Regional development encourages economically disadvantaged communities to improve their economic, social, cultural and environmental well being by realising the full potential of a region’s resources and its inhabitants. Wealth creation through the expansion of sustainable economic development enhances the quality of life and is therefore considered as a prerequisite for regional development. With the exception of the urban English Riviera Geopark, European geoparks are located in rural areas experiencing slow economic development, high levels of unemployment and population decline. By definition a European Geopark is a territory which combines the protection and promotion of the geological heritage with sustainable local development.
The European Geoparks Network was established in 2000 by four territories (Réserve Géologique de Haute- Provence, France; the Petrified Forest of Lesvos, Greece; Vulcaneifel Geopark, Germany; Maestrazgo Cultural Park, Spain), and subsequently grew to include 34 geoparks in 13 European countries by 2009. The development strategy, which initially focused on the geological/geomorphological heritage and on sustainable geological tourism (geotourism), has expanded to include and promote the natural and cultural heritage of these territories in order to encourage the realization of their economic potential. Educational and training programmes are an important component in raising awareness of the potential for local development and the possibility for creating new employment opportunities. At the local level sustainable employment may be achieved by supporting and developing small and medium sized businesses, promoting tourism, local products and gastronomy, developing outdoor educational activities and active sports, utilising cultural assets and protecting the environment.
Applying for funding to support regional development through transnational cooperation between European Geoparks or through geopark-specific projects is therefore an important component of a geopark’s activities. European Geoparks have, with the support of European Union initiatives for transnational cooperation between rural areas in Europe, such as INTERREG and LEADER, promoted aspects of regional development within their territories. Development within individual European Geoparks can also be achieved through regional or government funding, e.g. the English Riviera Geopark which in 2009 received substantial support from the UK Government Seachange funding programme. By developing their territories through working in partnership with major local groups, European Geoparks fulfil many of the aims of regional development programmes. Local employment opportunities are created through geotourism, the promotion of the natural and cultural heritage, and the expansion of more traditional touristic activities. The protection and conservation of the environment aimed at providing tourists with enjoyable and memorable experiences also contribute to the creation of new jobs. The establishment of information centres, museums and exhibitions generates temporary employment for designers and provides permanent employment for local people.
Local development is also promoted through activities aiming at the development of new Geopark souvenirs and handcrafts, the promotion of local quality products and the organisation of promotional feasts and local product promotional corners in Geopark information centers. Some Geoparks developed advanced promotional campaigns through the establishment of the “Park quality label” like Adamello-Brenta in Italy, Subbeticas and Cabo deGata in Spain. Lesvos Petrified Forest geopark organizes the annual agrotourism festival with the participation of 60 local producers and women agrotourism cooperatives.
Training programmes involving an International Intensive Course on Geoparks and vocational training in geoparks have also been initiated. The Geopark Bergstrasse-Odenwald offers vocational training and engages local stakeholders as ambassadors for the European and Global Geoparks Networks. The ‘Geopark-on –Site’ initiative provides visitors with attractive tours in which scientific information is linked with local knowledge and supports the local economy by including visits to restaurants, farms and handicraft shops. The ‘Landmarks Project’ in the Geopark Harz Braunschweiger Land Ostfalen benefits from a network of members who share in promoting facilities and events, as well as advertising and marketing their geopark through information sites. Geoparks have also successfully promoted sustainable tourism through developing cycling trails. The creation of a Landscape Model in the Water Adventure Park in the Nature Park Styrian Eisenwurzen, Austria is an example of a geopark using its technical expertise to enhance the facilities within a pre-existing local attraction. The Landscape Model promotes an understanding of the water cycle through play. The Madonie Geopark has strengthened its cultural identity by publishing a study on the Preservation and commerce of snow in central-western Sicily (1500- 1900) by Luigi Romana.
The European Geoparks Network shares experiences in regional development and aims to strengthen cooperation between geoparks by creating and implementing common strategies for developing geotourism, educational and cultural activities. During European Geoparks Week, geoparks celebrate their geodiversity and promote public awareness of trans-European geoparks and the need to protect the natural heritage.
The Global Geoparks Network was established in 2004 and integrates geoparks in Europe with geoparks in China, Malaysia and Iran. The cooperation contract between the Global Geoparks Mt. Lushan (PR China) and Bergstrasse –Odenwald (Germany) marks a first stage in transcontinental cooperation between geoparks, thus contributing to UNESCO’s aims for Global Geoparks which are ‘’Conservation, Education and Tourism’’ 11. The possibility and potential for developing transcontinental cooperation between geoparks is an exciting new direction for the European Geoparks Network and the Global Geoparks Network.
Geoparks are about the people who live in them and their interaction with visitors to their territories. The success of regional development programmes within geoparks ultimately depends on the active involvement of the local population leading to their sense of ownership and empowerment in influencing future developments within their region.