Wild Atlantic Way can drive tourism and spread wealth
Giving 2,500kms of coastline a catchy name, uniform road signage and providing tourists with a “journey” experience is a brilliant, cost-effective way of increasing tourist numbers.
The sunny Easter weather has reminded us all that summer is on the way. For many businesses up and down the country, it isn't so much about waiting for the swallows to arrive. They look at their bookings and observe the early signs of tourist footfall to assess what kind of season they are going to have.
Tourism employs hundreds of thousands of people. It generates billions in income for employees, communities and the Exchequer. Foreign tourist numbers began to grow again in 2011 and, by 2012, had reached 6.5 million foreign visits. It isn't quite the 7.8 million visits of 2008 but it is going in the right direction.
After several boom-time years of virtual government policy neglect, things are starting to look up. One excellent project to come along is the new Wild Atlantic Way. It is essentially a marketing tool for 2,500km of Atlantic coast from north Donegal right down the west coast to Kinsale in Cork.
Giving 2,500kms of coastline a catchy name, uniform road signage and providing tourists with a "journey" experience is a brilliant, cost-effective way of increasing tourist numbers. Those of us lucky enough to travel to exotic places on holidays across the world have all been attracted to the something "way" or "camino" or "route".
That very long stretch of coastline shares wonderful scenery, similar culture and history, and at times similar dodgy weather. But it is also a collection of places that can be worlds apart in other ways. It includes low-income and high unemployment parts of Donegal, north Mayo and Sligo. It also takes in tourist meccas like Galway city and Kinsale, the culinary capital of Ireland enjoyed by high spenders from all over the world.
The real challenge in making the Wild Atlantic Way work is in the allocation of resources. The initial cost of the project was just €10m. This is nothing for what the country could get out of it. Some sections of the route need more investment than others.
But when it comes to tourism development, success always breeds success. In other words, places that already get lots of tourists can be entitled to a large slice of the cake. There is a logic to this because they already bring in the numbers, and therefore have a track record of success which can be improved.
Investing heavily in areas that have fewer tourists is seen as more risky, because the money might be spent and the tourists still won't come in sufficient numbers anyway.
However, such thinking creates virtuous circles in the tourist hotspots and viscous cycles elsewhere. 'Build it and they will come' carries risks, but it may just be necessary if regional development is to break out of its long-worn straightjacket.
Bearing that in mind, it was worth noting that the additional funding of €1.4m recently allocated for the Wild Atlantic Way went to three projects in three separate places – Galway (lots of tourists there), Kinsale (lots of tourists there) and north Mayo (not so many tourists there).
The allocation of €640,000 for a visitor centre at Downpatrick Head in Co Mayo will see money spent in a stunning part of the country, which doesn't get that many tourists at present. In a way it represents a good risk, but it is, however, the home county of the junior minister for tourism Michael Ring.
Risk-taking is not what you would associate with the fact that last year three-quarters of the €1.2m spent on the country's six national parks went on Killarney National Park, in the home county of Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan.
The minister defended the €900,000 spent on Killarney on the basis that it gets more than half of all the visitors to the six parks and contains a lot of buildings and roads. There may be a certain logic to the biggest players getting the biggest slice of the cake, but taken in isolation it means other parts of the country can never catch up.
Tourism is a great way of creating jobs in rural areas quickly. Another way is by building things, like houses, and we all saw where that took us.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a brilliant idea and will hopefully attract lots of Irish and international visitors to all parts of the 2,500kms coastline. Here are a few pointers to ensuring it brings real benefits along the entire route.
1 Try and ensure that previous success is not the overriding criterion for future allocation of funding.
2 Make sure industrial and energy policy doesn't contradict tourism policy along the way. Already An Bord Pleannala has upheld an appeal to build two giant wind turbines that will be visible on the approach road to one of the route's most scenic and historic beaches, at Kinnagoe Bay, Co Donegal. This seems totally incongruous, especially given that tourists could bring a lot more jobs to that area than giant wind turbines.
3 Market the Wild Atlantic Way as a single holiday concept but emphasise the differences in activities and types of holidays that can be enjoyed in different parts of it. It may be up to regions themselves to blow their own trumpet. Quieter areas could even brag that their section is better because it is not overrun with holiday makers.
4 Some regions have to get up and do more for themselves. Look at what Ray Coyle of Largo Foods created with Tayto Park. It was the ninth most visited tourist attraction in Ireland in 2012 with 391,000 visitors.
Of course he is a wealthy individual who put his own money into Tayto Park. And yes, it may be in the countryside but it is close to Dublin and large population centres like Drogheda and Navan. But it shows what can be achieved.
The initial €10m spend on the Wild Atlantic Way is a drop in the ocean, compared to the waste of the boom years. For example, NAMA recently decided to sell the unfinished Kilternan Hotel in Co Dublin. The developer borrowed €171m from Irish Nationwide Building Society on it, and the asking price is now just €5m to €10m.
In fact, NAMA has shelled out around €1m per year in keeping the building insured, heated, protected, lit and on other fees since it went into liquidation in 2009. What a waste.