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Geoparks: Destinations for Tourism and Geotourism

In a Note produced for its Roundtable Discussion on “Regional Policy and Tourism”, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted the obvious link between tourism and regional development¹. Tourism is identified as one of the world’s major service and growth industries. However, the growth of tourism policies at national, regional and local levels as drivers for economic development and job creation present challenges, both for the present and future, which include:

  • Supporting tourism as an instrument for territorial development with strategies designed for the sustainable conservation of an area’s heritage.
  • Creating new forms of marketing linked to quality standards which meet the requirements of a global market.
  • Encouraging the emergence of new, less developed regions as competitive tourist destinations and revitalizing existing tourism areas experiencing a slow down in growth.
  • Establishing cooperation between regions
  • Raising awareness of  the social impacts associated with the growth of tourism

Since this document was produced by the OECD in 1999, i. e. one year before the initiation of the European Geoparks Network, it is interesting to consider how the European Geoparks Network (EGN) has risen to the challenges outlined above.

European Geoparks are members of a Network which actively promotes tourism as a driver for economic development and job creation. Since ‘A European Geopark is a territory which includes a particular geological heritage and a sustainable territorial development strategy’ geotourism and geoconservation are major components of the development strategies in all geoparks. Many geoparks were established either within existing Nature Parks (e.g. Parco Del Beigua Geopark, Italy), National Parks (e.g. Fforest Fawr Geopark, Wales)  or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (e.g. The North Pennines AONB, England), and were already subject to measures designed to protect their natural and cultural heritage. Geoparks are therefore territories with a strong regional identity, derived from their natural and cultural characteristics. Earth history, nature and landscape combined with cultural and regional traditions provide the ingredients for developing geo-tourism. Discovering, how the Earth has changed over millions of years, appreciating the time scale involved in these changes combined with individual nature experiences opens the door to exciting new products such as time walks, field trips which involve tasting locally grown products or appreciating traditional  art and music workshops. During the last decade, geoparks have implemented and advanced holistic experiences of nature which combine leisure, enjoyment and adventure with the acquisition of information and knowledge. Since its inception in 2000, the EGN emphasized the growth and promotion of geotourism as a means of contributing to the sustainable development of geopark territories. This new form of special interest tourism is now regarded as a fast emerging global phenomenon with an educative function.

All geoparks use special features within their landscapes to attract visitors. The deep gorges and canyons in the Naturpark Styrian Eisenwurzen, Austria, (Fig 1) and in Luberon Geopark, France, (Fig 2) as well as the waterfalls of Fforest Fawr Geopark, Wales, (Fig 3), are spectacular natural attractions. Exploring the gorges and waterfalls provides visitors with an adventure together with insights into the effects of the erosive power of water on rocks . In Adamello-Brenta Nature Park, Italy, (Fig 4) guided excursions introduce visitors to the influence of glacial processes in a breathtaking landscape. Visitors to Gea Norvegica Geopark, Norway,  can combine experiences of the  landscape and geology with the of taste locally grown vegetables (Fig 5). Presentations of traditional dances, music and story telling are an essential component of European Geoparks Week in Hateg Country Dinosaurs Geopark, Romania (Fig 6).   Panning for gold and the chance to ‘strike- it- rich’ is one of the many exciting activities offered by Naturtejo Gepark, Portugal (Fig 7). In 2010 Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, a partner of English Riviera Global Geopark, England, developed Geopark Kayak tours in which trained guides will lead tours along the coastline providing incredible and exciting opportunities to get close to the spectacular geology and coastal wildlife (Fig 8). Caves and old mine workings provide visitors with opportunities for exciting adventures in exploring the underground world. Visitors to Geo and Nature Park Terra Vita, Germany, can join a guided tour of an abandoned iron ore mine near the village of Kleinenbremen (Fig 9). Here former miners demonstrate the techniques used in the past for mining the dark reddish iron ore. Caves are a major attraction in Subbeticas Geopark, Spain. More than 800 inventoried abysses and caverns offer experts as well as beginners an insight into a world of subterranean labyrinths (Fig 10).

Newly emerging destinations for geotourism, e. g. The Northwest Highlands Geopark, Scotland, Gea Norvegica Geopark, Norway, and the Nature Park Styrian Eisewurzen, Austria, are located in geologically significant areas which already served as outdoor teaching laboratories for schools and universities. Residential fieldtrips to these and similarly remote areas can contribute significantly to their economies.  Geoparks within established tourist destinations have added geotourism to their portfolios in order to appeal to a special interest market and thereby increase the number of visitors to their territories. The Geological and Mining Geopark of Sardinia, Italy, with its unrivalled mining history extending from 6000 BC to the 20th Century, and the unique Petrified Forest of Lesvos, Greece are exceptions which have always been primarily destinations for geotourists. The Petrified Forest is also an example of a geopark which has been marketed successfully to tourists who visit the island of Lesvos for reasons other than geotourism.

The emphasis on cooperation between the EGN’s 34 members from 13 countries represents a significant departure from the frequent isolationism accompanying competitive development within the tourist industry. In contrast to other tourist destinations, geoparks share common backgrounds and experiences and advertise each others natural and cultural attributes and activities. Thus, when visitors travel to a geopark for the first time and have a memorable experience, they are more likely to develop an interest in visiting others.

The network serves as a forum in which territories can address and develop solutions to shared socio-economic problems and form partnerships to apply for funding. For example, The INTERREG III C project, European Geoparks: A Tool for Geotourism Development in Europe which was approved in 2003, involved a partnership of 9 geoparks. The EGN –Website, the EGN Magazine and advertising other European Geoparks in their Information Centres (Geopark Corners) are further examples of co-operation designed to promote geotourism.

The development of geotourism, in addition to other forms of touristic activities, can create new jobs and by improving the regional economy benefit the people who live in Geoparks. Local tourism service industries such as information centres, hotels and restaurants provide employment for local people. Geoparks also provide employment for on-site guides, and geopark rangers and create work by promoting local handicrafts, foods and products. The involvement of local communities is an important factor in developing these new ways of sustainable benefit through geotourism.   For instance Messel Pit, a World Heritage Site in Bergstrasse Odenwald Geopark, Germany, was saved from being used for waste disposal through the enthusiastic participation of the local community of Messel. Now this is a well managed and popular geotourism destination of international significance.

By promoting geotourism, the EGN combines territorial development and the emergence of a special interest market with the sustainable preservation of the geological heritage by creating interest, awareness and a special regard for the uniqueness of our environment. The EGN achieves and maintains the high quality standards, designed to meet the requirements of a global tourism market, through its rigorous evaluation procedure for all new applicants and its 4-yearly revalidation process for continued membership within the network.  At the end of the day, however, the strength of the Network will always depend on the cooperation of local communities in the foundation and development of each geopark.

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