Geotourism: What is a Geotourist?

| December 15, 2008

A new study reveals the top five reasons of why we travel: to increase knowledge, to satisfy curiosity, to have a memorable experience, to obtain intellectual stimulation, and to visit destinations with a unique bundle of features and attractions.

According to a major travel industry survey undertaken in 2003 by the Travel Industry Association of America and polling some 55 million Americans, an emerging form of tourism, called ‘geotourism’ has been coined to encompass all aspects of travel, not just the environment. Its definition – ‘tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of the place being visited, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents’ – describes completely all aspects of sustainability in travel.  

The more commonly understood expression, ecotourism, is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation. 

Ecotourism began with small groups traveling to relatively undisturbed areas, appreciating natural scenery and traditional cultures.  World tourism has become an immense global industry, with an impact related to its size. Now ecotourism is increasingly seen as part of world tourism. Governments and the tourism industry are using ‘ecotourism’ as a brand for ‘good’ or ‘green’ tourism, though at times all seem oblivious of its original objectives.  

The downside of the mainstreaming of ecotourism is that the activity itself may progressively destroy the very values that appeal to the ecotourist. This is a continuing problem, particularly now as the greatest impact of mass ecotourism is falling on the most fragile environments. However, outside of the US, the activity of geotourism has evolved to develop as a distinct area of special interest tourism. Geotourism has therefore been defined as ecotourism or tourism related to geological sites and features, including geomorphological sites and landscapes.  In fact, the Inaugural Global Geotourism conference was held in Fremantle, Western Australia only this year, in August 2008. Geotourism has the same objectives as ecotourism, but particularly seeks to explain the beauty and origins of the Earth – all landscapes, landforms, plants and animals Geotourism complements scenic beauty with revelations of how they were formed. Geotourists see this additional information as doubling the value of a tour. In fact, geotours visit natural scenic landforms and explain the surface and deep processes that shaped them. Tourists, seeking to have the natural environment interpreted for them, can expect explanations of geology as well as flora and fauna, creating a holistic view of ecosystems. This enhances their support for the conservation of ecosystems for future generations. 

A significant feature of geotourism is that it does not require untouched landscapes as its playground. Geotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism that explains the scenery in terms of how geological processes formed the patterns that can be observed in landforms in a plethora of landscapes such as mountains, deserts and islands, and in the rock outcrops that can be observed in coastal cliffs, creeks, road cuttings, lookouts, quarries, mine sites, and through walks in national parks.In addition, there are 57 ‘geoparks’ globally – designated land tracts that celebrate outstanding geological and geomorphological features, all driven by local communities seeking to celebrate their geological heritage and achieve sustainable development.

The area known as the Kanawinka Geopark, which stretches from Naracoorte in the State of South Australia extending through to Colac in the southwestern corner of the State of Victoria, is the first geopark in Australia. Geotourism, by diluting the mainly biological/cultural emphasis of mainstream ecotourism offers the opportunity to provide relief from the overuse of ecologically sensitive areas. Geotourism is therefore ecologically sustainable, environmentally educative, locally beneficial and fostering tourist satisfaction.

The global market is looking for unique product experiences. Customers for tours have become more sophisticated, well traveled and discerning and generally come from higher socio-economic demographics. They are also intelligent, ‘thinking’ travelers. Therefore the incorporation of the ‘geotourist’ experience with traditional nature tourism and elements of cultural tourism creates a more holistic experience, and is a move towards the ‘experiential tourism’ model. In short, ‘experiential tourists seek memorable experiences. In this sense, sustainability is achieved through providing a high quality experience encouraging return visitation and attracting new customers by ‘word of mouth’.

Given the relatively small size of the ‘geoscience interest’ market, content packaging to meet ‘geotourist’ needs will be critical. To address this issue, the School of Marketing, Tourism & Leisure at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia has recently undertaken a cooperative market research study involving some 2,300 members of the Geological Society of Australia (GSA), the peak learned society for geoscientists (geologists) in Australia. 

