Geotourism is an emerging trend built on firm foundations and a sense of place, writes Megan Johnston.
We live among them, travel past them and see them from afar. Yet many of us know little about the geological forms such as valleys, mountains and caves that surround us and support our way of life. A new form of tourism hopes to remedy this by showcasing unique landscapes. Geological tourism, or "geotourism" for short, highlights landforms and the communities around them.
About 90 global geoparks have been declared across the world, mostly in China and Europe, and more are certain to appear.
The biggest in the world is in Australia: Kanawinka Global Geopark, which covers 27,000 square kilometres from south-west Victoria to south-east South Australia.
The aim is to bring to life the human stories of the landscape, says Professor Patrick McKeever, the chief of the global earth observation section at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.
"We don't want our geological heritage to ... become open-air museums, we want them to be open-air classrooms," he says. "We don't just tell dry scientific stories, we show how closely integrated we are as a society to the planet we call home."
Geoparks are not fenced sections of pristine wilderness. Rather, they can extend for hundreds of kilometres and incorporate farms, roads and towns. Each global geopark must be accredited by the Global Geoparks Bureau, a network based at UNESCO, but is managed and promoted by communities on the ground.
Kanawinka is one of the largest volcanic regions on Earth. The area includes almost 400 dormant volcanoes, many of which feature in local Aboriginal lore. "The landscape tells us the whole story of where we came from, how this world influences us, how we treat it and what we are leaving for our grandchildren and their grandchildren," says Joane McKnight, who co-ordinates the Australian geoparks national committee. "Knowing the landscapes is so important. We've all lived through fire and drought and flood - it surrounds us and we can't escape it."
Unlike specific geological tourist sites, such as Uluru or Jenolan Caves, geoparks tend to promote the history and culture of wider landscapes as a whole. At Kanawinka, visitors can explore caves, waterfalls, crater lakes and sinkholes. They can follow self-drive maps or join four-wheel-drive and indigenous tours.
Professor Ross Dowling, from Edith Cowan University, says the trend doesn't just cater to rock-hunters.
"Geotourism is going to be huge ... simply because there have been a lot more volcanic eruptions and earthquakes around the world in recent times and people are becoming interested in the forces shaping the Earth," he says.
Then there are those who just appreciate a pretty view. As McKeever says, "Geoparks are incredibly beautiful places - it's just about getting out and looking at these beautiful landscapes and scenery".
GEOPARKS TO VISIT
- Marble Arch Caves, Ireland
- Araripe, Brazil
- Hong Kong, China
- Katla, Iceland
- Lesvos, Greece
- Muroto, Japan
- Stonehammer, Canada
- Haute-Provence, France
- Langkawi, Malaysia
- Dong Van Karst Plateau, Vietnam
- Burren and Cliffs of Moher, Ireland