EMU students learn how geotourism is a win-win situation in Northern Michigan

Grand Traverse region rebrands itself with sustainable tourism

by Pamela Young, Published August 05, 2014

YPSILANTI - Can a holistic approach to tourism and development work? Eastern Michigan University professor Kelly Victor-Burke says yes.

Victor-Burke is an expert in geotourism, a specialty that incorporates sustainable tourism with ways to protect a place’s character and assets.  She most recently has been using her expertise and the Pure Michigan promotional campaign to reach out to students and to northern Michigan entrepreneurs and residents on how geotourism is a win-win situation – for both the state’s assets and its residents.

While at Sleeping Bear Dunes, students learn that the national lakeshore is considered one of the most beautiful places in America.

“Popular destinations have to walk a fine line, because they can be dominated by mass tourism and local festivals, where you can love a place to death,” said Victor-Burke, a Lecturer III in geography and Assistant Director of EMU’s geotourism concentration. “You have to be aware of appropriate development and the issues arising from massive development.”

Eastern Michigan is one of only two universities in the country (along with Missouri State University) that offers a degree in geography with a geotourism concentration. The EMU program is designed to help graduates become innovators and entrepreneurs in Michigan’s geotourism industry. Both schools use the National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations concept of geotourism: tourism that sustains and enhances the identity of a place.

As part of the program, Victor-Burke recently conducted a field course, “Geotourism in the Grand Traverse Region ‘Pure Michigan,’” offered through EMU’s extended programs. What she and the students saw shows a winning concept in Traverse City and its environs.

“Northern Michigan is Michigan’s jewel,” Victor-Burke said. “Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Emmett Counties have a concentration of not just tourism, but geotourism attractions, innovators and entrepreneurs. They have great stories to be told.”

Victor-Burke says geotourism takes into consideration what makes a place like Traverse City worth visiting: Its geology, like Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore; the micro-climate, which is perfect for wineries, the water, the area’s Native American heritage, resort visitors, migrant workers and most importantly the needs of the local population.

The study of geotourism can be applied to many professions, she said. Students from construction management, urban & regional planning, geotourism, and historic preservation signed up for the class, she noting that it has direct applicability for those in urban & regional planning and historic preservation.

EMU graduate student Nancy Tare is director for the National Geographic web portal, balkansgeotourism.travel, which promotes the histories, cultures, landscapes and outdoor recreational activities for the Western Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.  She participated in the weeklong class.

Patrick Brys, owner of Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery,left, discusses the economic impact of wine tourism in the Grand Traverse region

“This course is a value added to everyone no matter what degree or career they are seeking,” said Tare, who is in the historic preservation program at EMU. “The class exceeded my expectations in terms of seeing first hand all the different ways geotourism can be practiced.”

Destinations have multiple stories to be told, said Victor-Burke, who set the students up with leaders in geotourism in the Traverse City area.

Daily field trips included:

  • The Village at Grand Traverse Commons: The students met with the developer of the former Northern Michigan Asylum has been retrofitted with retail space and housing with the goal of developing a tourist attraction. The 480-acre site “Central Park” setting featuring century-old Victorian-Italianate architecture, a historic arboretum and hiking and biking trails. It is one of the largest, historic preservation and adaptive reuse redevelopments in the country.
  • From Vine to Production – The group visited Brys Estate and had behind the scenes tours and private wine tasting.  They met with Patrick Brys and vintner Coenraad Stassen. The group toured a vineyard and learned how to make wine in a micro-environment.  A micro-environment is a climate that impacts both the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula.  The warming influence of the water surrounding the peninsula or lake effect protects the vines and budding grapes from freezing in the early spring and extends the growing season in the fall.

The tour was followed by a special meal at one of Traverse City’s top restaurants, The Cook’s House, where they were served a five-course meal that was locally sourced from Birch Pointe Farms. Victor-Burke calls this agritourism or a connection from where you get your food.

  • Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay located in Leelanau County, is an agritourism destination. Don Coe, Black Star’s managing partner, is a strong supporter of geotourism, said Victor Burke. A veteran of the spirits industry, he began producing wine after his retirement. The production of brandies began in 2008. The students toured the area and enjoyed a private wine tasting.
  • New trends in agriculture – Farms are moving away from generational owners to women who have a master’s in agronomy. The group met one young woman farmer with a master’s in agricultural science who is doing community-sustained agriculture. Her farm is on the Leelanau Peninsula. The community owns shares in the farm and people can harvest their own food if they buy a share. This arrangement allows farmers to get their money up front.

Culture and heritage also play an important role in geotourism, said Victor-Burke. She arranged for students to meet with a tribal cultural preservationist for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. Eric Hemenway explained the tribe’s history and discussed why certain locations, such as public waterways and beaches, were critical to the Native Americans.

“Eric’s talk really made a strong impression on the students,” Victor-Burke said. “They now look at the area, such as the town of Harbor Springs, as more than a rich tourist place.”

While visiting Walloon Lake near Petoskey, the group explored Ernest Hemingway’s life as a scholar and writer when he lived in Michigan. Vintage photos of the Hemingways and the way the area looked helped them learn about the importance of water. At Sleeping Bear Dunes, a park ranger talked about the area’s geology and the role of Native Americans in the area. Finally, a trip to an old lighthouse and the oldest house on Old Mission Point Bay provided students with the opportunity to learn about the buildings’ cultural history.

“Being able to speak to many of Michigan’s ‘pioneers’ in geotourism and then witness how Michigan is moving forward in terms of bringing in the right kind of tourism to the state is exciting,” Victor-Burke said. “We’re seeing geotourism being done successfully in Detroit and we’re already beginning to see this in Traverse City. The city is at the forefront by renaming itself.”

For more information, please visit EMU’s geotourism program.

Pamela Young

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