Songshan Unesco Global Geopark 嵩山世界地质公园• China

Songshan Unesco Global Geopark 
嵩山世界地质公园

Protects an area of immense geological and cultural value to promote scientific research, education and local economic development through tourism.
Hebei, China
Website

UNESCO Global Geopark – Songshan encourages the research and protection of a geological area of great natural beauty that exhibits a significant part of earth’s history, and helps to safeguard and disseminate a mosaic of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian cultures. The initiative brings tangible economic benefits for the local population, which has found in geological and cultural tourism. an alternative to poverty and an opportunity to extend its cultural ties with the whole world.

Context

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Since 2001, the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network has fostered the creation and linkage of geoparks in several countries. This scheme promotes a sustainable development model that requires geoparks to demonstrate their capacity to:

  • unify and protect areas of extensive geological and natural value
  • encourage research
  • promote education for sustainable development

Geoparks must also safeguard and disseminate local culture so that local populations can mitigate natural risks, appreciate their natural and cultural resources, and benefit economically from the creation of economic opportunities such as geotourism.

UNESCO’s reevaluates the certification of Global Geoparks every 4 years. This serves as a guide for many of them and ensures their compliance with UNESCO’s criteria:

  1. Geological heritage of international value, preserved in an area with a clearly defined boundary – as evaluated by specialists in earth sciences.
  2. A management body that:
    • operates the area effectively
    • is recognized by local legislation
    • includes scientific experts
    • includes local and national authorities and actors relevant to tourism, environmental, cultural and administrative issues (owners, community groups, tourism agencies, ethnic groups, local organizations, etc.).

It must create a holistic management plan that considers the needs of the local communities, the care of their ecosystem, and the protection of their culture, while ensuring a sustained and long-term public investment.

— The UNESCO seal is not accompanied by financing, so it does not prohibit economic activity inside the park, as long as it complies with local regulations and discourages unsustainable trade of local geological products.

3. An adequate communication platform to promote and guide geotourism, as well as a corporate identity.

4. Mandatory membership of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network (GGN) and, preferably, a national geoparks network, to encourage cultural exchange and research.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

UNESCO Global Geoparks seek to promote the global agenda for sustainable development by:

Photo: Emilia Szekely

China has more UNESCO-approved geoparks than any other nation, with 35 of its 240 national geoparks currently registered. This is due to state efforts to delimit, protected natural areas and ensure their self-sustainable economic management. Authorities use an ecotourism model built with significant public investment, the management of private companies and the supply of tourism, and management and conservation services provided by local communities.

Proposal

Songshan UNESCO Global Geopark is located in a unique and beautiful mountainous area in the Yangtze river delta, near the city of Defeng, Henan. Geologists call the mountains a “geological encyclopedia”. They exhibit evidence of 3 of the greatest tectonic movements on earth, as well as 5 generations of stratigraphic sequences that allow us to observe 3,500 million years of earth’s history.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

The park hosts the oldest astronomical observation platform in China, as well as the largest and best-kept pagoda forest in the country. Its innumerable temples and monasteries, many of them recognized as world cultural heritages, witnessed the development of Confucianism, as well as the birth of Taoism and Zen Buddhism –with its Shaolin monks, their philosophies and martial arts, which have impacted the cultural life of much of China and of the world.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

   Clearly, the region does not lack attributes to implement a successful model for conservation, research, education, cultural exchange and tourism.

This was considered when the Chinese government began to gradually implement measures to regulate mining, close factories, and recover the place.

One of the first national parks in the country, Songshan Park was created in 2001, and by 2004 the project managed to forge a model worthy of the UNESCO Global Geopark seal. In 2007 the geopark was also recognized as one of the 248 national tourist attractions of great importance, and better maintenance (according to the 5A certification of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture).

