Show Caves

A show cave is a cave which is used for tourism.

This is a rather simple definition, and therefore it is unfortunately wrong. Especially with the development of extreme sports, which also include canyoning, cave trekking and various other cave uses, it is unfortunately no longer adequate. The term, which dates back to the development of cave tourism in the 19th century, underwent a transformation during the 20th century. But even in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, a cave did not become a show cave simply because someone visited it for tourism. Tourists are people who visit something without having the necessary skills to do so, so for them, the place has to be prepared in such a way that it is safe enough. This is easy to understand when you think of paths and lighting systems. The show cave ShowcaveSontheimer Höhle has the first documented visit to a show cave in Germany in 1516 by Duke Ulrich von Württemberg. The path was fitted with wooden planks to make the visit more comfortable and lighting was installed. Artificial access tunnels, which make diving or abseiling unnecessary, are also necessary in many cases.

But now it gets a bit complicated: what is a show cave? Is it a cave with an artificial access tunnel? In fact, there are some caves that have one but are not used for tourism. Conversely, there are also many caves that are definitely show caves but do not have an artificial tunnel. Therefore, we quote the definition by Hubert Trimmel:

Geeignete Höhlen werden für den Besuch einer größeren Zahl von Menschen zugänglich gemacht. Die dazu notwendigen Arbeiten werden als Höhlenerschließung bezeichnet. Finden in erschlossenen Höhlen fallweise oder regelmäßig Führungen statt, so spricht man von Schauhöhlenbetrieben.
Suitable caves are made accessible for visiting by a larger number of people. The work necessary for this is called cave development. If guided tours take place in developed caves on a case-by-case or regular basis, they are called show cave operations.
Hubert Trimmel (1968): Höhlenkunde, Vieweg, p. 190.

There is also a modern version of this definition:

A show cave is defined as a natural occurring void beneath the surface of the earth that has been made accessible to the public for tours.
Official Definition of a show cave by the International Show Caves Association (I.S.C.A.)

This version is today generally used as definition, and cited in numerous publications. Actually, it is just the shortened definition of Hubert Trimmel.

Let's look at this more closely, it is necessary for a cave to be developed and then also used for tourism. That makes a lot of sense. Many caves are equipped with artificial entrances and ladders over time, but to facilitate research. Especially when a siphon restricts access to cave divers, cave explorers regularly dig access tunnels. Climbing aids make material transport safer and the approach shorter. Conversely, if a cave is used for tourism without being developed, it obviously serves as an extreme sports facility. Whether one goes to a climbing park, canyoning, or abseiling in a cave, the sporting aspect is paramount.

And yet there are many cases that go beyond that. What about the show cave that filed for bankruptcy three years ago and therefore can no longer be visited? What about the cave that has such a flat floor that any construction of paths is completely unnecessary? And what is the opposite of a show cave, an undeveloped cave? And are there only these two categories or perhaps others? We have therefore made a list of optional features that show caves should have:

  1. Cave: it is a cave, i.e. a natural, underground cavity
  2. Worthiness: the cave has a special feature that makes the visit worthwhile, size, stalactites, archaeological feature or similar
  3. Paths: developed, accessible on paths and stairs, with railings and safeguards, in particular developed in such a way that no special skills are necessary on the part of the visitors and there is no particular danger
  4. Light: equipped with lighting, at least a torch is provided
  5. Entrance fee: there is a charge, the money is used to maintain the facilities, to finance the lighting, the guides and as income for the operator
  6. Opening hours: have regulated opening hours, regularly recurring times when the cave can be visited, because that is the prerequisite for interested people to visit it
  7. Locking: they are only accessible during opening hours, otherwise locked, to protect the cave
  8. Guided tours: the guide accompanies the visitors, explains, entertains, but also pays attention to the protection of the cave
  9. Access: in addition to the cave itself, access for ordinary people is also possible, this includes access road, car park, in special cases also cable car or lift
  10. Infrastructure: for the stay until the start of the tour, seating, souvenir shop, café, restaurant, playground, barbecue area, museum, network of paths

In fact, there are examples for each of these points, caves that do not meet them and yet are considered show caves. For example, Frauenmauer Cave has no electric light (4.) and no proper paths (3.). The Schellenberg Ice Cave requires a walk of several hours (9.). There are even show caves which are not caves at all (1.), for example, the Schloßberghöhlen Homberg or the Saalfelder Feengrotten are often listed as show caves, both are show mines. And then there are countries in which the level of development is generally lower than in industrialized nations, and beaten tracks are regarded as development and light is a lantern. But in general, a show cave is simply a cave that meets most of these requirements.

We have dealt with this problem again and again over decades and have agreed on the following definition. So far, we have only had to revise our classification in very few cases. The definition is less catchy than those above, but still, we believe, helpful.

  • A show cave is a cave, i.e. a natural underground cavity, large enough for people to enter.
  • A show cave is a cave which is used for tourism.
  • There are two classes of show caves, the developed and the semi-wild caves. The border is exactly where above-average physical fitness is required or where there is a risk of accidents.
  • Protection by a gate or guide is mandatory; if it is not given, it is a sacrificial cave.

One word for the English terminology. The term show cave is obviously a translation of the German term Schauhöhle, which originated from the 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire. In english speaking countries, the term tourist cave, or even more direct commercial cave in the U.S.A., is still more common. However, show cave is not new, it was used for the Dan-Yr-Ogof cave in Wales for half a century, but in the single-word form showcave. The term was supported since the 1990s by the famous speleologists Gurnee, the couple who wrote the show cave guide book for the U.S.A. and developed and operated a show cave in the Caribbean. And it is supported by scientists, the NSS, and the US National Park Service. We use it throughout the website, and avoid the various alternative English terms, except where they are of historic relevance.

Since we list show mines and all kinds of artificial cavities as well, the first rule only decides the categorization. Tourist use, and not once, but repeatedly is the criterion for a tourist cave. We have divided these into two classes, show caves in the narrower sense and so-called "semi-wild" caves. The latter is a rather weak euphemism for a cave that has been made less dangerous with fixtures. As there is no actual term, we called them simply caves, to make clear they are not or only rudimentarily developed. The border is therefore exactly where physical fitness, a head for heights or other skills are required, or where there is a risk of injury due to inadequate safety.