Written By: Pat Hendersen

It was only fitting that Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri would sign the state's Geotourism Charter May 16, right in the middle of 2007 National Tourism Week. In doing so, Carcieri helped cast a vision for the way sustainable tourism and community development in Rhode Island would intersect under the umbrella of geotourism.

The geotourism initiative is part of a program started by National Geographic's Center for Sustainable Destinations in 2001 to encourage states or countries to focus not only on the environment, but also on the diversity of the cultural, historic and scenic assets unique to each area. Rhode Island became only the sixth destination to enter into such a partnership with National Geographic, following Norway, Romania, Arizona, Guatemala and Honduras, which was signed as the first partner in 2004.

This is a big deal for our state, said Dr. Robert Billington, president, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council in Pawtucket. Now that our state has adopted the geotourism principles, it makes it easier to empower everyone interested in tourism resource management to act in a manner that is consistent with the interests of Rhode Islanders and their state's future.

Geotourism seeks to keep destinations unspoiled for future generations while still allowing for enhancement, as long as it protects the character of the locale. From a tourism standpoint, the goal is for destinations to improve stewardship and attract the most beneficial, least disruptive forms of tourism.

I think the important concepts here are to grow tourism in a responsible way so that impact on the residents is positive, to attract visitors that will appreciate the culture and heritage of the area, to use tourism as a vehicle for preservation of both buildings and culture and provide visitors with an authentic experience, said Katrina L. White, travel trade manager for the Rhode Island Tourism Division.

Since the partnership is so new, many of the specific details are still in the formative stages. An 18-member committee of the state's shareholders has been formed, which includes representatives from NTA member companies such as Collette Vacations, the Rhode Island Division of Tourism and Johnson & Wales University. This group will help distill the initiative's big-picture benchmarks into an action plan with specific steps for tourism entities.

Some tourism professionals may not realize that a program they already promote is geotourism, said White. I think many of the tour operators are already participating in geotourism in some aspects of their tours. Packages that include festivals that celebrate local culture and/or foods qualify, as do visits to local history museums, but there is an opportunity to go deeper.

Specific examples of existing programs that fit the bill for geotourism are the state's Heritage Trails, Nature Trails and Jewels of the Bay offerings; agritourism options including the Rhode Island FarmWays coalition; and culinary events such as seafood festivals, restaurant weeks and the New England Culinary Tourism Symposium.

What is great about it, beside the obvious for us in tourism, is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel we have been doing these things for a long time already, said White. We need to continue with our efforts in development, and this gives us a fabulous marketing platform to entice people here that care about where they visit.

Myrna George, president of the South County Tourism Council in Wakefield, agrees with White that this isn't a radical or foreign concept for Rhode Island's destinations.

The protection and preservation and restoration of our fragile environment and heritage sites have been ongoing over the years, said George. Visitors and residents value our moonlit walks on 100 miles of beaches, as well as our starlight strolls along country roads that provide visible incentives for continued thoughtful stewardship of this very special place we are all proud to call home.

One of the guiding principles of the geotourism charter (see sidebar for full list) places specific emphasis on interactive interpretation. It calls for destinations to engage residents in promoting the natural and cultural heritage of their communities, so that tourists gain a richer experience and residents develop pride in their locales.

That is music to the ears of lifelong Newport resident Matthew Oakley, group sales manager for Viking Tours of Newport.

I have grown up both in the Newport area, as well as in the tour business, and am now the third generation of a family business, said Oakley. I love getting to show off Newport through cultural packages like our Yachting Heritage Tour, Grand Mansion Tour or through a tasting at one of our great local vineyards.

One of geotourism's by-products for the state's attractions and communities is that they will be better equipped to provide genuine travel experiences. This should open up all kinds of options for tour operators, who are constantly seeking ways to engage the coveted baby boomer market.

These days, it's all about the boomers, said White. Programs and tour product that offer authentic experiences are what they are looking for. I think geotourism may give the operators a marketing edge for attracting that boomer market that we all want.

Sugar Tours Inc./Creative Culinary Tours is a West Dover, Vermont-based operator that already incorporates Rhode Island as part of its packages. The company's week-long A Culinary Adventure of New England tour, which is offered three times a year, begins and ends in Newport. Company President Chris Donnelly said he views Rhode Island's rich culinary history as one of its strongest geotourism components.

Our culinary programs really fit into the definition (of geotourism), said Donnelly. Our visit to the Newport Vineyard talks about how their vineyard is deemed agricultural for the rest of its life and how they are trying to ensure that nearby lands will never be developed. This shows a true commitment to the local agriculture, and I respect Rhode Island for its dedication to tourism as well to its people and land. I know this means better things for operators in the future.

One of the tenants of geotourism is carefully calculated redevelopment. Tourism professionals in two of Rhode Island's main tourist areas, Providence and the Blackstone Valley, have a firsthand perspective on how this can work. Those communities have undergone significant upgrades to their infrastructure the past two decades and have seen positive results in terms of tourism.

Kristen Adamo, vice president of marketing and communications for the Providence Warwick CVB, said that urban planners and officials from other cities often visit Providence to study and learn about the success of its rejuvenation.

Providence has received international acclaim for the revitalization of our downtown area, said Adamo.  Once a gritty, industrial center, downtown Providence now features impeccably preserved buildings, rivers that flow through the heart of the city and pedestrian walkways and bridges.

She noted that places like the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales University and events such as WaterFire and Gallery Night also have played a role in energizing Providence's tourism scene. Because Providence is known for its vibrant arts community and commitment to historic preservation, the itineraries of our many tours reflect that, said Adamo.

In Pawtucket, the transformation was even more dramatic. Faced with an increasingly polluted Blackstone River and a stark industrial landscape, the Blackstone Valley had nowhere to go but up, said Billington.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local residents began to seriously address the question of how the area could be reshaped to make it a place people wanted to live and visit. Their ideas and plans culminated in the creation of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor by the U.S. government in 1986. The federal funds provided needed capital, and the first order of business was cleaning up the Blackstone River. State and local officials used the river rejuvenation as a springboard and began developing other projects that, over time, have helped revitalize the area.

Our Blackstone River, once a life-supporting natural resource, became an industrial sewer, so really we had nothing to build a program on in the Blackstone Valley other than our culture and history, said Billington. Now, our story is a landscape story.

Culture wasn't something the area ever lacked, as it was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. The efforts of Samuel Slater, who began textile manufacturing in 1790 from wooden mill on the banks of the Blackstone River, are immortalized at Slater Mill a National Historic Landmark Site that tells the story of the laborers, artisans and cotton workers who played a key role in launching the age of industry. Another heritage-based attraction, the Museum of Work and Culture, explores the people that came from all over the world to work at the local mills and factories.

We have been using the geotourism theories of conservation and cultural preservation since we began our tourism redevelopment program in 1985, so they are quite natural and normal to us, said Billington.

The success of the geotourism partnership rests on Rhode Island's ability to develop tourism that sustains and enhances its geography, environment, culture and the well-being of its residents. Billington said he feels that will be easy for the state, as long as they live up to what he sees as the true focus of the geotourism agreement.

"To me, it is more about the landscape and less about tourism packaging, said Billington. It is a tool for redevelopment that will allow us to think about what we want our communities to look like. If we get that part right, tourism will follow. But it won't happen the other way around."

White agreed. Most important, it's just the right thing to do, she said. Careful, deliberate development benefits us all.