A 33-year career as Manager of the Marble Arch Caves may have come to an end but Richard Watson’s association with the global geopark network will continue for the foreseeable future.

The Fermanagh native first applied for the position of Marble Arch Caves Warden in 1985 because he was attracted to the idea of working “somewhere out of the ordinary.”
He then spent over three decades helping to shape the caves, the visitor centre facility and the surrounding 18,000 hectares of West Fermanagh which became designated as a global geopark under his watch.
Five weeks into retirement, Mr. Watson reflects on his time at the helm of one of Fermanagh’s most successful tourism products and says he is “proud” of what has been achieved.
“I might have been the front of house person, but it was a big collective effort. There was a great team behind me, including staff from the Marble Arch Caves Geopark, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and the various partner organisations we have worked with over the years,” he said.
Mr. Watson had always been an outdoors person and had visited show caves in New Zealand, noting that they were “something different; something that captures peoples’ imagination.” Therefore, when the position came up at the newly opened show caves in Fermanagh’s Marble Arch region, he jumped at the chance.
“To get the opportunity to get in there at the beginning was an added bonus because you could put your own stamp on it,” he reflected. 
Initially, Mr. Watson spent time helping prepare the finishing touches to the natural underworld of rivers, winding passages and lofty chambers of the show caves. He then set about recruiting staff and deciding the content of the tour and other operational procedures such as health and safety, most of which remain consistent today.
“We got it pretty well right from the beginning,” Mr. Watson commented, adding that the facility “immediately exceeded our expectations” and hit its three-year visitor number figure within the first week of opening.
While the caves have not changed, the visitor centre has undergone three major expansions; in 1989, 1998 and 2014.
An invitation to a conference in Spain in 2000 led to Mr. Watson meeting key people involved in the creation of the Geopark concept.
“The Geopark was created in 2000 to promote geological landscapes of international importance and to use that as a tool to benefit local economies through sustainable tourism, something which the Marble Arch Caves had been doing since 1985,” he explained.
In 2004, when the Global Geoparks Network was founded, every European Geopark automatically became part of this world-wide network. At that point the Marble Arch Caves and Cuilcagh Mountain Park formally became known as the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark.
During this time, Mr. Watson and the Marble Arch geopark team were involved in drafting up the procedures documents that are still used by the global geopark network.
“The immediate benefit of being a global geopark was being able to source EU money,” Mr. Watson said, adding: “It meant we could embark on an ambitious programme of development.”
Work began with Forest Service to upgrade recreational infrastructure at sites right across the geopark area, including Lough Navar, Belmore, Ely Lodge, Carrigan Forest and Killykeegan Nature Reserve.
Cavan County Council then voiced an interest in expanding the geopark into west Cavan and after nine months of negotiations, the geopark was extended across the Border and now covers over 18,000 hectares in size and contains over 40 sites of interest.
“In 2008 we became the first cross Border geopark anywhere in the world,” said Mr. Watson, adding: “That was very well regarded internationally. We put that idea into people’s minds and it showed that people can use geoparks to promote peace and reconciliation – it speaks very well of the geopark model.”
The geopark now includes the Cavan Burren Park, a mythical, spiritual landscape of monuments, megalithic tombs, hut sites and pre-bog walls all of which survive from pre-historic times and are located within metres of each other. The Park offers stunning views of Cuilcagh Mountain, West Cavan and the greater Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark and includes a new visitor interpretation centre in May 2014. 
The Cuilcagh boardwalk – which has become a major tourist attraction since it was dubbed ‘stairway to heaven’ on social media – was installed in 2014 to protect the rare blanket bog.
“It is fair to say that nobody could have predicted the instant success that became,” said Mr. Watson.
Prior to the installation of the boardwalk, around 3,000 people climbed Cuilcagh each year but that exploded to 25,000 people in 2015 and to 70,000 in 2017.
Asked if he is concerned about the impact the huge influx of walkers has had on the protected area, particularly the summit of the mountain, Mr. Watson replied: “No. It’s localised and we are working to mitigate it.” 
He explained that a rest area is being constructed at the end of the boardwalk to protect that area which has undergone “a bit of trampling.”
“It will be a decked area where walkers can have a picnic and take their selfies. Over time, NIEA will monitor the situation and if we need to do more management intervention, we will take action.”
Parking is another issue which must be sorted, according to Mr. Watson, who asked the public to be patient, saying: “You can’t just pull it out of a hat.”
His favourite parts of the Marble Arch geopark area are Lough Navar, which he describes as “the hidden jewel of Fermanagh”, and anywhere on Cuilcagh.
Despite being retired, Mr. Watson intends to volunteer as a geopark guide and hopes to travel the world as a geopark inspector (as geoparks are evaluated every four years).
He recognised that the Marble Arch geopark product has been developed extensively over the last 10 years. He hopes to see it marketed efficiently in order to spread the benefits to local businesses, which will hopefully be able to expand their services by latching onto the sustainable tourism brand offered by being part of the geopark network.