Services and attractions

Jing Zhengjun, Chief, Geological Relics Protection Division Photo by: Emilia Szekely
  • The park’s Geology Museum receives visits from students of all levels. The small ones as part of programs for ecological awareness, and the elder ones as part of higher education training activities, especially in earth sciences.
  • The Shaolin Temple is probably the biggest attraction of the place for its shows and training in martial arts and Buddhism offered to thousands of students from China and around the world. As the cradle of kungfu, the temple hosts an international festival in these arts every 4 years with a parade and exhibitions that attract a significant number of visitors.
  • The Taoist Zhongyue Temple preserves not only this ancient culture, but also several centuries-old trees.
  • Zhang Jianceng, Subchief, Geological Relics Protection Division Photo: Emilia Szekely

    The Songyuan Confucian Academy attracts students from all over the country who seek inspiration and good luck for their university entrance examination.

  • Beside all these, the geopark offers beautiful views of its unique mountains by cable car, as well as visits to the astronomical observatory, temples, pagodas, and camping areas.

Protection of the park and social impact

Photo: Emilia Szekely

To date, the initiative has allowed local farming communities to find or generate their own jobs by providing tourist services for the thousands of visitors that arrive in the town, as a result of its special geological and cultural value (lodging, guide, transportation, food, etc).

The activity of the communities is regulated by the authorities with a wide margin of freedom. The prices of services are not controlled and many public resources have been allocated for the maintenance and beautification of traditional villages. Partly because of this, a significant part of the local population has decided to move to the surrounding urban areas and rent their homes located within the geopark to acquire additional income. Local inhabitants have free access to the geopark, although this is limited in the case of the Shaolin Temple, due to the vast number of visitors it receives.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

The demarcation of UNESCO’s Global Geopark converges with that of the Scenic Area and the Forest Park, providing the area with a strict and consistent legal protection framework and complex administrative management.

Besides the above, authorities use satellites to monitor and regulate the exploitation of natural resources in the park, as well as to moderate housing development while protecting those already considered cultural heritage. Since a few years ago, a land regularization process also aims to restore the right of use and usufruct on the part of the original communities.

Planning

Photo: Emilia Szekely

The detailed and holistic development plan that allowed Songshan to acquire the UNESCO label, considered aspects such as:

  • the evaluation of local geological resources of potential tourist interest, as well as human, aquifer, forestry, environmental, artistic and cultural resources.
  • the delimitation of the protected area
  • a route plan for educational practice, science and research, including a Geology Museum
  • transportation and supply of resources for services, such as electricity, water, etc.
  • the design of multilevel-view areas, an autonomous transportation system, advanced scientific guidance systems and multi-faceted advertising strategies.
  • the legislation for the protection and management of geological and natural relics, and for the planning of the growth of the surrounding urban areas
  • a statement of principles of equal value for environmental, economic and social benefits.
Photo by: Emilia Szekely

Administration

The direction of the administration is shared among the government of Defeng city, and the authorities of the forest park, the scenic area and the geopark. The government agency Hong Kong-China Songshan Travel Company is responsible for investments related to tourism attention, such as cable cars, tickets, toilets, shops, etc. Part of its profits are kept by the company and part are delivered to the government. It then redistributes the share of profits between the Shaolin Temple, the Bureau of Culture, and the Office of Land and Resources, to which the Museum of Geology belongs.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Unlike other UNESCO global geoparks, only the entries to the Museum of Geology and to the astronomical observation platform are free of charge. Entrance fees for services and other sites of interest are charged to ensure its maintenance, and to limit the number of visitors to the area.

The project is also economically supported by taxes paid by local businesses that benefit from tourism that arrives at the park and the temples (trains, hotels, restaurants, peasants’ houses remodeled for tourists, etc).

Linkage

Photo: Emilia Szekely

For Jing Zhengjun, chief at the Geological Relics Protection Division, the nomination as a UNESCO Global Geopark has benefited them greatly because of the influence and learning they have received from exchanges with other parks in the network.

They also appreciate the network for cultural exchanges and the linkage that has allowed a great number of visits from staff at international parks. For them, this has a special value because China was closed to the world for a long time. The network has allowed Geopark staff to guide other geopark initiatives in their validation process, and to share with them their experience and impact, largely achieved due to sustained state support.

Photo by: Emilia Szekely

Finally, the UNESCO world-class seal has increased Songshan’s international projection and its ability to attract tourists.