SEATTLE — Historical sightseeing may never be the same again. Now parents can tell their children to bring their smartphones with them for a nature walk, and national parks may want tourists to leave something behind.
Geocaching, a form of high-tech treasure hunting that utilizes clues from a GPS device, is being harnessed by tourist destinations as a new way to draw visitors and encourage them to explore.
Five locations from Washington, D.C., to Park County, Colo., recently launched tours created by Seattle-based company Groundspeak, which runs the Geocaching.com website.
The nearest geocaching tour is centered on Cache Creek, British Columbia; it weaves through the region’s Gold Rush country and will have 144 caches by the end of the summer. Several more tour locations are in the works.
“What those destinations want to do is attract visitors,” said Groundspeak Vice President Mark Sherman, who engineered the tours.
The company estimates every $1 spent by a tourist destination on geocaching will result in about $20 spent by tourists on hotels, restaurants and the like.
Vesta Giles, 46, from Kamloops, B.C., is one of the 5 million people geocaching around the world. She has found 522 caches, or treasure-filled containers hidden by other enthusiasts.
There are now over 6,500 geocaches in the Seattle area and approximately 1.8 million worldwide, according to Groundspeak.
“We drool about Seattle because Seattle is like the mecca for geocaching,” Giles said. She and her mother have their eyes set on a geocache in Seattle’s famous Gum Wall, under Pike Place Market.
Seattle doesn’t have an organized geocaching tour yet, however.
Geocaching.com was created in 2000 in Seattle by Jeremy Irish after the U.S. government made more accurate GPS signals available to the public, enabling civilian GPS users to more precisely pinpoint locations. He founded Groundspeak with partners Elias Alvord and Bryan Roth to operate Geocaching.com and other outdoor-activity websites.
Today Groundspeak employs 70 people who run the website and database, list geocaches online, and work with geocachers in the community. It’s those geocachers who create and hide the caches, typically containers with trinkets such as balls, pins and coins. They also put a notebook in the container for geocachers to leave messages. Geocachers can also post messages online through their smartphone app or computer.
Groundspeak has made a business out of this electronic hide-and-seek game. It offers a free app that shows three nearby caches, a $9.99 app with advanced features and more than 1,750,000 caches, and a $30 annual subscription with additional capabilities such as geocache challenges.
The new GeoTours initiative is another way to expand its reach. Destination organizations pay $2,500 to set up the GeoTour and $1,250 annually for promotion and listing fees.
Besides Gold Country, the other active tours are the Captain John Smith tour at the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland; The Star-Spangled Banner tour in D.C.; the RiverWalk tour in Columbus, Ga.; a tour tied to the Dinosaur Train children’s TV show, with sites around the U.S.; and a tour through Colorado’s South Park National Heritage Area.
Tours of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C., and the Shetland Amenity Trust in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands will launch in the next couple of months. Two other tours are in the works for Indiana and Florida, said Groundspeak spokesman Eric Schudiske.