Potential for Warrumbungle Geopark is rock solid


Potential for Warrumbungle Geopark is rock solid

As published in Dubbo Weekender 6 August 2016

Globally, “special interest” tourism is expanding rapidly.  Among the most obvious of these is the rise of food and wine trails, associated with a growing interest in the provenance of our food.  Geotourism – generated from an interest in geology – is also growing.  Geoparks have been around for many years; however it is only since 2004 that they have been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and formed into a Global Geoparks Network (GGN).  The GGN currently numbers 120 parks across 33 countries, with another 19 at various stages of application and assessment.  None of these are in Australia, despite our rich geological history.

What is a Geopark?  Put simply, it is a single, unified area centred on internationally significant geological formation/s.  However, the geological features are not the only attraction, and many Geoparks also involve areas of special natural, environmental or cultural significance.   Their purpose is to explore, develop and celebrate the relationship between the underlying geology and all other aspects of the area’s heritage.

Geoparks differ from most other internationally recognised natural features in several respects.   There is no legislative basis for the designation, although the central feature must be protected under relevant indigenous, local, regional or national legislation.  Geoparks are managed with a holistic approach that includes protection, education and sustainable development; and applications for registration must always show evidence of strong community support.  Importantly, designation does not impose any obligations on the national Government, and does not place any additional constraints on development. The concept embraces sustainable development and community engagement, and the network structure of UNESCO’s registration system includes a requirement to work with others in the network. 

Activities that are associated with Geoparks vary significantly across the globe – some are used to research and educate people about tsunamis, earthquakes and other such disturbances, while others include strong indigenous cultural heritage components.  Some communities have developed food and wine attractions around their Geopark, encouraging visitors to stay for longer and thereby benefit other tourism-related businesses.  Clearly, geotourism per se is only the tip of the iceberg.

While most people have heard of World Heritage Areas – Australia has 19, including the Greater Blue Mountains, Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park and the Great Barrier Reef – many people would not be aware of the existence of Geoparks.  However, in the United Kingdom Global Geoparks make a higher contribution to the economy per site than any other UNESCO activity.  In 2012-2013, the estimated financial benefit to the economy was £2.9 million per Geopark, compared with £2.2 million per World Heritage site.

Discussions have begun about establishing a Geopark in the Orana region. Recently Professor Patrick McKeever, Head of Earth Sciences at UNESCO, addressed participants in a “round table” discussion hosted by RDA Orana and Warrumbungle Shire Council in Coonabarabran.  Professor McKeever is an expert in the establishment and maintenance of Geoparks.   He provided information about the benefits that Geoparks bring to their communities and shared advice on the application process.  He was suitably impressed with the Warrumbungles National Park, which exists in large part because of its geological significance, and was optimistic about its potential to form the core of a Geopark in the Warrumbungle and Castlereagh area. 

In addition to the National Park itself, there is a host of other tourist attractions, research and educational facilities and areas of significance for Indigenous cultural heritage that could contribute to the establishment of a UNESCO Global Geopark. The recent announcement of the Warrumbungles National Park as a Dark Sky Place would enhance an application; the two designations are compatible, and there are several examples globally of sites that are both Dark Sky Places and Geoparks. 

The three LGAs surrounding the park are already members of a strong tourism partnership.  The opportunity to consider application for Geopark status has the potential to enhance visitation, particularly by international visitors.  The Australian and Chinese Geological Societies recently signed a Memorandum of Co-operation, paving the way for the development of ‘sister park’ arrangements in future.  Development of this relationship following designation of one or more Geoparks in Australia is likely to have a strong positive effect on visitation by Chinese tourists in particular.

Application for Geopark status is under consideration.  While the process requires significant effort in collating information and working with local communities, the potential benefits of achieving Geopark status and membership in the GGN are enormous.  As an application is based largely on existing activities, there is no requirement for significant capital outlay in order to apply.  With a low-cost application process and huge potential benefits, one could reasonably ask “why not?”  

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