Geotourism: The new industry buzzword

‘Sense of place’ crucial to luring the new breed of geotourists

BBJ photo/VINCENT AIOSA
Dorie Belisle has cashed in on her Lynden apple farm’s appeal to geotourists, who come to the area to sample local produce. BelleWood Acres offers tours and apple tastings to visitors each fall.

Heidi Schiller
   Whatcom County does not have a SeaWorld, a Mount Rushmore or a Statue of Liberty. It has no major theme park and cannot boast the largest mall in North America, nor is it home to a deceased celebrity’s mansion.
   It does, however, have a sense of place.
   Members of the local tourism industry are seeing that sense of place attract visitors to the area in the form of geotourism, a term coined by the National Travel Industry.
   Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of the place being visited — its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. Likewise, a geotourist is someone who shares those values and seeks those types of destinations and experiences.
   In the last two years, the Bellingham and Whatcom County area has experienced an increase in tourism that some think directly reflects the emergence of this new breed of traveler.

Looking for the real thing
   Visitor spending in Whatcom County increased by a record 9.5 percent in 2005, according to a recent report released by the Washington State Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED). John Cooper, president of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, predicted that spending will have increased by about 4 percent to 6 percent in 2006 when the final numbers are available. Both years represent a departure from the usual steady rate of a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in visitor spending.
   Cooper said the numbers signify more visitors to the area, who are also spending more, than in the past. He chalks the surge in visitors up to a combination of several factors, including a healthy regional economy, increased marketing efforts by the local tourism industry, and the growing reputation of Bellingham and Whatcom County as a travelers’ destination.
   Visitors to Bellingham and Whatcom County are increasingly falling into the geotourist category, he said. They are broadly interested in a destination’s range of features, rather than one or two specific sites or attractions.
   “They want to visit places that are authentic, that are relatively unspoiled and that have a sense of place. They don’t look for the fabricated experience, like Disney World, and they want to leave a small footprint when they visit. They want to blend in, meet the locals, and experience what life is like in that destination,” Cooper said. He added that geotourists tend to be aligned with Bellingham residents’ values, and that Bellingham residents, in turn, usually travel as geotourists, as well.
   For Whatcom County, geotourists are drawn to several niche characteristics of the area, Cooper said. These include the outdoors, from sightseeing to ice climbing; cultural attractions distinct to the area, like the Upfront Theater or the Bellingham Farmers Market; and culinary or agricultural tourism, which could include eating in local restaurants and touring farms or food producers.
   Frank Ordway, executive director of the American Museum of Radio and Electricity on Bay Street, said the number of out-of-county tourists to the museum makes up more than half of its visitors, and has increased since he began working there 18 months ago.
   Frequently he notices visitors stopping in Bellingham as part of a larger, regional adventure, which he said fits with the geotourist description.
   “They are on cycling tours or boating tours … we even had some people in the other day who were on an antique automobile tour around the region,” he said.
   He credits at least part of this increase to grants from the city’s tourism commission, which he has used to market the museum outside of the area.
   Dorie Belisle and her husband, John, own BelleWood Acres, a working apple farm halfway between Bellingham and Lynden. Since they began offering tours and apple tasting at the farm four years ago, she has noticed an estimated 25 percent increase in visitors to her farm each season.
   Belisle said her goal is to provide visitors with an authentic farm experience where they can learn about farming and Whatcom County agriculture. In the meantime, she is able to market her product to potential new customers.
   “We love providing education, but it’s a two-way street, because we’ve also found that by educating people about our fruit, they are more apt to buy our fruit in the Haggen stores where they come from,” she said.
   While Belisle said the majority of visitors to her farm are Whatcom County residents, the number of out-of-towners has steadily increased since the farm opened.
   She said many of her customers stop at BelleWood Acres while touring the area’s farms, wineries and cheese producers.
   “I think people are looking for the real thing,” she said of the increase in tourism. “With TV and all the outside stuff going on in the world, people want to experience what’s real.”

The future
   One of the challenges facing the growth of tourism in Whatcom County, Cooper said, comes from some residents who don’t want to see their community get too crowded.
   In Bellingham, especially, he said, tourists create a net surplus for the community because the revenue and taxes they generate exceed the services they require.
   “On average, most tourists are not needing police or firefighters, they’re not using schools, their impact on parks and roads is relatively minor. But the taxes they generate give the community a net surplus, and they help provide taxes for the citizens to enjoy those services, he said.”
   Cooper said the growth of the airport and the redevelopment of the former Georgia-Pacific waterfront site will greatly impact the future of tourism in Bellingham.
   Currently, most of Bellingham International Airport’s traffic heads outbound, and only a small portion of the inbound traffic is made up of out-of-town passengers traveling specifically to Bellingham, Cooper said. But he thinks this will eventually change as the airport grows and as Bellingham becomes more of a destination.
   Art Choat, director of aviation for the Port of Bellingham, said that the port has increased marketing of the Bellingham International Airport around the region in the last two years, including cross-promotional efforts with visitors’ centers in Reno and Salt Lake City.
   As for the redevelopment of the waterfront, Cooper said it will be crucial to the growth of tourism in the area.
   “If you build and develop your community as a place that people enjoy living in, those are also places that geotourists enjoy visiting,” he said. “With parks and trails, a marina, the proposed TerrAquarium, retail, housing, the university — all those things being looked at for the waterfront — almost all of them have appeal for visitors.”
   In other words, if the residents like it, the visitors will come.

A Snapshot of Whatcom County Tourism

Who is the average visitor to Bellingham/Whatcom County?
    The average visitor to Bellingham and Whatcom County is aged 47, is well educated with at least a bachelor’s degree and has an annual income approaching $60,000. 75 percent of visitors to the area come from a 200-mile radius.

When is Whatcom County’s peak tourist season?
    The peak season runs from June to August, except for the Mt. Baker area, which has a peak season in the winter.

How The Tourism Lodging Tax Works

    Every time a visitor stays at a hotel or motel in Bellingham they are charged a 4 percent state tourism lodging tax, which is reimbursed to the city. Through the Tourism Commission’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, the tax revenue is handed out in the form of grants to tourism-related applicants.
    For example, the Downtown Renaissance Network recently opened a downtown visitor’s information center with grant money from the tax. Other recipients have included the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra and the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, according to Nicole Oliver, communication coordinator for the city’s planning and community development department.
    The revenue from the lodging tax has steadily increased since 1999, Oliver said. In 2006, it generated $915,000, and the city projects almost $1 million in revenue from the tax for 2007.
    The county, as well as other cities within the county, have similar tourism tax programs, Oliver said.

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