14 Nov 2018

Waitaki's proposed geopark: A lot more than cool rocks

4:25 pm on 14 November 2018

A bid to recognise Waitaki's unique geology could make history.

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Photo: Waitaki District Council

About a year ago, Waitaki District Council started an application to establish a UNESCO Global Geopark - areas recognised for their international geological significance.

If it's successful, it will be the first global geopark in Australasia.

A global geopark is a lot more than cool rocks.

As Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher puts it, a geopark showcases the history, geography, science and culture of a region.

His district has been working towards establishing the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark for about a year, and it will make its case to UNESCO next month.

"We're pretty blessed in Waitaki with the number of sites we've actually got, whether people have really appreciated it as such or not. But places like Moeraki Boulders, Elephant Rocks, Clay Cliffs, these are sites that are visited by many thousands of people every year already," Mr Kircher said.

The popularity of these sites means Waitaki is a strong geopark contender, he said, and becoming a Global Geopark could prove a boon for tourism and jobs in the region.

The Waitaki District hosts about 430,000 bed nights in a financial year.

"If we increase that by 25 percent, that's quite a big jump. If we can create that opportunity to be one where it actually spreads the tourism load across the year a bit more, if it takes some pressure off the likes of Queenstown where they're really struggling with the numbers, there are opportunities there," Mr Kircher said.

The Waitaki District Council lodged an expression of interest to establish the Waitaki Whitestone UNESCO Global Geopark earlier this year.

The council has allocated about $70,000 to the proposal this financial year.

Mr Kircher said the bid couldn't have gone ahead without the Vanished World Centre - a popular tourist attraction highlighting fossils and geological features in the region for the past 17 years.

Vanished World Trust chairperson Mike Gray hoped becoming a geopark would spark people's interest in geology and history.

There was limestone and fossils throughout the world, but there was nothing quite like what the Waitaki has to offer, Mr Gray said.

"Where else can you see penguins except in the Southern Hemisphere and where can you see penguins the size of man, can you see sharp toothed dolphins that are now extinct?"

"All these sea mammals and sea animals we have, they're all locked up in the limestone. Some have been discovered and the rest are waiting to be discovered."

Tourism Waitaki general manager Margaret Munro said being a UNESCO Global Geopark would prove a boon for tourism in a competitive market.

"The more reasons we can have and the more things that stand us apart, we need to be grabbing those and leveraging them to get people to recognise that New Zealand has got some special values," Ms Munro said.

A full dossier, which makes the case for the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark, will be sent to UNESCO in Paris next month.

If accepted, two UNESCO assessors will do a site visit mid-next year before a formal announcement in late 2019 or early 2020.

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