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UNESCO’s Geoparks “Clarify” Geotourism

In a major step forward, an International Congress in Arouca, northern Portugal, has just decided what “geotourism” means. It’s been an issue. What, you never heard of geotourism? Read on. It’s about the way we travel. Sometimes it’s also about rocks.   Whose “Geo” Goes Into “Geotourism”? Geographers and geologists usually get along. The two...

In a major step forward, an International Congress in Arouca, northern Portugal, has just decided what “geotourism” means. It’s been an issue.

What, you never heard of geotourism? Read on. It’s about the way we travel. Sometimes it’s also about rocks.


Whose “Geo” Goes Into “Geotourism”?

Geographers and geologists usually get along. The two fields are so closely related that universities may put them in the same department. They share the same prefix, geo-, from the Greek, ge, Earth.

And that’s where the confusion started.

For the past 10 years or so, two different meanings for the neologism “geotourism” have both been growing in acceptance—in different parts of the world, for different reasons.

One concept derives from geology. Dr. Thomas Hose, an English geologist, is said to have first proposed that tourism focused on geological features be called “geotourism.”

In tourism-industry parlance, that’s a niche market.

The other concept derives from “geography.” National Geographic has defined geotourism as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” (“Environment” includes geology, of course, but it’s not explicit.)

This concept is an approach, rather than a focus on a single topic.

As the person who introduced that sense of the term, I am just a bit biased. The idea was for tourism to help protect places, but I knew some geologists didn’t care for the alternate meaning. So when I accepted an invitation to keynote last week’s international geological conference, I did so with some trepidation. The organizers wanted to “clarify” the meaning of geotourism. Would I be pelted with rock hammers?


A Tale of Two Uses

Geologists in the late 1990s who saw the growing emphasis on ecotourism and protection of wildlife habitats were understandably eager to extend the same interest and protection to their own items of interest—everything from arches, fossils, and outcrops to historic mines and wine-producing terroir. Over the past decade, the UNESCO-affiliated geoparks movement began to highlight geological tourism. A geopark is not a park in the North American sense, but rather a classification of a place with both towns and notable geological features. Most geoparks are in Europe and China, but other countries are beginning to add their own. The municipality of Arouca is one such geopark and also the host of the November 2011 International Congress of Geotourism.

Roofs of free-form slate cap houses in the village of Paradinha, Arouca Geopark. (Jonathan Tourtellot)


By the late 1990s, “geographical character” also needed attention. World tourism had increased 20-fold since the mid 20th century (and has doubled again today). Done wrong, mass tourism was ruining places, but done right, tourism could help protect a destination from irresponsible development, exploitation, and other pressures. By National Geographic’s broad definition, geotourism is a tool for managing both tourism and destination stewardship holistically, supportive of both the visitor and the place. (If you turn to sources like National Geographic and local websites for your travel ideas, chances are you yourself are a “geotraveler.”) This approach combines responsible economic development with an appreciation for conserving, protecting, and celebrating the things that make a place special, including geological things. Geotourism map-guide programs and other projects are underway from Newfoundland to Guatemala and California to, yes, Portugal— the Alto Douro Valley, near Arouca.


A Need for Clarity

In Arouca, I got a surprise. Several geopark leaders were eager to embrace the broader definition. A major reason was that, along with promoting geology, geoparks are supposed to help local economies, i.e., “the well-being of residents.”

It seemed that in some cases, dedicated geologists—presumably consumed by enthusiasm for their field—were unduly optimistic in that regard: They imagined communities would reap riches from the floods of geotourists coming to admire their arenitic sandstones and mafic dykes. Well, not so many, it would turn out. To make things worse, those tourists who did show up might well be confronted by interpretive signage loaded with technical language suited to a second-year geology class. Such as “arenitic sandstone” and “mafic dyke.”

Another reason: Increasing numbers of higher-education courses and degrees in geotourism also prompted the need for clarification, as students are now committing themselves to dissertations in this new field. Several were in attendance at the Congress.

Three keynote addresses—not just mine—emphasized the value of bringing culture, nature, history and scenery into the tourism equation.

Arouca Geopark itself is a good example of how this works. Its several “geosites” include a slate quarry rich in fossils of giant trilobites and a curious formation seen nowhere else: “Rocks giving birth to rocks”—granite that releases nodules of biotite as it erodes. According to folklore, local  women thought the puck-size nodules promoted fertility.

But Arouca’s other cultural and natural connections are just as interesting: wines dependent on the terroir, flavorful beef from cattle raised in the mountains, lots of scenic hiking trails, a magnificent monastery made from local granite, and striking village roofs of free-form slate. You might not visit Arouca just for trilobites, but you would for the whole experience.

António Carlos Duarte, the Arouca Geopark manager, indicates a “Rock giving birth,” the pock marks showing where biotite nodules have popped out of the granite. The cornerstone came from Arouca’s “Pedras Parideiras” formation, unique in the world. (Jonathan Tourtellot)


What emerged from the Congress was the Arouca Declaration, written by attending European geopark leaders and delivered November 12, 2011 by Margarida Belém, president of the Arouca Geopark Board of Directors. In part it says, “We recognize that there is a need to clarify the concept of geotourism. We therefore believe that geotourism should be defined as tourism which sustains and enhances the identity of a territory, taking into consideration its geology, environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents. Geological tourism is one of the multiple components of geotourism.”

The dual geotourism concepts, of course, remain, but their relationship is now clearly established. After all, geologists have devoted careers to geological geotourism. One of them, Ross Dowling, of Perth Australia, first suggested to me the “type” versus “approach” distinction between the two concepts. I think he’s right. If I may steal and adapt a page from Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity, we could think of “special” and “general” geotourism. Special geotourism is just that: a specialty focused on  geological features. General geotourism is a strategy for protecting, showcasing, and enhancing all the distinctive assets of a destination.


Geotourism Is What You Make of It

Portuguese folk dancers perform at the Arouca monastery. (Jonathan Tourtellot)

So I suggest that anyone with geological attractions and sustainable intentions add “geology” to the National Geographic geotourism definition if they so wish:  “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, geology, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Geoparks may even want to list geology first, as the Declaration does.

Personally, I happen to be a fan of geology. Better understanding of deep Earth history certainly can help us gain a better perspective of the time it took to develop the planet we have today, and the value of the places on it.

Besides, the granite buildings are striking, the slate villages charm, and the wine tastes fine.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jonathan Tourtellot
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC