The Emergence of Geotourism and Geoparks

  • Than Htun (Myanmar Geosciences Society)
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Mudeungsan Geopark, Korea. Photo: Than Htun (Mt.Popa Geopark, Myanmar)

The Earth sciences provide us with invaluable knowledge about the Earth, its systems and its 4.6 billion year history. This knowledge is essential for responding to present-day challenges of human society, such as preserving our Earth’s resources for future generations, mitigating the impact of global warming and mitigating the risks of geological hazards.
In order to more closely reflect the societal challenges of Earth Science today and provide an international status to a former network of sites of geological significance, UNESCO’s General Conference approved, on 17 November 2015, the creation of the International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme (IGGP). The IGGP comprises the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP), which for over 40 years has brought geoscientists together from all regions of the world to study the Earth and geological processes under themes which have increasing societal relevance, and the UNESCO Global Geoparks, which promote sites of international geological value and are the basis of local sustainable development.

Geotourism 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.” Geotourism goes beyond “drive through” travel. By focusing on the meaning of “place,” it the community becomes a full partner in giving the visitor an authentic, enriching experience. The concept of Geotourism emphasizes local culture, products and traditions, and offers visitors multiple opportunities to explore an area’s natural beauty and human community. Geotourism protects resources that often have been damaged by well-meaning visitors, through stewardship that keeps growth to sustainable levels and directs it to local attractions in addition to well-known attractions also in the area. Negative impacts such as overcrowding and pollution are reduced because of this commitment to distributing tourism ‘beyond the guidebook.’ It benefits locals by promoting local services and assets, while responding to visitors’ needs by educating residents and showing them the true value of their own hometown. Because the Four Corners landscape is renowned throughout the world, the principles of Geotourism offer special opportunities for a meaningful exchange between residents and foreign visitors here. Its core values of respect for local culture and a deeper, richer visitor experience are well suited to the region.
Considering different dimensions and diversity of geotours, classification of Geotourism industry involves:
1. Geological and Geomorphological sites
2. Mining (ancient, abandoned, current) sites
3. Road Cutting (section) sites
4. Anthropological (in caves & mines) sites
5. Stone house (or buildings constructed from local stones, houses carved into the steep slopes …) sites (historical geosites)
6. Adventure-based sites Mankind’s activities pose many threats to geosites.
The importance of safeguarding and managing it for future generations is now widely accepted as part of sustainable development

Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable tourism, like the physician’s code of ethics, means “first, do no harm.” Sustainable tourism protects its most valuable asset – the destination itself. It seeks to avoid the “loved to death” syndrome by anticipating development pressures and implementing limits and management techniques that preserve natural habitats and views, heritage sites, and community traditions. It conserves resources. Environmentally conscious traveller patronize businesses that reduce pollution and waste, energy consumption, water usage, landscaping chemicals, and excessive lighting. It respects local customs and history. Foreign visitors learn local etiquette, including common phrases in the local language. Residents learn how to accommodate foreign expectations that may differ from their own. It aims for quality, not quantity. Destinations measure tourism success not just by the number of visitors, but by their length of stay, how they spend their money, and the quality of their experience.

Geotourism, Also Sustainable
Geotourism adds to sustainability principles by building on a destination’s geographical character, its “sense of place;” in celebrating the special quality of its locale, visitor and resident alike benefit.
Geotourism is synergistic: The complex elements of geographical character work together to create a tourist experience richer than the sum of its parts, appealing to visitors with diverse interests. It involves the community. Local businesses and civic groups cooperate in the interest of a distinctive, authentic visitor experience. It educates both visitors and hosts. Residents discover their own heritage by learning that what they may take for granted can be compelling to outsiders. As local people develop pride and skill in showing off their home, resources are protected and tourists have a better visit. It benefits residents economically. Travel-related businesses hire local workers, and use local services, products, and supplies. When community members understand the benefits of Geotourism, they take responsibility for destination stewardship. It supports integrity of place. Destination-savvy travellers seek out and are attracted to businesses that emphasize local character. In return, resident stakeholders who receive economic benefits appreciate and understand the need protect to those assets.
Finally, the practice of Geotourism creates unforgettable trips. Enthusiastic visitors return home with exciting new information and understanding, and their stories encourage others to plan their own adventure, continuing healthy business for the destination.
Geotourism is essentially” geological tourism”. The geological element focuses on geology and landscape and includes both ‘form’, such as landforms, rock outcrops, rock types, sediments, soils and crystals, and ‘process’, such as volcanism, erosion, glaciation etc. The tourism element geotourism includes tourist visiting, learning from, appreciating and engaging in geosites. Geotourism is an integral part of UNESCO’s Global Geoparks and is essential to their development. Geotourism adds to ecotourism’s principal focus on plants (flora) and animals (fauna) by adding a third dimension of the abiotic environment. Thus it is growing around the world through the growth of geoparks as well as independently in many natural and urban areas where tourism focus in on the geological environment.

