The Third Global Geotourism Conference in Oman

Text ©2011 by J. Pint; Photos
© by J. Pint unless otherwise indicated

Photo Gallery

Lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, venue of the Geotourism Conference.

German tourism expert Henning Schwarze (left) and Dr Khalid Al Tobi, Earth Secrets, Oman, demonstrate techniques for self-guided Geotourism—using handheld electronic devices— in Oman’s remote Wadi Mayh.

Australian Professor of Tourism Ross Dowling in Oman’s Wadi Mayh. Dowling organized all three Global Conferences on Geotourism in Australia (2008), Borneo (2010) and most recently in Muscat, Oman (2011). Dowling is co-author of the book Global Geotourism Perspectives.

People from 27 countries rubbed shoulders, all enthralled by Oman's remarkable geology.

Muscat's new opera house...and, yes, they do put on operas!

Paolo and John meet with Siddharth and Satish of ARCOP. Everything you see on the table is the appetizer!

Murder Hole. Our tour guide, Abdullah points to a slot in the ceiling of the 9th Century Nizwa Fort...through which boiling date juice was poured onto the heads of enemy invaders.

1500 year old houses still standing at the base of Jabal Shams.

"Welcome to Al Hoota Cave, closed due to rain!"

The Conference comes to an end. Watch out for the next one, which will be held in Iceland in 2013. By the way, both men and women participated actively in this event.

Many thanks to Casa San Matias, maker of Pueblo Viejo tequila for supplying my air ticket to Oman!

Check out what lies beneath the surface at




Saudicaves and RanchoPint Covered the Event!

Muscat, Oman, October 29 to November 1, 2011

By John Pint

The reference is to tectonic plates under & around Oman“Geoparks are the fastest growing kind of parks in the world,” announced Ross Dowling, coordinator of the third Global Conference on Geotourism, held in Muscat, Oman last week, and yours truly was there to cover the event, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Jalisco Mexico’s Casa San Matías, distiller of Pueblo Viejo tequila.

To my surprise, I found I was representing, at this conference, not only Jalisco and Mexico, but all the other countries of Latin America as well, not to mention the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. This is probably due to the fact that Geotourism is something new in the field of tourism, as one might guess from the fact that there is only one Geopark in all of North America.

So, let’s take a look at what Geoparks and Geotourism are all about. As Dowling explains it, tourism brings people into contact with three marvelous worlds, which he sums up as A, B and C: Abiotic, Biotic and Cultural. While B and C are usually well attended to, the Abiotic world of rocks, magma, tectonic plates and the great forces that formed our planet is often understood only by geologists, but Dowling and other promoters of Geotourism are out to change all that and to give the rest of us a peek into the fascinating universe that literally lies beneath our feet. As for Geoparks, they are sites featuring geology which is rare or scientifically, aesthetically or educationally interesting and they have been promoted by UNESCO since 1999. It’s interesting to note that the very first International Geoparks Conference took place in Beijing, China in 2004. Today there are 87 officially recognized members of the Global Geopark Network (GGN) in 27 countries, with most of these parks in China, followed by Italy and Great Britain. Acceptance by the GGN would give a park considerable prestige and I should think would bring it visitors from all around the globe.

The conference was held at the lavish Muscat Hyatt Hotel which served us up a great lunch every day out in their garden. The Grand Banquet of the event, however, took place at the Bustan Palace, which several people described as a “Seven-Star Hotel,” more stars than I had ever heard of. This meal was served by an army of white-gloved waiters and was so elegant that William and Kate could have waltzed in the door and no one would have batted an eye. By the way, the bill for all of this—plus the participation fees and even the visas to Oman, were all absorbed by the government, so let me say a big Shukran Jazilan (Muchas Gracias) to his majesty Sultan Qaboos in the name of all the Geotourism aficionados.

Guadalajara's Geodiversity
John Pint's presentation. Photo by Paolo FortiI gave a talk at this conference on what I call The Magic Circle around Guadalajara, an area 500 kilometers wide encompassing portions of all five of Mexico’s ecosystems and so much biodiversity and geodiversity that you couldn’t possibly see all of its wonderful natural sites in a single lifetime. Curiously, the world still hasn’t discovered the Guadalajara area as a mecca for nature lovers, although geologists tell me that their colleagues come to western Mexico from all over the world just to look at sites like Colima’s very active Fire Volcano, The Giant Pumice Horizon (LINK), or Paricutín, in Michoacán, where a volcano popped up in a cornfield in 1943, grew and then erupted, offering scientists a rare opportunity to study various phenomena related to volcanoes.

27 Land Cruisers All in a Row

While numerous presenters in Muscat showed beautiful slides of marvelous natural features, for me the clearest example of what Geotourism really is, was our experience during a field trip to a remote spot in Oman called Wadi Mayh. This excursion took place in typical Omani fashion: extravagantly. Four-wheel-drive vehicles were required for the rough terrain we would visit, so the local sponsor of the conference, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos himself, supplied 4WD vehicles: Nearly 30 of them, in fact, and, of course all of them brand-new, all of them Toyota Land Cruisers and all of them white.

