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Defending great places: Sonoran Desert at the forefront of Geotourism.

The Sonoran Desert, which straddles the border between southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico, is a haunting, stark landscape punctuated by towering saguaro cacti with arms reaching skyward as though praying for rain (though they sometimes droop when especially water-stressed). Yet many species of plants and animals call this home and have adapted to the harsh environment--often in bizarre and ingenious ways. "It's stunning, but it's also under enormous stress," says Joaquin Murrieta, associate director of the Sonoran Institute, who is at the vanguard of protecting this austere setting. He explains, "The Sonoran Desert is facing a massive onslaught of tourism, urban growth, water shortage and landscape fragmentation."

Though barren and harsh, this desert has also been a magnet for vacationers. The Santa Cruz River Valley is one of North America's longest-inhabited areas and is full of historic sites, including native ruins, Spanish missions and presidios (forts). The best example may be the San Xavier del Bac Mission, known as the White Dove of the Desert, with its elegant white domes and graceful arches.

Unfortunately, this unique area is facing the same threat as many of the world's most remarkable places: tourists. Macchu Pichu, Angor Watt, the beaches of Hawaii, the Grand Canyon and many other destinations are under siege by visitors. With the world population fast approaching seven billion and the percentage of retirees (with leisure time and disposable income) increasing, tourism has taken off. As David Sollitt, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Ecotourism Society, explains, "Tourism has grown enormously in recent decades and has transformed into a truly massive industry." In 2004, tourism contributed an estimated $5.5 trillion of economic activity globally. Put another way, if tourism were a national economy, it would be the second largest in the world, behind the U.S.

With its compulsion to overbuild and commercialize, tourism leaves a very significant environmental footprint. It can also destroy cultural distinctiveness, and widen the gulf between rich and poor. And when people are on vacation, they tend to toss frugality aside and opt for a lavish lifestyle.

"We need to make changes so tourism becomes sustainable and future generations can enjoy traveling. We must be sensitive to nature and local communities," Sollitt says. "Ecotourism is vitally important in today's world."

Several innovative programs have been launched to find a balance between the bulldozer of growth and preserving environmental and cultural treasures. An important player has been the nonprofit Sonoran Institute that works with communities to conserve and restore natural landscapes, wildlife and cultural values.

In 1998, the Sonoran Institute used public consultation to create the nonprofit La Ruta de Sonora Ecotourism Association that packages educational eco-adventures on both sides of the border. It offers visitors itineraries developed in partnership with local communities to present an insightful perspective on ecosystems, cultures, social and transborder issues, while generating income for local residents. A percentage of revenues is donated to a local conservation fund.

Monica Durand, marketing director for La Ruta says, "Our clients are people who are interested in conservation and the cultural resources of the region. They are people who want to have a meaningful travel experience."

National Geographic Traveler magazine found that almost three quarters of the travelers surveyed don't want their visits to harm the environment of their destinations. And in 2001, the National Geographic Society threw its considerable weight behind ecotourism by establishing the Centre for Sustainable Destinations to promote responsible travel and help preserve the world's great places. It also introduced a new term to the environmental lexicon: geotourism. As Jonathan Tourtellot, the center's director, explains, "Geotourism goes beyond ecotourism and includes not only the environment but also local people and their culture, heritage and well being."

Tourtellot asked, "The question is, what can Arizona offer? Will it offer another subdivision or golf course? Or promote a region like no other in the world?" In a groundbreaking move in December 2005, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico made their intentions clear by signing a National Geographic charter to promote "Geotourism."

Although this was the fifth Geocharter (others are in Norway, Honduras, Romania and the Appalachian Mountains), this is the first one that includes tribal nations and spans two countries. Key stakeholders include the Arizona Office of Tourism, Mexico's Sonoran Commission of Tourism, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Tohono O'odham Nation and the Sonoran Institute. The project is much like running a national park but on a vastly bigger scale.

A major goal of the Geocharter project is to develop the Sonoran Desert Geotourism MapGuide along with a supporting interactive web site. The process is designed to build local pride in the region, which, in turn, leads to tourism that protects valuable resources. A council of stakeholders launched a website and polled local residents and organizations to see what features should be included in the map. The response was overwhelming with more than 1,000 sites and routes nominated. As Margie Emmermann, director of Arizona's Office of Tourism, says, "We have achieved one of the most important goals of the project: to inform and educate local people about the significance of preserving their region's special sense of place."

On January 28, 2007, Governors Eduardo Bours Castelo and Janet Napolitano of Sonora and Arizona, respectively, unveiled the completed Spanish-version GeoMap, only 13 months after the Geocharter was signed. The English version was released in March. "What has been most satisfying," says Murietta, "is discovering how geotourism reveals human values and the power of a place." Based on this success, National Geographic is planning further Geocharters in other great places.

Although the Sonora GeoMap contains hundreds of fascinating sites, Casa Grande, a crumbling four-story adobe building, is particularly poignant. Erected by the Hohokam natives around 1250 AD, it marked the height of a civilization that, with the aid of irrigation, thrived in this arid landscape. About 1350, the Hohokam society mysteriously collapsed. Today the ruins remain as a stark reminder of the fragility of the Sonoran Desert.

CONTACT: Sonoran Desert Geotourism Mapguide,
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS
Author:Tammemagi, Hans
Date:May 1, 2007
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