With gaming revenue on the decline and environmental sustainability an ongoing concern, the need for a new tourism strategy in Tahoe is two-fold. Enter geotourism.
According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s 2011 Threshold Evaluation Report, the gaming industry has lost more than 4,000 jobs in the past decade as a result of increased competition. The Nevada Gaming Control board indicates a 24 percent decline in gaming revenue over the same period.
At the same time, the region is still struggling to update its built environment in ways that preserve its natural ecosystem, and according to TRPA, water clarity remains a concern. Since 1997, partners of the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program have spent more than $1.5 billion to restore the ecosystem.
Geotourism employs a two-pronged attack: Preserve the environment by fostering stewardship through cultural and historical ties, and support the local economy by promoting and encouraging patronage of local businesses. Coined by Jonathan Tourtellot, founding director of the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations and the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler, the term encompasses eco-tourism, agri-tourism, volun-tourism and then some. It has support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. And the philosophy is gaining serious traction in the Tahoe region.
“It’s not just about the environment,” says Tourtellot. “It certainly includes the environment, but it’s also about history, traditions, culture and the aesthetics of a place.”
Jacquie Chandler, the executive director of Sustainable Tahoe, was appointed a geotourism liason by the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations in 2007. She and John Hara, Sustainable Tahoe’s founder and board chair, are currently gearing up for the fourth annual Tahoe Expo, a two-day geotourism demonstration (Aug. 30-31) that spans 150 miles and features 25 “geotracks” — events and excursions that showcase all the region has to offer. The expo is made possible by the collaboration of 60-plus NGOs, agencies and businesses, and geotracks range from biologist-led kayaking trips to bike rides and fly fishing excursions.
“The expo is more than an event,” Chandler says. “It’s an economic demonstration for long-term prosperity and water clarity. We need to make visitors part of the solution. Instead of one big footprint, we have many tiny footprints spread out over hundreds of miles. It’s a tourism model that can happen everyday.”
The Sierra Business Council picked up the geotourism model back in 2009 when it partnered with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and National Geographic to launch the Sierra Nevada Geotourism Project. The project’s website, sierranevadageotourism.org, includes a comprehensive, interactive map that highlights everything from community festivals to local B&Bs.
“Every destination on the web map includes an effort to have as little an impact on local environment as possible or promotes maintaining and restoring the environment,” says Brittany Todd, communications specialist for the SBC. “Our focus is on sustaining that unique character of place — environmentally, historically and culturally.”
To help grow the movement, the Tahoe Chamber, in cooperation with the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, uses grant money from El Dorado County to shoot videos showcasing local activities, events and businesses that reflect geotourism ideals. The videos are then uploaded to YouTube and the LTVA-run tahoesouth.com.
Tahoe does have a story, and there’s a lot to discover besides ski resorts. Perhaps Tahoe can lead the way back to destination distinctiveness. My hope is that on my next visit, I will be pleasantly surprised.
Jonathan Tourtellot, geotourism editor, National Geographic Traveler
While the site still highlights big-name entertainment events that have little to do with the region’s authentic character, the site’s blog features content written by Tahoe residents lauding assets like hiking trails and local festivals. There’s also the upcoming Sample the Sierra event featuring the local flavor of El Dorado County — essentially El Dorado County’s farm-to-fork festival. According to Tahoe Chamber President Betty Gorman, it’s about more than tourism. The event connects members of the local business community so that local shops and restaurants are featuring locally made products. She says the idea came to her while she was perusing goodies in a local tasting room.
“I was looking at jams and jellies, and they were all from Maine,” she says. “I practically dropped a jar on the floor I was so stunned.”
According to the Tourism Industry of America’s 2011 report, “Geotourism: A New Trend in Travel,” more than 55 million travelers — over half of those surveyed — are interested in the kind of travel experience geotourism promotes. These travelers tend to be educated and have higher disposable incomes. Of the most active geotourists, nearly 30 percent are under the age of 35 and about 30 percent live in the Pacific region. The SBC reports that more than 60 percent of users who visit its geotourism website are between the ages of 18 and 34 — a demographic whose disposable income, and hopefully travel spending, is in a position to grow.
And the movement needn’t necessarily exclude Tahoe’s gaming breadwinners, either. In the past year, the Tahoe Fund and the Truckee River Watershed Council have seen roughly 20 businesses join their Green Bucks program. Participating businesses collect $1 per guest via lift ticket sales or hotel room rates (though patrons have the option to opt out) for conservation and education efforts throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin and Truckee River Watershed. Just last month, MontBleau Resort Casino & Spa presented a check for $18,000 raised through the program.
“If you’re in the hospitality and tourism industry in Tahoe, your business is related to the environment,” says Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund. “Casinos know that people don’t have to go to state lines if they want to gamble, but they can’t experience a more beautiful environment than if they do it here.”
But, as with any new movement, getting a slew of independent agencies and entities on the same page is about as easy as corralling cats into a bathtub.
“Right now, everyone is making an effort, but it’s so uncoordinated that the message gets lost,” Berry says. “There’s not a lack of information. There is almost too much information.”
Those trumpeting geotourism are not simply tasked with getting the message out to travelers. They also have to first get a hold of what exactly it means in a particular region, then educate local businesses and other organizations on that meaning and how to get involved.
The Lake Tahoe Outreach Committee, of which the Tahoe Fund is a member, is working to streamline Tahoe’s geotourism strategy. In September it met with 60 stakeholders for a 3-hour workshop to fine tune the region’s branding and will hopefully launch a media campaign in the fall of 2015.
According to Tourtellot, based on his 2007 visit, he would have given Tahoe “reasonably good marks for environment and rather poor marks for culture. The fascinating history of the place is not well-presented, and the Washoe’s story is virtually absent.”
The Washoe are the native people of the Great Basin that have occupied the region for thousands of years. While their culture is largely absent in Tahoe, Sustainable Tahoe is hoping to change that. The Washoe Cultural Resources Advisory Council has allied itself with Sustainable Tahoe and will be participating in this year’s Tahoe Expo by hosting a traditional LukaLeLup, or gathering ceremony, during the two-day event.
“The reason we support what Jacquie (Chandler) is doing is because it is sustainable,” says Darrel Cruz, the advisory council’s director and a member of the Washoe tribe. “Those values she is trying to get across to people, those are our values: Protect and preserve the land for people, animals and wildlife.”
The LukaLeLup will include Washoe storytelling, language education and other traditional practices like archery and basket-weaving demonstrations.
“Tahoe itself is more or less the center of the universe for the Washoe people,” Cruz says. “If there is going to be a story told about the Washoe, it’s better that we tell it in our own words, so that it’s done in a manner that’s consistent with our own values and beliefs.”
According to Chandler, this type of authentic connection to a destination’s history creates a strong sense of place that fosters the stewardship so important to making geotourism a successful model. It’s also what many of the geotourism efforts in the Tahoe region lack. According to the TIA study, the majority of travelers (68 percent) choose destinations based on word of mouth. If Tahoe is to succeed, it will need to give visitors a story to tell.
“Tahoe does have a story, and there’s a lot to discover besides ski resorts,” Tourtellot says. “Perhaps Tahoe can lead the way back to destination distinctiveness. My hope is that on my next visit, I will be pleasantly surprised.”
Can profit and preservation find common ground? Let us know what you think in the comments.
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