I have never been in quite such a procession before and I am amazed how smoothly the caravan threaded its way through narrow mountain passes, wide expanses of loose gravel and down the kind of steep dirt roads that leave your heart at the bottom of your stomach.
Now, all this effort was aimed at bringing us face to face with high cliff walls which a layman might hardly glance at while driving by. Through megaphones, however, our guides pointed out how the tectonic plates on or near which Oman sits, long ago exerted tremendous pressure on the rock, pushing it upwards, folding it over on itself and bringing a rare kind of rock called ophiolite right up to the surface. Ophiolite is actually part of the Earth’s upper mantle and oceanic crust and Oman is widely considered to have some of the best exposed ophiolite in the world. “We can see all this geology so easily here in Oman,” explained our guides, “because the rock is completely exposed, with scarcely any dirt or plant cover.”

250-million-yr-old limestone folded over on itself. Photo: Paolo FortiTo make the tour educational, the Omanis had prepared maps indicating the geological attractions in the wadi and demonstrated how a lone hiker or mountain biker could enjoy a self-guided tour using a GPS-equipped iPad or other device to inform him or her all about the local geology—a sort of robotic cicerone, which I personally consider absurd due to the fact that the screens on these devices are just about impossible to see in bright sunlight, with which both Oman and Mexico have been abundantly blessed.

What I learned on this field trip was that the presentation of geological features can be made interesting to ordinary people, but only up to a certain point. Many attendees agreed that this kind of tour might be given a thumbs-up by people who are on their way to or from some other truly remarkable tourist attraction which might not necessarily be related to geology at all, but if visitors are offered nothing but geology, they would probably come away bored (sorry about that, geologist friends!).

A Geopark in Western Mexico?
This brought to mind the practical case of western Mexico, which, at the moment, attracts tourists to sites like Lake Chapala, Tequila and Tlaquepaque. There are, however, many unusual geological features in the area and visits to some of them could add new dimensions to a tourist’s visit to Jalisco.
I am thinking, for example, of Río Caliente, Tequila Volcano, the Great Stone Balls (Piedras Bola), the opal mines of Magdalena, the Giant Pumice Horizon of the Primavera Forest, the Fossil Fumaroles of Tala and Jalisco’s vast obsidian deposits which are the third largest in the world. If this area—which I suggest could be named “The Volcanic Geopark of Western Mexico”—were accepted as a member of UNESCO’s Global Geopark Network, it would become the second Geopark in North America and, of course, the first in Mexico and would soon attract a new type of tourist to this area, a tourist who might start out hiking through the geologically rich deep canyons of the Primavera Forest and might later enjoy the murals of Orozco, a visit to San Juan de Diós Market and the charm of spending the night in a genuine hacienda.

Likewise, I can think of marvelous places in Saudi Arabia which could easily merit Geopark status and could jumpstart the tourism which that country has long wanted to initiate. There is, of course, the vast Rub Al Khali Desert (LINK), but the most dramatic Geotourism site would surely be the Black and White Volcanoes of Harrat Khaybar, all three of which are climbable without special skills or equipment. These three volcanoes are located quite near huge lava caves around three million years old (for example Umm Jirsan Cave [LINK] as well as young caves with beautiful and delicate formations. And on top of all that, Harrat Khaybar lava field is full of Neolithic tombs and kites (stone-wall animal traps), adding another attraction.
Do Geoparks bring new revenue to a country? Well, Chinese Geoparks report a 200% income increase since opening and their latest Geopark in Hong Kong (These parks don’t necessarily have to be out in the boonies if the geology is right) has already had 1.5 million visitors since it opened and Ewan McCarthy of Bright 3D in Scotland reported at the Geotourism conference that nature-based tourism in his country has produced 17 billion pounds in revenue and created jobs for 240,000 people .
According to Ross Dowling, this conference attracted over 400 people from 26 countries. “Compared to the previous conferences, this was a lot bigger,” he commented. “Here in Oman there was much more government involvement and a large number of students attended, which was great. Oman didn’t know a lot about Geotourism before, but now that they have been exposed to it, I think they will get deeply involved. So the conference was very successful, with a lot of really good outcomes.” Including, I might add, possible good outcomes in Mexico, 15,000 kilometers away.

Voyage to Oman’s Grand Canyon
The conference was over but Show-Cave expert Paolo Forti and I had one extra day in Oman (a day neither of us will ever forget!) which we had planned to spend at celebrated Al-Hoota Cave which, we had heard, the Omani government had developed sparing no expense. A tour company was to pick us up at 8:30 AM and already at 6:00 AM a text message came beeping into my cell phone: “Don’t forget your tour today: 8:30 Sharp!”
We cavers, of course, needed no reminding and at 8:30 we were standing in the doorway ready to go, but instead of getting picked up, we got a phone call: “I can’t find your address, where are you?” Well, it took three more calls and directions from three local people before our driver reached us, not a favorable omen.
Our driver, however, turned out to be a jolly Omani named Abdullah who spoke exceptionally good English. As we sped down the highway heading south from Muscat, Abdullah confirmed the positive assessment I had been hearing for days about the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Among other things, he mentioned that “Any person who wants to own land can get it from the government for practically nothing, and if, after two years, they want to sell it, they do so at a huge profit.”

