A megalitic tomb - one of the Cavan Burren Park’s many archaeological features.

Leaving no stone unturned for tourism

If you like to travel, but the sun isn’t your main draw then you are probably familiar with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation or UNESCO for short.

Aiming to “build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture”, they are a specialised agency of the United Nations tasked with preserving heritage across the whole world.

The body’s Heritage List is the ultimate bucket list of places to visit if you want to trace humanity’s journey. It contains diverse highlights from Sydney Opera House, Australia to Sceilg Mhichíl, off the West Kerry coast.

That list highlights hundreds of sites like the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu or the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast. A more exclusive list is the Global Geoparks list. The Global UNESCO Geoparks Network comprises of 161 sites in 44 countries.

Geoparks are “single, unified geographical areas with sites and landscapes of international geological significance”. Each site is given the designation for a period of four years before it’s reviewed. The preservation of heritage is of paramount importance in retaining the status.

Having the designation is a big deal. It’s the royal seal of sustainable tourism. The world’s first UNESCO Global Geopark crossing an international border bears the lofty title of “transnational UNESCO Global Geoparks”. That’s us.

Stretching from the village of Belleek in County Fermanagh right down to Cavan town, the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark has an abundance of features that tick all the boxes the UN’s heritage arm seeks to promote.

The UNESCO description is almost poetic: “The uplands are intersected by broad u-shaped valleys that sweep down to the surrounding lowlands where numerous lakes have formed in glacial hollows and swarms of drumlins form many egg-shaped, rounded hills. The uplands contain extensive areas of forest, blanket bog and karst where the underlying limestone has been carved out by the abundant rainfall to form significant caves systems including the world famous Marble Arch Caves.”

That designation is the culmination of a long project. Established in 2008, the undertaking has strengthened cross border relationships as a collaboration between Cavan County Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

Gráinne O’Connor is the manager of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark. Working alongside her are: Imelda McCarron (countryside management officer), Tara Smith (development officer-tourism and business), Martina O’Neill (development officer –partnerships and engagement), Clarissa Beacom (assistant development officer) and Darren Farrell (lead ranger).

“We promote a variety of sites and activities through our calender of events and our recreational facilities such as Cuilcagh and Cavan Burren Park,” Gráinne tells theCeltfrom the recently opened, if temporary, office in The Market House, Blacklion. Ensconced in the historic building that gave the town its name, the very location of the offices is steeped in the heritage that the Geopark aims to preserve and develop.

Managing the Geopark is not simply about pulling in visitors: “We are not just about tourism. We are very much about the local community, getting economic development into the area, conservation and protection of the sites, and sustainability. We have a huge area to cover. It’s about 3,200 sq km, but the core hub of what we are working on at present is focused in and around Blacklion and Belcoo.”

The majestic sweep of Upper and Lower Lough Erne or the magnificence of Cuilcagh Mountain may be the automatic icons of the Geopark, but there are nearly 70 sites to visit, explore and enjoy. The Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail, often referred to as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, is attracting more than 70,000 visitors annually. Its popularity is catapulted by the urge of those completing the feat to post selfies on social media pages with the spectacular backdrop.

“The border goes right across the top of the mountain, it’s the centre point of the Geopark. A lot of our conservation activities and recreational tourism activities fan out from this area. We are now looking at sites further afield that we can build on the popularity of what we have here,” Gráinne explains.

There are an abundance of such sites: The Cavan Burren Park’s trails and archaeological features, the Marble Arch Caves guided tour of the stunning formation in the underground caves, canoeing around Lough Oughter to get a unique view of Clough Oughter Castle or spending a day walking or cycling through the Lough Navar Forest taking in the views at Magho Cliffs.

Even this is scratching the surface. Castle Saunderson, Killykeen Forest Park, Ballyconnell Canal Walk; there’s an embarrassment of riches in the Geopark to be explored. “We are looking at how to attract visitor to a wider area and, more importantly, how that benefits the local economy.

“We are running lots of programmes. Obviously COVID-19 restrictions have put a bit of a stop [on what we do], but we are getting back to normal. In our Business Engagement Programme we are piloting a scheme that allows five businesses in Cavan and five in Fermanagh to utilise the UNESCO designation to benefit their business. They adhere to certain environmental and sustainability standards and we give them Geopark accreditation,” the project leader outlines.

Providers of accommodation, food, and activities are the targets of this scheme. It’s about getting the message out on how being in a Geopark benefits the locality, but also the responsibility that comes along with that. The aspiration is to expand the scheme beyond the 10 businesses.

For Gráinne engagement is a vital part of project: “There’s no point in saying to businesses ‘you are in a Geopark, here’s a sticker.’ We need this to be mutually beneficial. It’s a bottom up approach. It’s essentially about sustainability.”