159 respondents (i.e. some 7% of the GSA membership) responded by completing a short two page questionnaire. 16% of respondents were of female in circumstances where female membership of the GSA is less than 3%. Respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement on the purpose of visiting a ‘geotourism’ site by stating their graded views about various offered purposes. This analysis has determined that the five top travel purposes are increasing knowledge of geological sites and landforms, to satisfy curiosity, to have a memorable experience, to obtain intellectual stimulation, and visiting destinations offering a unique bundle of features and attractions (i.e. ecology, geology, culture and history). In addition, various conclusions can be drawn from this research. 

  1. The 72% of respondents fell in age category 45-70 years old.

  2. 96% of respondents have first or second degree education level.

  3. Respondents have different social and esteem needs and wants, have good gross income and will be able to afford travel to geotourism sites in Australia and overseas.

  4. Overall respondents prefer to travel to an Australian and overseas geo-site independently rather than take group tours, although there are different responses depending on age and destination type.

  5. The most important purposes for respondents are, inter alia; increasing knowledge of geological sites and landforms; to satisfy curiosity; to have a memorable experience; to obtain intellectual stimulation; and visiting destinations offering a unique bundle of features such as ecology, experience of different cultures and history by satisfying their curiosity. Female respondents place a higher level of importance on visiting destinations offering a unique bundle of these features.

  6. Female respondents also place a higher level of importance on enjoying fine foods and wines.

The first conclusion indicates a strong interest in ‘geotourism’ by older geoscientists. In this context, it is worth of noting that during 2008, the number of Australians over the age of 45 is predicted to exceed those under 45. Broadly speaking, these people fall into two groups i.e. ‘mature or seniors’ (+63) and ‘baby boomers’ (45 – 62). ‘Baby boomers’ embrace new technologies and are very open and adaptable, going online frequently. They are especially confident with travel sites, both for research and purchases. 

A recent government funded research study has examined these age profiles for the broader Australian population in considerable detail particularly from a life-stage analysis viewpoint. The research indicates the following. 

  • People in their late working life (ages 50-59, with or without children) are generally ‘empty nesters’ who possess large discretionary incomes, as they are generally debt free after having paid off their mortgages, their children will have completed or neared completion of their higher education, and most will no longer have older children living at home.

  • However, for those in early post retirement (ages 55-64, not working), they are also largely debt free with even more discretionary income available for travel purchases.

  • Those in late post retirement (ages 65-69, not working), possess much more time to investigate travel and other purchase and weigh up the value of their purchase, and make more considered decisions that younger groups.

  • Finally, for those later in life (+70), as technological, health and medical advances continue, life expectancies will continue to increase, resulting in this group being healthier, fitter and more able to continue to travel than past generations reaching this age.

Notwithstanding the encouraging outcomes from these recent studies, the geotourism ‘emerging tourism’ niche is still in an early stage of commercial development, particularly in Australia. Only very limited research data is available about the needs and wants of geotourists, even amongst those people who know most about geology and geomorphology. Nevertheless, it is suspected that the geotourism experience with traditional nature tourism and elements of cultural tourism creating a more holistic experience, will prove a highly attractive move towards achieving the ‘experiential tourism’ approach. To be regarded as a higher yield niche, it is anticipated that this model will need to be strategically marketed to older travelers who have both the time and resources to realise the model’s potential for full commercial development. 

Ultimately it is hoped that the geotourists of the future may extend beyond the ‘experiential’ model to embrace a wider group of demographics, and to be more broadly defined along the lines understood in the USA and in other countries such as in various parts of the UK, Europe, China and Taiwan.

Further Information:  

Angus M Robinson, Managing Partner of a new travel wholesaling business – – Leisure Solutions®, is an exploration geologist by training and experience. However his recent career has embraced leadership roles as the retiring Chief Executive of the Australian Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association Ltd (AEEMA) prior to its recent consolidation into the Australian Industry Group, as well as with the Australian Technology Park in Sydney, and The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering. In earlier years, he has held senior executive roles with the Zoological Parks Board of NSW, (developing Taronga Zoo’s international tourism marketing programs), as inaugural Museum Director of Sydney’s former Earth Exchange Museum, and as the Area Manager of the Mt Hotham Alpine Resort in Victoria. Angus is a long standing member of the Ecotourism Association of Australia, and has returned to the tourism industry to develop new inbound and domestic tour packages for the ‘baby boomer’ generation.