I wish to commend John Mulligan for the great passion he brought to his recent opinion piece on rural tourism, but I believe that, unfortunately, the resulting article presented a grave misrepresentation of what is actually happening out there, and it dealt a disservice to the many individuals and groups who are doing sterling work on the ground to boost tourism in the countryside.
Failte Ireland is committed to an equitable development of tourism throughout the country and through our investments in festivals, significant tourism attractions, improved infrastructure, new technology and targeted marketing, we are helping to grow visitor numbers (and therefore revenue and jobs) into many parts of this country where there are no other viable sources of industry.
A classic example of our commitment to rural Ireland is the newly announced Wild Atlantic Way -- a scenic and themed driving route that will boost tourism and local economies throughout parishes and townlands all along its route from the top of Donegal all the way down to west Cork.
Mr Mulligan spoke very much about walking and cycling tourism in particular. We agree with him that these are important areas to develop -- so much so that we are actively engaged in doing just that.
Our latest research shows that the overseas activity sector was worth €830m to Ireland in 2010 and that those interested in activity pursuits spend, on average, 40pc more during their trip than other visitors.
It should be noted that 90pc of this activity is 'soft adventure' and covers a broad range of activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, water sports, archaeology and bird- watching.
In relation to walking and cycling, there has been significant investment in infrastructure and business supports over the years, with a view to providing visitors with what they want and expect.
Up to 2007, it was estimated that over half-a-million visitors participated in walking while holidaying in Ireland. Our market research shows that most walking visitors are occasional walkers.
In other words, visitors to this country are seeking quality looped walks in areas of outstanding scenic beauty, off road and of one to three hours in duration.
Mr Mulligan speaks passionately on behalf of the hard-core walker but, as a responsible national tourism development body, we have to cater for the widest possible tastes. Bearing that in mind, we have implemented a National Looped Walks Programme and there are currently over 220 looped walks across the country. This programme has been so successful in that by 2010 almost 700,000 overseas visitors were participating in walking while on holidays in Ireland, spending an average of €640m, an increase of nearly 200,000 visitors since 2007.
This is significant in itself, considering that overall visitor numbers to Ireland were decreasing over the same period.
In 2009, we in Failte Ireland also rolled out the 'Walkers Welcome' initiative to towns and villages in key walking areas supporting accommodation providers who wish to provide additional services to walkers and, indeed, for all outdoor activities.
We launched a Strategy for the Development of Irish Cycle Tourism in 2007 to establish how best to renew the popularity of cycling in Ireland, how to encourage visitors to cycle in Ireland and how to ensure that cycling tourism can generate visitor-spend in rural areas.
As a result of this, we have made a significant investment in the cycling product in Ireland and, to date, €7.4m has been spent on 31 cycling projects. In 2010, 164,000 overseas visitors engaged in cycling while in Ireland, spending approximately €180m.
We are also very much committed to signature 'big ideas' which benefit walking, cycling and rural tourism. The best recent example of this is the Great Western Greenway in Mayo.
The first 18km of the Greenway, from Newport to Mulranny, opened in 2010, while the two extensions linking south to Westport and east to Achill formally opened in July 2011, lengthening the route to 42km, mostly off-road. Further development and extensions are planned for the future to extend the Greenway. In 2011, an economic assessment on the Greenway was carried out. Estimates derived from this report indicate that the Greenway would contribute a projected €7.2m in spend in the local economy over a full year in 2011.
Our work continues and we will build on our extensive research to identify the potential and perceptions of all adventure tourism activities in our key overseas markets, with a view to shaping future Failte Ireland policy, planning, financial and business supports going forward.
Activities such as walking and cycling will be central to our ongoing work and Failte Ireland is strongly committed to these activities as part of our development of rural tourism.
However, that commitment must also match what our customers are looking for.
From Mary stack
Project Officer, Rural Development, FAilte Ireland