Abiotic nature-based tourism includes:
1. “…part of the tourist’s activity in which they have the geological patrimony as their main attraction. Their objective is to search for the protected patrimony through the conservation of their resources and of the tourist’s Environmental Awareness. For that, the use of the interpretation of the patrimony makes it accessible to the lay public, promoting its popularization and the development of the Earth sciences”.
2. “Geotourism is a knowledge-based tourism, an interdisciplinary integration of the tourism industry with conservation and interpretation of abiotic nature attributes, besides considering related cultural issues, within the geosites for the general public”.
3. “A form of natural area tourism that specifically focuses on landscape and geology. It promotes tourism to geosites and the conservation of geo-diversity and an understanding of Earth sciences through appreciation and learning. This is achieved through independent visits to geological features, use of geo-trails and view points, guided tours, geo-activities and patronage of geosite visitor centers”.
4. “The provision of interpretative and service facilities for geosites and geomorphosites and their encompassing topography, together with their associated in-situ and ex-situ artefacts, to constituency-build for their conservation by generating appreciation, learning and research by and for current and future generations”.

To be continued

“Looking at the environment in a simplistic manner, we see that it is made up of Abiotic, Biotic and Cultural (ABC) attributes. Starting with the ‘C’ or cultural component first, we note that of three features it is this one which is generally the most known and interpreted, that is, through information about the built or cultural environment either in the past (historical accounts) or present (community customs and culture). The ‘B’ or biotic features of fauna (animals) and flora (plants) has seen a large focus of interpretation and understanding through ecotourism. But it is the first attribute of the ‘A’ or abiotic features including rocks, landforms and processes that has received the least attention in tourism, and consequently is the least known and understood. This then is the real power of geotourism, in that it puts the tourist spotlight firmly on geology, and brings it to the forefront of our understanding through tourism”.
Geosite in Geopark
Geosite is a location that has a particular geological or geomorphological significance. As well as its inherent geological characteristics it may also have cultural or heritage significance.
Bahram N. Sadry in his “Fundamentals of Geotourism with a special emphasis on Iran” pointed out that the forgotten more than half of the nature-based tourism deals with geotourism and geoconservation. Through geotourism, a better understanding of the earth’s geological wonders can be achieved. At an earlier time, much of the focus in nature-based tourism activities was on living things (namely biotic nature attractions or biodiversity phenomena such as visiting natural areas to view wild flowers and animals,…), ecotourism, wildlife tourism, and so on. In general, geotourism deals with non-living parts of the natural environment ( that is to say, abiotic nature or geodiversity such as geological features, landforms and land processes…). Nature-based tourism moves forward with attention to biotic nature and its integration with tourism industry, and is recently completed with other distinct sub-sector of nature namely abiotic nature via geotourism. Particularly, defines geotourism as: “Geotourism is a knowledge-based tourism, an interdisciplinary integration of the tourism industry with conservation and interpretation of abiotic nature attributes, besides considering related cultural issues, within the geosites for the general public.” Geosites generally involve geomorphological sites (or geomophosites) and geological sites such as petrological, volcanological, … sites and all selected geodiversities are considered as potential geosites that after providing tourism infrastructures and geoconservation basic frameworks and preparing geointerpretation centers will change to be real geosites, for the purpose of tourism marketing and advertising as geotourism destination.
The concept of geoconservation for general people can be conceptualized in relation to the spiritual values of abiotic nature, and it may help develop a proper relationship between man and nature, and decrease the spiritual crisis in modern man. The geodiversity of landscapes and geomorphological landscapes in association with the body of knowledge relating to earth history and geological processes provide for immense scope within the context of potential geosites. The aim of visiting geosites by general people and students includes: learning geoconservation and its appreciation, engaging a sense of wonder against creation of abiotic nature by the Supreme being in plain language via a sacred science at interpretation centers and passive or once in a while active recreation with additional components to visitor experience. On the other hand, natural heritages besides cultural-historical heritages form man’s national identity.


