Later this month, the great and the good from the world of geology will gather in Belfast to discuss the future of what is, essentially, a global network of theme parks. In keeping with any venue designed around a particular attraction, be it the rides of Alton Towers or the migrating wildebeest of the Masai Mara, the locations under discussion will all have a unifying thread. Yet, unlike the more obvious variety of crowd-pleaser, the attractions at the venues in question might not seem immediately apparent.
This month, the Northern Irish city will host the second international conference on "geoparks", a relatively new concept in conservation tourism from the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The term "geopark" describes any site of geological and scientific interest in which the landscape might be used to create sustainable community projects from tourism. Over the next few decades, Unesco aims to establish a global network of more than 500 geoparks in response to what it sees as the growing number of "geotourists", another Unesco-coined term referring to those travellers with any sort of interest in the natural world and the communities that inhabit it.
"In recent years we have been getting messages from the scientific community that there was a need to make [geology] less obtuse," explains Robert Missotten, secretary of Unesco's International Geoscience Programme. "There was a need to reach out to the general public and explain how geology has affected our history and still shapes our daily lives."
Last year saw the first international geoparks conference held in Beijing and, as a result, China is now home to 10 of the 43 sites currently operating in 14 countries, including one in Qeshm in Iran. With the majority of the others in mainland Europe there was until recently, says Mr Missotten, little international recognition of sites of geological importance, with the majority of heritage conservation focusing on monuments. "We wanted to do something different," explains Mr Missotten, "and while geoparks are about conservation, they are also about development, using protected areas for education and tourism."
While a geopark sounds like the sort of place Dickie Attenborough might raise genetically-modified dinosaurs for Steven Spielberg, Unesco's official criteria call for locations whose geology allows for the study of some fairly niche scientific disciplines. Yet while stratigraphy, petrology and sedimentology (all various branches of the study of rock formation) may sound a touch highbrow, Mr Missotten insists visitors won't pitch up to find themselves surrounded by scientists in white lab coats.
The emphasis, he says, is on museums, trails, guided tours and workshops. The Cotswold Hills Geopark, for example, covers a 60 mile swathe of countryside between Stroud, Cirencester and Stow-on-the-Wold. Though yet to receive full Unesco status, the project offers educational resources on everything from the dinosaurs that once roamed the area to explaining how geology has influenced the building of the region's traditional drystone walls. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is home to the Marble Arch Caves European Geopark, an area which, along with the neighbouring Cuilcagh Mountain Park was jointly awarded Geopark status in 2001.
The ultimate aim of the project, Mr Missotten believes, is to add another string to the bow of responsible tourism, as locations around the world exchange ideas and information on those conservation projects that best attract visitors. "It is a new approach to geology," Mr Missotten says, "not just showing the public what it looks like but how it contributes to societies throughout the world."
In global terms, the success of the various parks has been mixed, admits Mr Missotten, who stresses that although the initiative is in its infancy, those locations that prove less popular will have their status reviewed. "The concept behind the parks is that they need to be self-funding, which we believe is necessary for their long-term sustainability."