Why Australia’s rocks could be the secret to reviving its regional economies


As UNESCO puts it: “While a UNESCO Global Geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a UNESCO Global Geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the area’s natural, cultural and intangible heritages.”

It’s about acknowledging a community’s connection to country, and promoting that internationally.

Exploring underneath the London Bridge rock formation in the Murchison.Credit:Sean Scott/Australia’s Golden Outback

It is becoming an increasingly lucrative label, as geotourism increases in popularity globally. There are 169 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 44 countries, with China boasting the most at 39.

While there are none in Australia, there is a movement building to change that.

Today, a national Australian Geoparks Network is being launched to help identify and advance emerging geotourism areas.

And in April, the Australian Geoscience Council released a national geotourism strategy, which advocates for state and federal governments to create a clear approvals pathway for the development of geotourism projects such as geoparks. It is understood AGC will hold a meeting with government representatives this month to discuss the strategy.

The advancements reflect a broader push for the development of geotourism areas, from at least half a dozen regional locations nationally and from various tourism, regional development and science-focused groups.

Edith Cowan University honorary professor of tourism Ross Dowling, who is chair of the new Australian Geoparks Network, said it was an opportune time for the promotion of geotourism in Australia, as local tourists looked for new places to explore.

“Since the launch of the Murchison GeoRegion I have received a lot of feedback about how it is putting a spotlight on tourism in a regional area, which is what we desperately need during COVID,” Mr Dowling said.

“Australians are seeking new places to go and visit and this is helping to bring domestic tourists to the region. Once COVID restrictions stop, we will then start to attract international travelers familiar with geotourism into Australia. China has the most geoparks in the world and so they know this brand and they are looking for that when they travel.

“I have heard from China, Vietnam, Portugal and so many other places about how the creation of geoparks in a regional area has driven an increase in tourism into the region and as a result an increase in economic development.”

In China, a survey of eight geoparks showed that geotourism-generated revenue tripled in the first four years of their existence.

The Yuntaishan UNESCO Global Geopark helped transform the economy of the Jiaozuo City region, with geotourism-related income increasing nearly 50 times between 2001 to 2012.

Australia previously had one UNESCO Global Geopark – the Kanawinka geopark in South Australia and Western Victoria – between 2009 and 2012. It is understood confusion among some stakeholders about the nature of geoparks and teething problems with approvals meant the geopark only existed for its initial four- year accreditation period.

Ian Lewis, a former director of Kanawinka, said it was exciting geotourism areas were re-gaining momentum in Australia.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t have geoparks in Australia,” he said.

“This new network is the kind of platform that could liaise with government at various levels about what geoparks are and that they are a positive thing for the nation’s tourism.”

The Archway at the Undara Volcanic National Park in QLD

The Archway at the Undara Volcanic National Park in QLDCredit:Undara Volcanic National Park

Advocates from various groups are keen to ensure the process for establishing future geotourism areas is clear, and all relevant stakeholders understand the role and benefits of geoparks.

In its national strategy, AGC says there is an “urgent need to clarify and clearly define the approval processes required for major geotourism project development in Australia”.

For a geopark to be established, it is understood it would need to gain both state and federal approval, before being assessed by UNESCO for accreditation.

WA Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the government was “really beginning to understand how we can celebrate and promote our extraordinary geology and the landscapes it underpins”.

“Promoting special geosites will foster tourism in some of our more remote towns and communities, supporting local jobs and bringing opportunities for Aboriginal business,” she said.

“Last year the McGowan Government, through the Mid West Development Commission, supported the Murchison GeoRegion project, as a first step towards UNESCO recognition for the region as a geopark.

“Earlier this month I met with Geoparks WA and have encouraged the group to apply for grant funding through our various schemes, including the Regional Economic Development Grants.”

Geoparks WA president Alan Briggs said there was potential for other regions to follow the Murchison in prioritizing geotourism.

“Geoparks are founded on the geology of the area and geotourism is the driving business but it is about a lot more than geology,” he said.

“It is about education, engagement with communities and most importantly in the rural areas, it is about growing local businesses and creating jobs, particularly where towns are losing population.

“When you think about what you do when you travel; you research attractions that appeal for you and the idea of ​​geoparks appeals to a lot of people interested in landscapes and cultures.

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“It is the geopark being marketed and promoted at an international level that catches people’s attention and regions like the Wheatbelt would benefit greatly from that.”

It is something Ms Morrissey, who is now the chair of the Murchison GeoRegion Working Group, hopes the area can achieve through championing its unique geology, biodiversity and culture.

“It has been proven again and again in other places around the world that when you establish a geopark you link into such a strong network of people willing to travel to see these amazing areas, that you shift your social fabric into a much stronger, happier set of circumstances,” she said.

“That’s where we would like to get to.”

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