Origins of Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark
Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark can trace its history back to 1985 when the Marble Arch Caves were opened as a tourist attraction by Fermanagh District Council.
Originally employing only a handful of staff the Marble Arch Caves enjoyed a great deal of success and quickly expanded its facilities to accommodate ever growing numbers of visitors. In 1998 the adjacent Cuilcagh Mountain Park was opened on the northern slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain,fulfilling a vital conservation responsibility for the endangered blanket bog, but also providing a welcome recreational resource, with safe access to the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain.
While all of this was going on, the European Geoparks Network was beginning to take shape with a small number of parks in Europe coming together to promote their shared geological heritage. The Geopark concept was created in 2000 to promote geological landscapes of international importance and to use that as a tool to benefit local economies through sustainable tourism, something which the Marble Arch Caves had been doing since 1985. The first European Geoparks were created in 2001; at this time the Marble Arch Caves and Cuilcagh Mountain Park were jointly recognised as the first European Geopark in the United Kingdom.
In 2004, when the Global Geoparks Network was founded, every European Geopark automatically became part of this world-wide network; at that point the Marble Arch Caves and Cuilcagh Mountain Park formally became known as the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark.
Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark has undergone major changes since it was created, including two major expansions. Formerly one of the smaller Geoparks within the Global Geopark Network, a significant expansion into west Fermanagh and a subsequent expansion across the border with the Republic of Ireland into West Cavan, has meant that the Geopark is now over 18,000 hectares in size and contains over 40 sites of interest.
Despite the change in size, the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark still adheres to the original Geopark ethos, to benefit the economy of a region through sustainable tourism based on the landscape. The main areas of activity for the Geopark are tourism, education, conservation and research, all of which are delivered by Geopark staff. Every year the Geopark sites are visited by around 300,000 people and the Geopark provides education services for over 10,000 students. In addition the Geopark offers a comprehensive range of special events to encourage more people into the area through informal ‘education’ in a relaxed natural environment. At the very heart of the Geopark are the local people who live in it and who depend on tourism as one of the main drivers of the region’s economy.
However, our story does not end there. In November 2015, UNESCO – the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture – announced a new programme, which created “UNESCO Global Geoparks.” This is the first new UNESCO designation of its kind to be established in over 40 years and puts Global Geoparks alongside UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Previously operating with the informal support of UNESCO, the status of Global Geoparks is now formally recognised under the new programme. This decision, now means the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark has become Northern Ireland’s second only UNESCO supported location alongside the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site and puts it on a par with other UNESCO sites in Ireland such as the prehistoric monuments at Newgrange.