Geoheritage is a concept concerned with the preservation of features with importance to earth science, such as landforms, natural exposures of rocks, and sites where geological features can be examined for further study, reference, and conservation for coming generations. Geoheritage, geoconservation, and geotourism studies are gaining interest worldwide because of their scientific, academic, historical, societal, cultural, and esthetic values. Several countries have their government policy to look after the geoheritage sites and conserve with the help of local agencies; however, there is a need of national legislation. The advantage of a geopark comprises also in creating new employment opportunities for local youths. Further, it will help enhance the local economy by infrastructure development, health, and educational pursuits to the village-level society. The prime objective of this investigation is to make local people aware about sustainable mining and insatiable thrust for money that threatens ecologically important sites. The geological records are the consequences of millions of years of processes and are considered precious which require special care. If these records once destroyed will be lost forever and cannot be restored artificially, it is our prime responsibility to transfer the knowledge and geoheritage to future generations.
UNESCO Global Geopark

UNESCO Global Geoparks are unique. They are not simply a geosite of interest, or a landscape; they are living territories where stakeholders work together to construct a sustainable future. UNESCO defines UNESCO Global geoparks as “Single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development”
Each UNESCO Global Geopark is defined by its specific geoheritage; a collection of identified, assessed, and documented geosites framed within the specific context of the geological and cultural background of each territory. Drawing on the geosites and regional stories, UNESCO Global Geoparks engage in geotourism for the benefit of the local population and their visitors. They are of particular interest when considering the questions of geotourism and Earth Science communication for two reasons. The first is that geoparks are long term commitments made by territories and their management bodies; the second is their spatial aspect.
Looking more closely at the long-term characteristics of geoparks, this is, in part due to the nature of the UNESCO Global Geopark label itself. To obtain the label requires many years of preparation, and then to retain it necessitates the constant engagement of the area concerned. The terms of reference for an UNESCO Global Geoparks are lengthy, and require not only a strong management structure, visibility and international networking, but crucially, the drawing together of the local community, scientific experts, territorial stakeholders and politicians. Each area awarded an UNESCO Global Geopark label undergoes regular revalidation missions to confirm that the territory continues to respect the terms of reference for a UNESCO Global Geopark. Furthermore, geoparks are far reaching; their activities concern geoconservation, geotourism, climate change, natural risks, sustainable development, education and research. It takes time to build networks, to associate and implicate the local population, and to communicate. Parties need to share common goals and construct long term projects that remain relevant even as regions undergo political renewal. Geoparks embrace a holistic approach, providing a narrative for the territory; within this context individual geosites are valorized similarly to other natural and cultural heritage. The stories are not told once; they are echoed, amplified, recast and retold, and crafted for local audiences, reworked for visitors, reformulated with school children.
Returning to the second defining feature of UNESCO Global Geoparks, it is their spatial extent that also sets them apart. Their commitment and activities are intertwined with a region and its people. These territories cover a coherent managed area with towns, villages, commercial and industrial activity, but also natural and protected space too. They have their own culture, identity and intangible heritage. An UNESCO Global Geopark does not position itself for a narrow, niche market; rather, it seeks to educate and inform the local population, and create ambassadors for the preservation of its many natural and cultural heritages, to train local stakeholders to transmit the stories and authentic experiences of the area. A region that fully commits to a long term sustainable development plan, delivered by an effective management structure, will have strong social and political associations and a clear commercial position. Reynard and Giusti, (2018), in their review of the concept of “landscape”, examined various definitions and amongst others identified the “political” dimension associated with the spatial notion of the territory.
Smaller Geoparks cover several hundred square kilometres (for example, the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark extends across 150 km2), but UNESCO Global Geoparks can extend over several thousands of kilometres (such as Katla UNESCO Global Geopark which covers 9542 km2). These placed-based organizations do not promote a single geosite that is promoted by one council or a particular company; instead, schools, the public, geotourists, and specialists are offered the opportunity to discover a web of geosites and experiences framed in the context of the regional geosystem. These geosites are interpreted and communicated, but are also conserved and monitored. Together, they are linked to a regional interpretation, and can provide the opportunity to develop deeper Earth Science content. In this regard, there is no comparable international label or approach that capitalizes upon the Earth sciences in this manner.
The maturing of the Geopark concept has been evidenced through the ratification of the UNESCO Global Geopark label in 2015, and through the growing numbers of UNESCO Global Geoparks worldwide, all members of the Global Geopark Network. It is also seen through the broadening of the international reach of the UNESCO Global Geopark label. The label is also experiencing a diversification in the inherent nature of its member geoparks. Early geoparks, and indeed many geoparks, have engaged in rural development. Today however, the members of the Global Geopark Network demonstrate the strength and interest of this label that has been successfully applied to diverse territories. For example, Pollino UNESCO Global Geopark, Italy, contains naturally hazardous materials. Other geoparks such as Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark, China the Chablais UNESCO Global Geopark, France and the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark, United Kingdom are not only densely populated territories, but are already popular tourist destinations.

1. Sophie Catherine Justice 2018:UNESCO Global geoparks, Geotourism and Communication of the Earth Sciences: A case study in the Chalias UNESCO Global Geopark, France.
2. Nekouie-Sadry, Baham.2009, “Fundamental of Geotourism: with Emphasis on Iran”, Samt Organization Publishing, Tehran:Iran.
3. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Geotourism”.

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