(Article photo credits: P. Torset)
An interview with Noémie Courant, Co-ordinator at Armorique Geopark, lead partner for UNESCO Sites Across the Channel (USAC).
How would you describe the USAC project and its sustainable tourism model?
USAC project involves many UNESCO designated sites such as global Geoparks and Biosphere Reserves which belong and depend on the international program of UNESCO. We are promoting the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and Geoparks labels with our partners and developing a new model of sustainable tourism in these sites.
These natural sites are good places to develop sustainable tourism, especially in the context of Covid-19 as we have seen a growing desire for nature. In our sites, we have experienced a big rise in visitors who want to enjoy nature, the countryside, and wildlife and we know that this is going to continue. Therefore, we must anticipate this demand by making these places safer and preparing them for tourism that is in line with the local community and the environment.
We’re doing so by focusing on the unique tourist activities and services that these places can offer. Our approach is innovative because it will create a clear identity and new common culture, created through shared marketing approaches, high quality tourist activities and installations, and underpinned by a business model that will create added economic value. Importantly, this will be replicable for other UNESCO sites.
What challenges did you seek to address through this project?
We wanted to help projects overcome the hurdles towards achieving UNESCO status. To become a UNESCO Global Geopark ourselves, we participated on a project in an earlier programming period of the Interreg Atlantic area programme. We had the opportunity to collaborate with other UNESCO Global Geoparks across this area such as the Basque coast Geopark, the Azores Geopark and Irish Geoparks. It was enriching and helpful to make contacts and to see how people are working in these other sites in Europe.
We learned and gained so much experience and expertise from these partners that we wanted to give it back to other partners. So currently, we are helping the Kent Downs AONB and the Caps et Marais d’Opale Nature park to create a cross-border global Geopark project together and in 2 or 3 years they should be UNESCO designated thanks to our support. That’s very important because this might also inspire other sites and colleagues to do something similar. We believe that Biosphere Reserves or global Geoparks are places of the future for sustainable tourism and sustainable development and for living in harmony with nature and that’s the reason why we feel it is crucial to make the network as big as possible.
What kind of new touristic experiences does your project create for visitors?
USAC seeks to create an innovative, profitable and sustainable tourism model to meet demands and current trends, which are an increasing need for nature and a search for outdoor activities and local tourism.
The project’s mission is to highlight and promote new touristic activities on its website, on maps and in guidebooks and to give alternatives to tourists to discover local areas. It’s not just about bringing more visitors but about providing new possibilities for tourism in a sustainable approach.
For example, the project has developed and released a guidebook in May, available in bookstores in France, which is like a small bible on local areas. As tourists go for a tour or a visit, they will learn many things on geology, nature, local heritage, and the surrounding environment (the presence of eco-museums nearby, etc). The discovery book has a collection of 30 different hikes which are giving fun new ideas of things that visitors could do in a specific location.
We believe that people want and need to be engaged and get involved with the places they visit, so we’re giving them the opportunity to learn more about the people, the culture, and the traditions of these areas.
On the Isle of Wight, the biosphere reserves are organising many festivals and exhibitions every year. They developed a walking festival after the Covid-19 peak and have also designed and organised a special festival related to the Biosphere Reserve and engaged schools, artists, etc to celebrate what a Biosphere Reserve is.
In the Kent Downs, the AONB will be commissioning a Festival of the Landscape to coincide with Earth Sciences Week 10-16 October. The Festival will be an arts-led celebration of the Kent Downs Landscape, with a focus on geodiversity and the cross-Channel Geopark (with the Caps et Marais d’Opale Nature Park).
Why is it important to create more UNESCO sites?
The project’s mission is also to implement a promising new sustainable and economically viable tourism model for future generations that can be transferred across the FCE area and beyond. This sustainable legacy will be achieved through the development of 11 new cross-Channel UNESCO sites.
It’s important because there are many protected areas in the world (national and regional parks, etc) and we share the same values. We will have a bigger voice if we bring them together to promote and highlight international UNESCO values. To encourage long-lasting results, UNESCO is granting labels only if a certain degree of requirement is met. This means that UNESCO sites are constantly re-evaluated and driven to maintain an appropriate standard over the years.
These special sites are important for the ecosystems we’re reliant upon and they provide a good inspirational model to follow for the next decades, especially in the context of global environmental changes.
How are you supporting other sites around the Channel in obtaining the UNESCO label?
The first thing we are focusing on right now is building stakeholder networks by organising physical meetings and study visits. Any territory across the Channel, such as nature parks, national parks, or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), that wants to become a UNESCO designated site, can join us and our partners to engage, get involved, and make contacts.
Another tool will be to develop a toolkit with content on best practices and outputs that we have implemented in our parks, Geoparks or Biosphere Reserves. All of that will be available on our website, on our Geopark’s websites, and on our partners’ websites. We will promote it to make sure that it will benefit as many people and sites as possible. We’re also going to share videos on our website to explain the actions we have developed.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact your project and what steps, if any, did you take to adapt?
The biggest challenge for us was that we couldn’t meet each other physically and organise visits, which are great ways to gain experience from partners, learn new things and share knowledge. We had to organise ourselves differently and started running virtual steering committees and introduce or promote projects by sharing pictures. We’ve also been providing many guidance tools and documents to help our partners with project implementation. It’s a matter of finding the right balance and making sure that the projects are progressing despite the obstacles.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we must also anticipate the future as we noticed a major increase in tourists visiting our Biosphere Reserves and Geoparks. We are getting more and more visitors who are looking for nature and space, and we know that this desire will keep growing in the next decades. The local populations have been concerned about the increase in visitor numbers, so our project is developing solutions with local partners to anticipate these new challenges and to provide and promote alternatives for visits and therefore spread visitors flow away from overcrowded hiking paths or sensitive areas.
For example, instead of crossing very important nesting areas for birds, visitors will be encouraged to take an alternative route. We must adapt and make sure that we feed this new trend, considering both the economic development and visitor experience but also biodiversity and nature protection.
What are the next steps for your project?
The next big step is to meet physically and conduct a study visit with our partners. We have many actions to introduce and it will provide our partners new ideas and perspectives to run a UNESCO designated site.
We are also working with the Isle of Wight on an Ambassador charter which should be ready by then end of 2021. This charter is dedicated to local ambassadors (local partners such as hotels, nature guides, restaurants) and will include a list of commitments. We share the same values in terms of nature protection, economic development, and sustainable tourism. We also want our partners to work with a range of ambassadors in their areas to promote local heritage and tourist experiences.
Over the next coming months, the major focus will also be the application of the cross-border project between the Kent Downs and the Caps et Marais d’Opale Nature Park to become a UNESCO Global Geopark in the next 2 to 3 years. This is going to be the major legacy of the USAC project.
USAC is a €1,2M project with an ERDF participation of €835,755. It has four project partners across the Channel: Caps et Marais d’Opale Regional Nature Park, Kent Downs AONB, Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels des Hauts-de-France and Isle of Wight AONB.
At the time of the interview in September 2021, the project was still in the first stage of its implementation with two years left of project delivery.