Greece’s geoparks could be a path to ‘gentler’ development, head of UNESCO Network says

Greece has a special place in the global geoparks map, with five regions in the country now listed in the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network, while the coordinator of the Lesvos Island UNESCO Global Geopark Prof. Nikolaos Zouros has been at the helm of the global network since 2016.

A member of the faculty at the University of the Aegean and also the director of the Lesvos Petrified Forest Natural History Museum, Prof. Zouros highlighted the importance of geoparks for science but also as a tourist attraction, in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency released on Sunday.

“Greece is a country with a massive inventory of geological monuments. It is the way it is made. There are countries that might be much larger than Greece but present little geological interest,” Zouros said, noting that the geological “evidence” in Greece was more recent than in other countries. “When we say recent we mean 200 million years ago, and they present particular interest for study,” he explained.

Showcasing and promoting its geoparks was a potential comparative advantage that Greece could exploit in order to support rural areas, he added, since they would help create jobs that kept young people in the country.

“Promotion and recognition of geoparks is a developmental tool for attracting tourists without the need for expensive infrastructure or new facilities, since the goal is to attract tourists through history,
the natural landscape and geology,” he pointed out.

UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. According to UNESCO, “their bottom-up approach of combining conservation with sustainable development while involving local communities is becoming increasingly popular.”

UNESCO currently recognises 127 geoparks in 35 countries, of which 71 are in 23 European countries and five are in Greece (Lesvos, Psiloritis, Vikos-Aoos National Park, Helmos-Vouraikos National Park and Sitia), while efforts are now underway to add a geopark in north Evia to the UNESCO list, Zouros said.

“Greece is one of the first countries that included its geoparks in the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network, with that on Lesvos among the Network’s first four,” the professor pointed out. UNESCO’s requirements, he explained, also included the signs, walking routes and activities on the sites, and organised presentation centres.

“Management bodies must create a programme of activities and educational programmes with universities for the study of the characteristics of the land. They must also set up a system for providing information to the public, with leaflets and material explaining how the landscape can be interpreted, so that it can be understood by visitors,” he said.

A third element was to develop sustainable tourism activities involving the landscape and low-impact hospitality and catering structures, as well as promoting local products.

Research was another important part of the Network, he added: “Geoparks must invest in research and in networking with other bodies but also cooperate with each other. The Network is one of solidarity and mutual support. The geoparks that belong to it progress together and the bodies that manage them work from the bottom up, from the local community for the promotion and gentle development of their region.”

According to Zouros, each geopark was like a living organism that must be tended carefully to keep it alive and the Network carried out frequent inspections to ensure that its member-geoparks continue to meet the criteria.

Many parts of the world had expressed an interest in joining the Global Network of National Geoparks (GGN) – including countries in North and South America and Africa – but UNESCO standards were strict, he said. “It wants to save regions where the natural environment remains unsullied by violent development,” Zouros explained.

The Global Geoparks Network (GGN), of which membership is obligatory for UNESCO Global Geoparks, is a legally constituted not-for-profit organisation with an annual membership fee. The GGN was founded in 2004 and is a dynamic network where members are committed to work together and exchange ideas of best practise and join in common projects to raise the quality standards of all products and practises of a UNESCO Global Geopark.