Why we must do more to look after the wild, wild, west
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
It has been forecast Ireland will attract over 7.7 million holidaymakers this year. This certainly will be a great achievement. Some of the recent growth in tourism has been attributed to the novelty of the Wild Atlantic Way. Many seaboard areas are now expecting a greater market share from this project, having faltered too long in the shadow of Dublin's prominent tourism role.
The WAW clearly is a scheme with great potential, making use of the splendid scenery that stretches from Malin Head down the west coast as far as Kinsale. Offshore islands have been made adjuncts to the route, something that will add width to the length.
This is a significant step towards creating a brighter future for rural Ireland by spreading tourist spending more widely into the restaurants, hostels, shops, post offices and pubs, thereby keeping these services viable for the local people who depend on them all year round. It is surely the essence of sustainable rural development.
Official designation of the coast road, based on its natural and untamed quality, puts the WAW in a special category. It can compete with destinations like the Mayo Greenway, the Shannon Waterway and, further afield, the Camino, the TransAlpine railway, or even the Pacific Highway.
Such places exude an open greenery and peaceful essence that has not been spoiled by excessive human intrusion or raw commerce. That is the special appeal that defines them and the WAW managers must achieve the value of the Atlantic landscape by implementing a strategy to protect its unique features over the coming decades.
This is opening up a new market for several agencies. There is an opportunity for Bus Éireann to reverse some of its recent set-backs. It is well-placed to build a dedicated route serving the WAW. Its promotion literature now even shows a bus with this destination but this is still aspirational.
Some impediments need to be addressed so that the WAW can work properly and sustainably. There is a fundamental flaw in the prevailing tourism model as it tends towards the exploitative rather than the curative.
To date, the approach taken by Fáilte Ireland on the WAW has been disappointing. Its promotion material concentrates on marketing and branding, with little to say on the physical aspects. It does talk about protecting the distinctive assets but concentrates on items such as road widths and car parks, rather than enhancement of the scenic raw material. For this reason we need a new approach.
The WAW must be properly defined, distinguishing between the rural and the urban segments. In planning terms, we must enrich the open scenic parts and cluster the business aspects within the towns and villages. This clear distinction is essential to optimise the commercial development and concerns over road safety will, of course, confirm that this approach is necessary.
While Irish planning practice has been tightened up over recent years by the EU habitats directive, tourism still requires a reform that will give the WAW better prospects.
For these reasons, the WAW needs a management agency such as the National Roads Authority, rather than being left only to Fáilte Ireland. This will ensure a consistent quality based on specific performance standards that will bring a continuous upgrading to draw in more visitors. Above all, this method will secure the retention of those scenic attractions that drew the designation in the first instance.
Some aspects clearly stand out for priority implementation. Roadside power lines and phone cables create black scars across the beautiful face of the wilderness. They are ugly reminders of the urbanity that discerning visitors now want to escape from. Modern tourists are more discerning and we should no longer tolerate such widespread destruction of rural tourism's main asset.
Over the past decade, telephone land-line use has fallen so substantially that the benefits of scenic enhancement outweigh the gain from that horrid wire-scape. Those black lines must be placed underground or removed in order to restore the pristine landscapes of Connemara and Donegal highlands. This can be done through a 10 year scheme.
In the same way we need to stop random housing spilling out on to the WAW from the towns and villages. Anybody who has gone boating on the River Shannon can see the merits of such responsible management - those travelling in cruisers can see pristine countryside and it is this great quality the WAW has to aim for. It requires a ban such as already operates on the national road network.
The ideal must be to emulate the experience of passengers in the famous coastline railways where no intrusive bungalow blitz intrudes to waste the wilderness. At the same time, the NRA needs to upgrade the view for road users by securing the removal of derelict cottages, advertising hoardings and other eyesores. In some places coniferous forestry is set out in a drab quasi-industrial fashion - this should gradually be harvested and replaced by native deciduous trees.
Think what a wire-free landscape could offer travellers on the Wild Atlantic Way.
To achieve these gains, the Minister for the Environment must issue guidance to those county councils concerned, giving them adequate time to incorporate the necessary reforms in their next county development plan review. Money spent will yield a far better outcome than the airy-fairy West on Track scheme that depended on phantom passengers. If such positive management is adopted, the WAW will become a truly great resource.
Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant