Natural heritage tourism (or geotourism as defined by National Geographic) is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.
Natural heritage tourism is an umbrella concept, and ecotourism, focused on nature, as well as agritourism, focused on agricultural lifestyles, can be considered subsets. Ecotourism focuses on local culture and wilderness adventures and understanding the means by which people in other parts of the world are living off the land around them. An important element to most ecotourists is how sustainable development can best meet the social, economic, and environmental needs of an area and promote biological biodiversity. Agritourism focuses on learning about and direct experience of agricultural operations of all types, often emphasizing the relationship of agriculture to biodiversity, wildlife compatibility, and local culture or cuisine.
Tenets of natural heritage tourism:
- Minimize impact.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for environmental and cultural conservation.
- Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
- Raise sensitivity to host area’s political, environmental, and social climate.
The number of natural heritage tourists nationwide has been estimated to increase from 55 million in 2003 to 100 million in 2013. Many organizations within the lower Mississippi River valley are now promoting management of the Mississippi River and environs for natural heritage tourism, since funding expended by tourists can provide a sustainable source of economic development to local communities.