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Christine Bleakley touring the Wild Atlantic Way

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Christine Bleakley at Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal

Christine Bleakley at Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal

Christine Bleakley at Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal

Tourism Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way initiative - encouraging visitors to spend time on the country's rugged west coastline - has been the single biggest boost to the North West in 40 years, businesses in the area say.

A survey of hotels by the Sunday Independent found visitor numbers in Donegal were up between 20pc and 40pc this summer on 2013.

The Wild Atlantic Way initiative in its first year has boosted numbers to counties that struggled under the shadow of the Troubles.

Now counties such as Donegal are getting the sort of exposure hoteliers such as Terry McEniff could once only dream of.

He has had to add 20 new members of staff at his Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny, a popular base for tourists exploring the North West.

"We're just playing catch-up with the Dublins, the Kerrys and Galways, but we're catching up fast," he said.

"Our visitors from continental Europe are up 40pc on last year. We always had visitors from Britain and the North but now we are checking in Spanish, Italian and German visitors and the visitor numbers from Britain are up too.

"The incredible thing is that they never come to reception any more to ask about things to do; they've planned ahead and have ear-marked Malin Head, the cliffs at Slieve League and Glenveagh National Park as places to visit while they are here. The Wild Atlantic Way is the best tourism drive ever to happen to Donegal. It's such a simple idea - but it's so so effective."

This week TV presenter Christine Bleakley, from Co Down and fiancee of ex-England soccer player Frank Lampard, was in the county as she starts filming a six-part series for prime-time broadcast on ITV in Britain next year.

Bleakley's series, is part of a deal between the broadcaster and Tourism Ireland. But her trip to the West doesn't even feel like work.

"I grew up going on holidays to Donegal and Galway so this is my dream job," she said. "The Atlantic coast of Ireland is stunning, so this is very much like coming home."

Sunday Independent