When Huck Finn and his friend Jim took to the Mississippi River in a flimsy raft on their fictitious adventure, Mark Twain conjured only the moon and a dim lantern's light to guide them.
They could've used a geotourism website.
An ambitious initiative aims to link together all 10 states bordering the river so that tourists from Paris, France, to Paris, Tenn., will be able to enlist a one-stop website to plan trips themed around things like historic sites, parks or food. Created by the National Geographic Society, the project would feature interactive maps, smartphone apps and social media to help tourists discover the uniquely American riverway that slices through the heartland. It's expected to take root in the next couple of years.
Geotourism is a relatively new term for travel. It focuses on a destination's unique culture and history and intends to have visitors help enrich those qualities rather than turn the place into a typical tourist trap. The National Geographic Society has embraced the model and made it part of a global mission, said James Dion, sustainable tourism program manager with the National Geographic Society.
While geotourism encourages treading lightly on the environment, it's also about experiences that are authentic to a place, rather than contrived. The Mississippi River is a natural for geotourism, Dion said, given its richly varied cultures, from its rustic headwater region to bustling St. Louis and Memphis, pockets of history like Vicksburg, to bawdy New Orleans.
"People don't travel to states, they travel to experiences," Dion said.
The website would be built based on information gathered from hundreds of tourist-related businesses all along the river and posted at no cost, backed by both the experience and marketing cachet of the National Geographic Society, Dion said.
It's much more than a website that connects tourism businesses across the river corridor, he added. It would involve branding the river as a unique world-class tourist destination, raise awareness of the river's cultural heritage and spark local tourism planning and growth.
The geotourism effort includes nearly a dozen projects across the country (and more around the world), from Yellowstone and the Four Corners region in the West to the East Tennessee River Valley in the Southeast to the St. Lawrence Seaway in the Northeast. Most recently, partly spurred by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, a geotourism project was put into place for the Gulf states in the South to help their economies recover.
The Mississippi River initiative is the largest geotourism project undertaken.
"Our goal is to inspire people to care about the planet," Dion said.
In 2008, the National Geographic Society and five federal agencies — the Agriculture and Interior departments, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service — entered into a formal agreement to adopt the principles of geotourism.
"The idea was that National Geographic would put together a program to help draw tourism to the greater parts of our country," said Terry Eastin, executive director of the Arkansas-based Mississippi River Trail and a board member of the Mississippi River Connections Collaborative, a coalition of groups that is helping spearhead the geotourism effort.
Even through the depths of the Great Recession, tourism has remained a steady and growing industry. However, she said, most travelers from abroad tend to focus their attention, and dollars, on three geographic areas: New York, Orlando and the West Coast.
Americans also overlook what the Mississippi River has to offer and see it as just part of the transportation system or just one big drainage ditch, she said.
The geotourism plan counters that view and gives tourists a chance to understand what the river is about — whether their interests are in museums, food or parks and wildlife refuges.
"It's not for the Holiday Inns … but it is for those micro-, small and medium-sized businesses that really portray what America is all about," she said.
And statistics show the bottom-line benefits of geotourism, Eastin said. A 2010 survey found that geotourists stay longer and spend more at their destinations when compared to non-geotourists: 8.2 nights compared to 5.9 nights, and $1,163 vs. $644.
Though the geotourism concept is in the early planning stage, initial local response has been positive.
"Love it, love it — it's a perfect fit for us," said Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit St. Paul and the RiverCentre Authority, the city's tourism promotion agency. "The Mississippi River is a big part of the St. Paul brand. It puts the focus on one of the greatest rivers in the world."
The river is St. Paul's connection to the natural world, and the geotourism model plays right into that, he said. "If you're out canoeing or kayaking on the river, you think you're in the middle of the wilderness. That's unique, and it's special to St. Paul."
The plan has been discussed over the past couple of months by the Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission. Developing tourism along the state's 575-mile portion of the Great River Road is one of its chief tasks.
"It has a lot of potential, but it would have to be done right," said state Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, the commission chairman. The big question, Johnson said, is funding. Minnesota's contribution would likely come from a variety of private sources, and possibly some public money in the mix, perhaps from the Legacy Amendment fund.
Fundraising, and selling the benefits of geotourism along the Mississippi River, are the focal points for Eastin and Dion. The immediate goal is to raise at least $900,000 over two years, Dion said.
"It's all about branding the Mississippi River as the national icon that it is," Eastin said. "I think it's about the best thing we could do."