Responsible Management of Geoparks and Geotourism: Second Global Geotourism Conference

Text by Mallika Naguran

Mulu, Sarawak  25 April 2010. Craggy, mystical and cave-ravenous Mulu was a fitting venue to host the second Global Geotourism Conference (17-20 April 2010) even if it meant that participants had to shuttle into the dense Mulu rainforest with a windswept 19-seater Twin Otter from Miri, enjoying stunning views of Sarawak’s northern territory and the long, windy Miri river.

Prof Dowling, CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board Dato Rashid Khan, Sarawak's Dy Chief Minister Datuk George Chan, and Undersecretary, Ministry of Tourism HE Muhammed of Oman officiate conference opening.

Prof Dowling, CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board Dato Rashid Khan, Sarawak's Dy Chief Minister Datuk George Chan, and Undersecretary, Ministry of Tourism HE Muhammed of Oman officiate conference opening.

Geologists, eco-tourism operators and academics from 13 countries at the conference offered concepts, shared success stories and related challenges faced in geotourism. STB Chief Executive Officer, Dato Rashid Khan, welcomed the delegates by observing that geotourism is gaining importance as a sub-section of the tourism business.

“Unlike ecotourism, which has been around for a period of time and has following world-wide, geotourism gives opportunities to fully understand geology and its relationship with tourism,” said Dato Khan, adding that geotourism is now opening windows of opportunities in the tourism industry.

This year’s conference was themed Making Unique Landforms Understandable (MULU), with speakers discussing the development, management and marketing of landscapes. It was held at the beautiful, and one and only, Royal Mulu Resort.

Birds, pygmy squirrels reside at Royal Mulu Resort.

Birds, pygmy squirrels reside at Royal Mulu Resort.

Prof Ross Dowling of Edith Cowan University in introducing the conference described geotourism as a relatively new tourism product based on geological features. “Geotourism can be in a built area or natural surroundings, or both.” He added that geotourism promotes conservation of geodiversity, understanding of earth sciences and experiences of geosites.

Elements of geotourism include providing value to local communities and excellent interpretation: these, in particular, were widely discussed by the international speakers during the three-day session. A number of case studies were shared on how interpretation of the form and process of geological landscapes could be done creatively and in an engaging manner to tourists.

Prof Dowling, also an advisor to UNESCO Global Network of National Geoparks, presented some statistics on UNESCO protected areas. He said that there were 890 World Heritage Areas in 148 countries, of which Mulu was one of them. Man and the Biosphere sites numbered 551 in 107 countries.

Albert Teo: "Tread Gently"

Albert Teo: "Tread Gently"

Geoparks, listed by the Global Geoparks Network, are found in 21 countries (Europe -33, China – 22, Malaysia – 2 and Australia – 1). A geopark, he said, is an area with a geological heritage of significance, with a coherent and strong management structure and where a sustainable economic development strategy is in place.

Langkawi has a geopark status in Malaysia. A second geopark is being proposed in the Sarawak delta surrounding the capital city of Kuching.

And geoparks are big business. “We need to identify the geo products, gain community support to develop them and introduce smart marketing,” remarked Prof Dowling, adding that branding is an important element in marketing and development. He cited a study in China to show that an investment of RMB 14.63 billion into 138 national parks generated RMB 7 billion of entry fees alone along with the creation of 75,000 permanent jobs and 470,000 part time jobs.

HE Mohammed bin Hamood Al-Tobi, Undersecretary, Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman was a distinguished keynote speaker at the conference. He told delegates that the geological features of Oman - mountains, wadis, deserts, caves and coasts - have helped form the basis of its tourism development. Tourist arrivals have been on the rise in the last five years, aided by growth factors such as cultural and natural resource in addition to political and economic stability.

“Tourism growth led to the development of airports, ports and roads,” he said, adding that investment in tourism is not just about building new infrastructures, but developing resources responsibly to promote economic diversity and benefit to local communities.

A geologist on a warrior path, Sarawak style!

A geologist on a warrior path, Sarawak style!

A sustainability masterplan is also in the works in Oman based on conservation principles, customer attractions like walking trails and interpretation centres. “Customers can soon download information about the structure they are gazing at on their GPS-enabled mobile phone,” he said.

Marketing makes or breaks the success of a geopark. Chris Woodley-Stewart, director of North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, spoke of a number of initiatives undertaken by Britain’s first European geopark. A two-week festival is one of them, reaching out to a wide-ranging customer base with activities such as guided walks, talks, tours, workshops and craft events.

“The emphasis is on high quality interpretation, fun and discovery, rather than on generating large numbers of visitors,” he said.

Reaching out to children, who in turn influence their parents and grandparents,  activities surrounding geodiversity and heritage were organised such as Rock Detectives (investigative play workshop) and Wheels to the Wild (cycling on a day-long planned route). “These are creating an environment-based economy, which is what we are all about,” said Chris.

Much was shared at the conference on the educational aspect of geotourism. Prof Lisa King of James Cook University said that park operators have to consider the wants and needs of the geotourist at great lengths. This includes giving them educational experiences that they can control, depending on the customer age, background or interest.

Interpretation facilities such as this board in Mulu cave should be educational, and fun.

Interpretation facilities such as this board in Mulu cave should be educational, and fun.

Discussions at the conference included protection to landscapes. Brian D Clark, manager of Mulu National Park, stressed that one has to tread gently in parks or heritage areas and gave examples of how thoughtlessness can lead to irreparable damage. “For one or two walking down an alpine meadow, that may not be significant. However, for 5,000 people to tread on the same path, this would cut a knee-deep trench that will take a lifetime to recover.”

Albert Teo of Borneo Eco Tours gave another example of negative human impact on the environment, during his visual presentation on the geotourism attractions of Sabah, Malaysia. A volcanic mud pool in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary still bubbles away, attracting visitors. “Tourists want to go in and have a splash, but I tell them not to enter the pool as animals depend on it for food, and are sensitive to human scent. Animals get put off and move away,” he said.

Delegates of the conference were careful not to leave lasting imprints on the majestic caves of Mulu during the day excursion on day three. The conference concluded on the fourth day with an invitation from HE Mohammed to delegates to the Third Global Geotourism Conference that will be held in Oman in 2011, and to explore the country’s stunning landscapes and beaches.

Photography by Mallika Naguran and Sarawak Tourism Board.

The Second Global Geotourism Conference was supported by the following: Tourism Malaysia, Ministry of Tourism, Sarawak Tourism Board, Sarawak Ministry of Tourism & Heritage, Sarawak Convention Bureau, Sarawak Forestry and Malaysian National Commission for UNESCO.