May 9, 2008 — While tourism may bring much-needed revenue to many places in the developing world, it can also do harm – driving up the prices of staple foods, stressing the local environment and disrupting traditional ways of life that have developed over hundreds, or even thousands, of years.
The new concept of "geotourism" encourages a more holistic approach to tourism that considers the many facets of tourism's impact on a place. The National Geographic Society coined the term in 2007, using the prefix 'geo' — meaning 'place' — to express the concept of "tourism that cares about the place, in the holistic sense," said David Germano, a U.Va. associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies.
Tibetans have existed as a distinct culture in a distinct area for at least 14 centuries, said Germano. Just as an invasive species can harm an ecosystem, a mass influx of tourists could knock Tibetan culture out of balance, and once that happens it can be very difficult to repair, he said. Promoting geotourism may help preserve the balance of Tibetan culture.
To that end, the University of Virginia partnered with Machik, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to "strengthen communities on the Tibetan plateau," to bring 13 Tibetan community leaders to the United States in late April for a Tibetan Geotourism Institute. The institute ran for 10 days, and various events were put on with help from a number of other organizations, including the National Geographic Society.
Institute participants divided their time between Washington, the University of Virginia and New Mexico. In New Mexico and Washington, they met with American Indian leaders, who also have struggled with questions of how to protect their culture as a minority ethnic group within a much larger nation, said Germano, a leader of the institute. Indians in New Mexico shared how they had established community-driven museums and done community mapping projects to catalogue unique cultural, historic and scenic assets.
Such projects, explained Germano, spread tourism revenue around a community and allow the community to represent itself to tourists, which strengthens community identity and can make tourists more sensitive to the unique qualities of a place.
Germano hopes to help Tibetans represent themselves through several new branches of the Tibetan Himalayan Digital Library, a huge virtual library project that Germano started in 2000. The "Tibetan Geotourism Portal" will be a new part of the site, with Tibetans creating much of its content. The portal will present a digital spatial model of the Tibetan plateau that will gradually become more richly detailed. Ultimately, a visitor will be able to search or browse the map to find various landmarks (mountains, lakes, towns, monasteries, etc.), then access additional information about the location provided primarily by Tibetans.
To encourage wide participation in the portal, Germano has teamed with an organization in Tibet that is training villagers to use digital video and photo technology and mapping to document themselves — their sacred history of a local mountain, the history of their local village school, or "whatever they want to talk about," said Germano. Tibetans will be representing themselves to other Tibetans, Chinese or international visitors, demonstrating how their culture is bound up with the place that they live, said Germano.
The portal will also enable Tibetans to network with each other across the vast and sparsely populated Tibetan plateau. For instance, a young girl in one village may never have met anyone with a college education, but she might view a video of a Tibetan woman on the portal reporting how she earned a Ph.D., and that might inspire the girl to believe that she, too, can earn a Ph.D., Germano said.
Germano's leadership has enabled the University of Virginia to be the only non-Asian university that has a partnership with Tibet University in Lhasa, the premier university in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, explained Losang Rabgey, director of Machik and a visiting scholar at U.Va. who helped lead the institute along with her sister, Tashi Rabgey, the director of U.Va.'s new Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative.
This partnership makes all of Germano's Tibetan Himalayan Digital Library viewable online in Tibet, where the Chinese central government engages in extensive Internet blocking. Internet access is just starting to trickle out to Tibetan villages, but every county seat in Tibet is online.
"Especially now with the current political situation — doom-and-gloom scenarios for Tibet's future — we're abuzz with the idea that there is so much positive, constructive, detailed work to do," said Losang Ragbey. "Instead of these overall political arguments, let's get down to the details — really look at what people need, how we can be of service and how we can work together. I think that's the nonviolent way forward, and U.Va. is a real center for that."
In Washington the institute participants also met with Ashoka, a group that networks and promotes "social entrepreneurs" — people who possess an entrepreneurial spirit of thinking creatively about practical solutions, but with the motivation of benefiting society rather than simply accumulating personal profit, explained Germano. Supporting social entrepreneurs means taking the time to visit local communities, build relationships and figure out, as Germano put it, "Who are the leaders? Who are the creative spirits? Who are the ones who are coming up with new practical solutions, who have that kind of talent to galvanize people?" All of the institute participants were social entrepreneurs, chosen by Germano and the Rabgey sisters after years of building relationships in Tibet.
Among the participants was Gonopo Tashi, a professor of agriculture at Tibet University in Lhasa and one of Tibet's leading conservationists, who helped lead an international conference with representatives from 17 countries that have snow leopard habitat. He hopes to set up a compensation fund to discourage Tibetan farmers and herders from killing the leopards that occasionally attack their livestock, he said.
Another participant, Tenzin Drolkar, chairman of the Tourism Department at Tibet University, plans to create a new college curriculum that will teach the considerations of geotourism through local tourism case studies from across Tibet. The entire curriculum will be put online through the Tibetan Himalayan Digital Library.
The growth of tourism in Tibet – last year about 4 million tourists visited (primarily from the U.S., Canada and Japan) – threatens to overburden the most popular sites, said Drolkar. Rising visits to the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa – about 2,300 per day in 2007 – have spurred the authorities to open the palace seven days a week, limit visitors to one-hour tours and allow no guide explanations during the tours in order to speed the flow of visitors. Native Tibetans who want to visit the holy site no longer have exclusive access to it every morning, as they used to.
Drolkar noted that Westerners often suggest how developing countries should reduce environmental impact and energy consumption — while themselves using far more energy per person. "I personally think that the tourist himself needs to be more responsible" about the many impacts of his visit beyond just economic spending, she said.
The forces of capitalism tend to promote mass tourism, so geotourism faces an uphill battle, Germano said. But he expressed optimism that networks of people can moderate the forces of capitalism, and that technology can facilitate such networks. "If we don't hope for a better future, we're never going to get a better future."