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VOL. 129 | NO. 51 | Friday, March 14, 2014

Mississippi River Geotourism Effort Touted

By Bill Dries

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The National Geographic Society wants to create an interactive media geotourism project that guides visitors on journeys they can coordinate up and down the length of the Mississippi River.

The National Geographic Society’s geotourism division wants to build an interactive media platform to promote travel along the Mississippi River corridor including Memphis.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Jim Dion, coordinator of the Geotourism Map Guides division of National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations, has been in Memphis this week, meeting with local and regional tourism leaders and possible donors to the effort.

The effort being spearheaded by the Mississippi River Connections Collaborative, which is meeting in Memphis this week, has a fundraising goal of $985,000. Called the Mississippi River Sustainable Destinations Initiative, the effort has a two-year timetable to roll out interactive media platforms, including everything from apps to paper maps – all with the National Geographic brand and built on National Geographic’s principles of geotourism.

Those principles include sustainability and environmental stewardship and an emphasis on locally owned businesses that give tourists an authentic experience.

“I think people that are traveling don’t care what county they are in. They don’t care what state they are in,” Dion said Wednesday, March 12, after a presentation on the top floor of One Commerce Square at the offices of the Thomason Hendrix Harvey Johnson and Mitchell law firm. “They want to have an experience. They are interested in history or culture, whatever aspect of a place.”

With a panorama of the Mississippi River at Memphis at sunset behind him, Dion told a group of 25 about National Geographic’s work on similar efforts in other parts of the world as he walked through how the system works, starting with locals along the communities on the river posting content.

“I don’t know what’s real here, and you do. … We invite local people to upload into our content management system and website the story of their place and then work with us to interpret that as an interactive website, a handheld mobile application … and a hard-copy map,” Dion said. “It also starts with engaging local stakeholders on a very granular level to take part in this process.”

A “geotourism stewardship council” verifies the information to ensure that potential visitors are getting reliable information about institutions.

“All that information can be displayed as a mobile app on the Google and iPhone platforms so people can travel around with it,” Dion added. “We have hard-copy maps as well that are derived from the experiences creating the website.”

Facebook pages also allow travelers to contact local institutions and owners directly.

Dion admitted that the approach challenges the way communities brand their tourism efforts and a tourism emphasis on “butts in airplane seats and heads in beds.” Some of the challenge is based on 20 years Dion spent as a river guide on the Arkansas River in Colorado.

“In 20 years working there, nobody ever got on my boat and said, ‘It’s so great to be here in Chaffee County this morning,’” Dion said. “But that’s how we look at it in this very provincial way. Why don’t we look at it from the point of view of the traveler? Why don’t we market to the travelers’ interests? They want to maximize their experience. They want great places to eat, great music to listen to, great places to see, great activities, experiences.”

He also points to Sitka, Alaska, which has thrived economically on tourism with fewer visitors after cruise lines decided to bypass Sitka in 2008. It is a fishing industry town with locally based tourism that offers opportunities to see whales and bald eagles and go sport fishing as well as to spend time on a working fishing boat.

“They’ve been able to replace these cruise ship tourists with people that spend more time, spend more money, leave with a greater affinity for the place, have a better experience –and have fewer visitors,” Dion said, citing tourism officials in Alaska who report the town has had 40 percent fewer visitors than it did in 2006 but has seen 200 percent more revenue.

“If we invite outside developers to come in and build a King’s Dominion or a water park or a Sea World or a Hilton hotel development, a casino development – a lot of time that’s not local people,” he added. “Those are outside investors that are benefiting. Maybe local investors will bring in these investors to work with them. But when people spend that money in those places, those profits are going outside those communities.”

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