For the love of the Midlands: Can Hidden Heartlands win over a new breed of tourist?
It is hoped the brand will emulate the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ancient East and bring new recognition to the region, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
On a Tuesday afternoon, during one of the hottest days of the year so far, the temperature in west Clare hits a rare 26C. Spanish Point beach, a 20-minute drive from the Cliffs of Moher, is a melting pot of German, French and Italian tourists - some wrapped up in jackets - and Irish sunbathers.
It wasn't always like this. For the second half of the 20th century, the seaside village was popular with Clare locals and with Irish natives from further afield attending the Willie Clancy Summer School and traditional music festival in nearby Miltown Malbay.
The Armada Hotel, a hotel and wedding venue overlooking the beach from its cliffside perch, was built by the Burke family in the 1970s, beside the ruins of the Atlantic Hotel. When the Atlantic opened in 1810, it was the largest hotel in Ireland and Britain. Its tepid seaweed baths attracted the gentry from England and the continent, but after the War of Independence and the Civil War, the English stopping coming and the Atlantic closed.
Diversity has since returned to Spanish Point. Outside the Armada, a lost Japanese couple in a hire car stop to ask locals for directions to the beach. They had been following the squiggled road signs that direct visitors along the Wild Atlantic Way, the 2,500km touring route that runs from Donegal to Kinsale.
When the route and brand was unveiled by the government and Failte Ireland in 2014 as a way of boosting overseas tourism to picturesque coastal communities still bearing the scars of the recession, few believed a few thousand distinctive signposts, a marketing push and some "discovery points" would really give California's Pacific Coast Highway a run for its money. Failte Ireland followed up with Ireland's Ancient East in 2016 and Ireland's Hidden Heartlands this year.
But the Wild Atlantic Way is contributing to the record growth in international tourists: the Central Statistics Office recently revealed that the number of visitors to the country rose 7.3pc to 2.8 million in the first four months compared to the same period a year earlier, largely driven by the 13.6pc growth in visitors from North America, who spend more and stay longer than their UK counterparts, our biggest tourism market.
The number of hotel bed-nights along the Wild Atlantic Way rose 11pc last year, according to Alex Connolly, head of communications at Failte Ireland. John Burke, the managing director of the Armada, has seen some of its benefits. While the wedding industry dominates occupancy at the Armada Hotel, its proportion of foreign guests has grown to 35pc from 30pc the year the Wild Atlantic Way brand was launched.
"There's been a pick-up in North American visitors," Burke says. "Traditionally, they would head to the west coast for a visit as part of a tour, but now they are very much spending an entire holiday on the west coast and the length of their stays is improving.
"Our occupancy rate in July and August is around 93pc now. Because we are pretty much full in summer, we have to turn away guests, so naturally there's a spinoff locally."
Some of that overflow is going directly across the road, to Spanish Point House. Pat and Aoife O'Malley opened a luxury guest house at the period property last summer, after a two-year renovation.
Aoife O'Malley says: "The Wild Atlantic Way has, without a doubt, attracted more foreign tourists. Approximately 30pc of our guests are from Ireland and the other 70pc are from other countries. Many guests stay for one or two nights - or more if they find that Spanish Point is a good base to explore from - and then continue to head north or south along the coast."
While the number of overseas tourists to Ireland is heading in the right direction, the industry faces a quandary: how to spread the tourism dollar beyond the hotspots of Dublin, Galway, west Cork and Killarney, where a shortage of hotel rooms is pushing up prices.
The regional imbalance in the fortunes of the tourism sector is especially challenging in the face of the slowdown in British visitors since the aftermath of the Brexit vote. While the number of tourists from the UK rose 1.1pc in the first four months of the year, Tourism Ireland said that the increase did not represent a turnaround in the long-term trend.
Connolly says that Failte Ireland's emphasis is on growing tourism figures in towns and villages on the section of the Wild Atlantic Way between Galway and Donegal, and in the midlands. "We want to make sure there is balanced tourism, otherwise you end up with congestion and higher prices."
To this end, Failte Ireland unveiled Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, a brand for the midlands and the Shannon corridor, in April. It encompasses an area stretching from Leitrim to Limerick and includes masterplans for the River Shannon and Beara-Breifne Way. It was designed to encourage visitors to "get active in nature" and explore the region's natural assets, such as lakes, walkways and blueways. An initial €2m has been budgeted for the initiative, and an advertising campaign targeting the domestic market will start in July.
Failte Ireland said the brand was for "those parts of the midlands that hadn't been covered by Ireland's Ancient East" and to "complete the full jigsaw of branding for Ireland". Reception to the plans has been mixed.
