In other words, a geotourism tour won’t involve sending you to an exotic locale only to put you up at a Hilton or Marriot and give you discount coupons to Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

“Today the world’s great destinations are under assault as visitor numbers rise exponentially every year,” reports the non-profit National Geographic Society, the publisher of
National Geographic. “The result is damage to the sites, overcrowding and erosion of the local culture and environment.” The Society hopes to reverse these trends with Geotourism. Its Center for Sustainable Destinations (CSD) helps local communities, governments, tourism bureaus and private businesses enhance and sustain their distinct character while harnessing the power of tourism for positive impact: “Residents discover their own heritage by learning that things they take for granted may be interesting to outsiders,” reports CSD. “As local people develop pride and skill in showing off their locale, and tourists get more out of their visit.”

The Society’s “Geotourism Charter” lists 13 principles that qualifying sites must adhere to in order to earn a Geotourism distinction. The main current running through the Charter is appreciation for the distinctive aspects of a given place and culture, and an eagerness to showcase them to curious and supportive visitors.

The term Geotourism is fairly new, but several places have offered “Geotourism”-worthy travel for years. Costa Rica’s Rio Tropicales Lodge takes visitors white water rafting, horseback riding, hiking and on other rainforest excursions. It hires and trains locals to manage operations and teach guests about local cultures first-hand—and has launched several re-forestation efforts and an education program that teaches elementary students across Costa Rica about the importance of protecting the rainforest in their backyards.

Another organization is 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking in Nepal, which trains local women to be tourism professionals and trekking guides. In just a few short years the group, which promotes low-impact treks in the Himalaya region, has trained 600 women as ambassadors to the outdoors across Nepal and beyond.

Aspiring geotourism professionals can learn about their future profession by focusing on it as part of a new concentration within the geography department of Missouri State University.

CONTACTS: CSD; Rio Tropicales; 3 Sisters; Missouri State University Geotourism Concentration

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that asthma cases in children often correlate to living close to roads and all the associated pollution-spewing traffic?
—Jake Locklear, San Diego, CA

Living near a roadway certainly does exacerbate asthma, especially for kids. To wit, a recent study by the University of Southern California (USC)—the most comprehensive by far to date on this topic—found that at least 8% of the more than 300,000 cases of childhood asthma in Los Angeles County can be attributed to traffic-related pollution in homes within 250 feet of a busy roadway. The findings, released in the September 2012 online edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, indicate that previous research underestimated the effects of roadway traffic on asthma.

“Our findings suggest that there are large and previously unappreciated public health consequences of air pollution in Los Angeles County and probably other metropolitan areas with large numbers of children living near major traffic corridors,” says Rob McConnell, one of the lead researchers on the study and a professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

“These findings confirm our understanding that air pollution not only makes things worse for people with asthma, but can actually cause asthma to develop in healthy children,” reports Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit. “It is even more sobering when you consider that 45 million Americans live within 300 feet of a highway and many of them are children.”

USC researchers note that new laws in California designed to reduce carbon output—improving fuel efficiency and reducing vehicle miles by increasing public transit options—will also help reduce asthma triggers. Some of the policies designed to reduce traffic congestion and car usage include offering housing developers incentives to locate projects closer to transit stops, thus encouraging use of public transit.

“Plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change offer an opportunity to develop ‘win-win’ strategies that will maximize the health benefits from reduction both of greenhouse gases and of air pollutants that directly harm children,” McConnell says.

“There is also emerging evidence that other diseases may be caused or exacerbated by urban air pollution, including atherosclerosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and neurological disorders,” McConnell adds. “Thus, policies to combat climate change may have near-term health benefits beyond reducing the burden of disease due to asthma.”

According to NRDC’s Bailey, prioritizing the land directly next to freeways and other busy roads for commercial rather than residential use is one way to keep people at a safer distance from asthma-triggering pollution. Those who already live near busy roadways can help mitigate pollution effects by planting trees—foliage of all kinds is good at absorbing pollutants—and by filtering their indoor air to minimize overall exposure. “But given that traffic pollution increases asthma by some 8%,” says Bailey, “we better do everything we can do reduce that pollution and minimize exposure to it.”
CONTACTS: Environmental Health Perspectives; NRDC. / Issue 143 - September 3974
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