Cavan and Fermanagh may have spectacular offerings, but they are competing against the big boys like Dublin or Kerry for a slice of the tourism pie: “Historically certain locations in Ireland have developed over years. They’ve benefited from more investment. We are trying to make this an attractive destination. We are working closely with Cavan Tourism and Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism to that end. Visitors want a myriad of options so they can spend three or four days in the area, we are organically growing the attractions.”

The Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail is the exception to the plans to “build” on the numbers. Since opening in 2014, the increase in the trail’s popularity has seen a steady incline, with the peak still not yet in sight.

“It has seen a huge surge in visitor numbers,” the geopark manager tells. “In fact there are visitor management issues for us at the minute. The Boardwalk was put in to preserve the habitat but it has become this ‘must do’ attraction. We now have to get these people to spend money in Fermanagh and Cavan, to stay in the area. We are preparing a masterplan that looks at Cuilcagh, the Shannon Pot, the Cavan Burren Park, Enniskillen Castle and ensures there is a spread of visitor numbers around the areas. There is a lot of work going on at present, it’s a very exciting time for the Geopark.”

Aside from the economic importance of marketing what’s on offer, there are two words - conservation and protection - at the core of what the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark aspires toward.

Those aspirations are set down in the plans for the future: “It’s not just about bringing people into the area. It’s about communities benefiting, the preservation of habitat, and obviously about the geology of the area. We are launching an extremely ambitious development plan. One of the targets is to make our Geopark carbon neutral by 2030. That’s a massive task, but we want to be a world leader in terms of sustainability. We want to be the leading Geopark in that regard. We have huge ambitions.”

A visit to the sites shows the immense work that takes place. It’s not just a matter of cutting grass and putting in walkways. Such efforts are the end result of rounds of funding applications; grants and grants are accessed through a laborious bureaucratic process.

Administration of the sites takes account of the different wants of visitors. Different people will enjoy the sites in different ways. For some a brisk walk around the Burren Park may fulfil their needs, others will painstakingly read each of the information plaques, while guided tours giving details of the ancient monuments are the requirement of a third set of visitors.

Catering to these demands is part of the remit of the Geopark management: “We have trained and accredited 12 Geopark ambassadors. They deliver events for us. Our programme of events has between 50 and 60 items on it. A lot of them are in the Burren Park. They are all local people who benefit economically from giving tours of the sites.”

One such event is the Mini Rockers Workshop coming up next week. Children are given an opportunity to participate in interactive ‘hands on’ activities, where they discover more about the rocks and landscape of the Geopark. Activities include fossil making, making a planet earth and a fossil hunt.

This is part of the educational remit of the Geopark: “We run activities to give our visitors a real insight into what we do. Engagements like this raise awareness about what the Geopark is. It emphasises that they are not just individual sites, but part of a greater whole. The UNESCO designation is very powerful. We are on a par with the Giants Causeway and Sceilg Mhichíl.”

Gráinne says visitors to the key sites are “almost 100% domestic”, however a change is coming: “Because of our UNESCO designation that is opening out. There is a recognition that goes along with it. There is a great demand in China to visit areas that have Geopark status.”

Developing the potential of what is on offer is not just about visitors. Even the star of the show has potential for growth. Cavan County Council have discussed the viability of creating access to Cuilcagh on the Cavan side at Ballavalley Gap.

“The reason the Boardwalk was put in was to protect the blanket bog,” Gráinne says of the plans, “our intention is to put in a carpark at Ballavalley Gap for walkers who want to access the mountain from that side.”

She explains this is not to put in an easy route on both sides: “We are catering for people looking for a different experience. Hill walkers don’t want an easy trail, so the Cavan side is for serious hill walkers or walking clubs.”

This stance is an example of the cooperation between the Fermanagh and Cavan authorities. It also whispers of the transnational status of the Geopark. Looming over that status is Brexit. However the Geopark manager says they are girded for what is to come: “We are a cross border partnership established for a long time. We’re able to promote across the borders. We are only one of four transnational parks – I feel in terms of Brexit that we are quite secure.”

That sense of security is cemented by the relationship between the two councils and the establishment of the new home for the offices of the team. The location of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Geopark office at Market House will be short lived. They have been resident on a temporary basis in the old Burren Park/Cavan Tourism centre pending their move to the new headquarters at the McNean Resource Centre in Blacklion.

The wealth of resources in the Geopark provide fantastic staycation options. If you plan to visit any of the Geopark sites, maintain social distancing, avoid peak times at busier sites (particularly the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail), follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ principles and be prepared for the Irish climate - particularly the “abundant rainfall”.