Catherine Fitzgerald, a Portlaoise councillor, complained that Laois, which is part of Ireland's Ancient East, had been left out of the new brand, saying: "We are like nobody's child for Failte Ireland and for the regional spatial strategy. We're the only county in Ireland that doesn't touch a county that touches the sea. If that's not the midlands, I don't know what is."
The scepticism about the brand partly lies in the confusion generated by the geography of Ireland's Ancient East, with parts of Co Limerick and north Cork being included in the brand despite their proximity to the western seaboard. However, Connolly says visitor attractions in Ireland's Ancient East saw a 14pc increase in revenue and a 13pc jump in visitors last year.
Hotels and other tourism operators in regions where Ireland's Ancient East and Ireland's Hidden Heartlands overlap will get to decide for themselves which brand to opt for. That's the case for the Wineport Lodge, which sits on the shores of Lough Ree in Glasson, Co Westmeath, and is the setting for the TV3 show The Restaurant.
Ray Byrne not only owns the Wineport Lodge but has stakes in two hotels along the Wild Atlantic Way, namely the Ice House Hotel in Ballina and the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff, and is managing director of NHance Management, which advises hotel and hospitality owners how to create a brand and manage their businesses.
Byrne believes there will be a "rethink" of the Ireland's Ancient East brand because "businesses in our region don't have a sense of belonging to that brand. The Wineport Lodge is a contemporary wooden building on a lake, so we don't feel connected to it".
However, he believes Ireland's Hidden Heartlands could succeed with the right strategy.
"About 95pc of our business at the Wineport Lodge is domestic, so what we would be looking for in a new regional brand is the chance to grow our non-Irish business. We do feel the midlands and Athlone have a lot to offer the international visitor, but they haven't been shown it yet.
"The Hidden Heartlands has to anchor the brand to the River Shannon, the waterways and the canals, and be a brand based around water, whether that be an activity such as paddle-boarding or cruising, or just enjoying the peace by the lake.
"For me, there should be two planks to the brand: the first being the waterways in the middle of Ireland, and the second being brands for each town, so that people know what Hidden Heartlands experience is available wherever they go.
"Places will need funding for access to lakes and jetties, and some of that money can be private money, but we are going to have go back to tax breaks to encourage it. If people have to go to a bank to borrow €10,000 to build a specialist tourism venture, it won't happen.
"The Center Parcs €250m-investment in Longford will have an exciting impact on the region. The midlands could have the potential to become a destination for spa resorts, like Champneys in England."
Beryl Kearney, who owns Viewmount House, in Longford, with her husband James, agrees that some towns in the midlands first need investment in tourist attractions if the Hidden Heartlands brand is to draw more visitors. About 80pc of her business is from domestic guests, and she has seen a downturn in UK visitors as a result of Brexit. The Georgian manor is home to VM Restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant that was run until recently by chef Gary O'Hanlon.
"The midlands have been forgotten, so I'm happy they're trying to at least give us a brand," Kearney says. "The Longford economy has picked up well and there's good industry coming into the town. But there's a huge empty Army barracks that's crying out for tourism investment."
Researchers from Failte Ireland arrived at the end of May at PodUmna Village, a glamping site in Portumna, in south-east Galway, just near where the Shannon enters Lough Derg. They were on a "reconnaissance mission", according to owner Dick Ridge, whose guests stay in pods, shepherd's huts or cabins and hire out bikes from him.
"Initially everyone is going to measure the Hidden Heartlands against the unprecedented success of the Wild Atlantic Way. The videos for the latter are spectacularly epic, but the first offering for the Hidden Heartlands does very little to excite," he says.
"Portumna is a beautiful spot that in some ways has been overlooked by tourists because we are in such close proximity to Galway and the west coast. So the domestic market accounts for more than 90pc of our business.
"People in Ireland are travelling the Wild Atlantic Way and if it's managed correctly, the same could happen with Hidden Heartlands. This isn't gangland LA - there's no them and us, so visitors could dip into the Ancient East, cross into the Hidden Heartlands, and then go do the Wild Atlantic Way."
In Roscommon town, Tom Grealy manages the four-star Abbey Hotel, which was set up by his grandfather in 1963 and has a conference and leisure centre. But the nature of his business has changed since his grandfather's era.
"Once upon a time, people came to Roscommon because of family connections, but that's happening less and less because generations have moved on or died out, so we offer a package of family breaks and are a wedding venue.
"The challenge has always been the Sunday-to-Wednesday business, which is quieter than at weekends. That's when the tourists should be coming. But it's tough competing with the Wild Atlantic Way because they have everything - the lakes, the mountains, the sea. There are enough tourists to go around, so I'll give Hidden Heartlands six months to see if it has improved our summer mid-week business."
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