After a couple hours we reached Nizwa, but instead of going to the cave, Abdullah started up a road toward Jabal Shams, which had been booked into our tour. Now Jabal (also spelled Jebel) usually means “hill” in Arabic in the vaguest of senses. As the winding road took us higher and higher, we realized Shams was nothing less than a mountain. Soon the paved road became dirt and when we reached 3000 meters, I felt like I was on top of an Alpine peak, except for the 1500-year old boxlike houses we had been passing on our way up.

Flooded wadi at the base of Jabal Al Shams. Note the ancient houses in the distance (see close-up in left column).

It was cold and there was a slight drizzle as we stepped out of the Land Cruiser onto beautiful, nearly black rock which looked like some kind of exquisite marble. Paolo was ahead of me as we approached a steel railing off the side of the road and suddenly I heard him gasp. So did I when I reached him and beheld the awesome view. There was a drop of 1000 meters straight bellow us into an utterly spectacular canyon entirely composed of that beautiful marble.

Prof. Paolo Forti looks out over magnificent Wadi Nakhr, Oman's "Grand Canyon."

It was one of those views that takes your breath away, but can’t possibly be done justice by a camera, even with a fisheye lens. Maybe Imax might do the trick. This seems to be Oman’s answer to the Grand Canyon and, in fact, that’s just what they call it in Arabic. This was certainly the kind of “major attraction” that a good Geopark would need to be successful.

Murphy’s Law Even Works Underground
We then ate a delicious meal at an impeccably clean mountain resort and headed back downhill. As we approached Al Hoota Cave, there was a slight sprinkling of rain on the windshield. “Sorry, Paolo,” I joked, “the cave is probably closed due to rain.”

Inside the visitor center, we were welcomed by a familiar face we’d seen at the conference. “Ah, the speakers from Mexico and Italy: marhabbah (welcome), but I have bad news: the cave is closed due to rain!”

Paolo was in a state of shock and argued to no avail. It appears to me that the company that undertook the Show Cave transformation utterly failed to assess the cave’s function as a drainage system for the nearby mountain range and had mis-designed the cave tour. They should have used my group, Desert Caves Consultants, because only real cavers understand caves.

In a blue funk, we headed back toward Muscat, stopping only for an all-too-brief visit to 9th century Nizwa Fort which has a gigantic cylindrical citadel famous for its “murder holes” designed to drop invaders into deep chutes or scald them with boiling date juice via hidden ceiling slots.
The light rain turned into a fierce squall as we continued along the highway. “You are very fortunate,” said Abdullah. “You came here to Oman to enjoy the desert and now you are seeing something truly rare…it is raining in Oman! Alhamdullilah!”

I was reminded of the smiling faces of my students in Saudi Arabia as they walked into the classroom soaked to the bone: “Sir, sir, look, it is raining—how wonderful, Alhamdullilah!” (Thank God, used even more often than Gracias a Diós in Mexico).

But we were less thankful when we ran into heavy traffic on the outskirts of Muscat. “A wadi passes over the highway up ahead,” said our driver. “Let’s hope the water is not too deep.” As we had planes to catch later in the day, it was touch and go for a while, but the Land Cruiser sailed right through the meter-deep water.

We made it to the airport, alright, but I would probably still be in Oman if I had not bumped into a kind soul in the Departure Hall. In true Middle East fashion, this room was jammed with 10,000 bodies, mostly package-laden people trying to fly to India, and, of course, nobody standing in line. Finding your check-in counter was simply impossible because there was no way to walk up and down the huge hall looking for the name of your airline. By good luck I met a young guy who had seen KLM on the other side of the Great India-bound Horde and I ended up flying out as planned. The only snag came when I reached Los Angeles and discovered my one-hour layover was actually a 12 hour layover, due to a little “pm” I hadn’t spotted, allowing me plenty of time to search the departure terminal for its one and only, well-hidden drinking fountain (bubbler in Milwaukeeish). Since they were selling bottled water there for up to $7.00 a liter (in the good old American entrepreneurial tradition), this discovery saved me a fortune during the long hours I had to force myself to stay awake, waiting for my flight, whose gate number Aeromexico managed to keep secret right up until boarding time.

After 40 very long hours of travel, even before landing at my destination, I caught the familiar, unmistakable scent of the Guadalajara airport (a unique combination of Eau de Sewage and burning garbage, if you’ve never noticed)…but it was soooo nice to be back!

By the way, the next Geotourism Conference will be held in Iceland in 2013 and the following might be in Ecuador in 2015, giving Mexico just enough time to set up North America’s second Geopark.


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