Donegal's Dream Year: How 2017 saw the 'forgotten' county take off
Reader Travel Awards
It was Weekend readers who called it first when they voted to name Donegal 'Ireland's Hidden Gem' in our last Reader Travel Awards.
Mere months later, one of the world's most influential travel magazines, National Geographic Traveller, jumped on board, wowing its readers with reasons why we should consider the county "the coolest place" on the planet.
Throw in Star Wars location shoots, sensational Northern Lights spotting and the Wild Atlantic Way, and there's no denying that 2017 has well and truly been The Year of Donegal.
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The figures aren't finalised for this year, but 2016 yielded a whopping 283,000 overseas tourists and 370,000 domestic trips - and Joan Crawford of Fáilte Ireland believes there's every reason to think 2017's stats will be even better.
At Glenveagh National Park alone, visitor numbers have swollen by some 20,000 to around 200,000. Paul Diver, chair of the Irish Hotels Federation's Donegal branch, reckons Irish visits are up 20pc to the county, with overseas tourism rising around 10pc.
"This has been a dream year for Donegal," Diver says. "From an accolades point of view, the fact that it was independent bodies making these statements and not hoteliers or Fáilte Ireland gave them much more meaning."
He adds, "Several international visitors we spoke to were coming to Ireland anyway and had planned to go south but changed their itinerary to include Donegal... I think the 'coolest place' accolade will increase visitors for years to come."
Which is, of course, key. It's all very well to be on trend for a season, but long-term appeal is always the end goal.
Hugh Farren, owner of Malin Head's Farren's Bar, feels confident that's the case. His bar hit the headlines last year when Luke Skywalker and co made it their local while filming Star Wars: The Last Jedi (the movie hits Irish cinemas on December 15).
"People might call in because they heard about Star Wars filming down the road and they want to ask questions or see the memorabilia, but it's not the reason they say they'll be back," says Hugh. "The main thing people comment on is the friendliness of the people," he reveals. "You're never a stranger for long in any rural bar in Donegal!"
But it's the success of the Wild Atlantic Way - the 2,500km-long coastal trek which includes Donegal in its Northern Headlands section - that Hugh and others credit most for fuelling the boom. "I'd say it's doubled footfall for us here," he estimates.
Thanks to the route, recently named one of the world's best drives by another travel bible, Lonely Planet, new businesses are springing up and others are expanding. "Coffee pods are popping up in the middle of nowhere sustained by traffic on the Wild Atlantic Way," reveals Fáilte Ireland's Joan Crawford.
"The success of the route has brought with it increased confidence in entrepreneurial ideas. We're seeing a lot of new activity sports, glamping and a lot of new business. Four or five hotels that would have been seasonal are now open all year round and that in turn supports smaller businesses because they're able to stay open too."
Jim Muldowney set up his company, Dive Arranmore Charters, in 2012, but has since expanded to offer guided marine tours in the largely undiscovered areas of the Rosses and the islands. "The Wild Atlantic Way presented an opportunity for me to develop a truly authentic tourism service in the area," says Jim of his sea safari and marine heritage tours.
Such is the interest in 'hidden gem' experiences that take in everything from sea caves to marine wildlife, he's recently added seal-watching trips and deep-sea angling.
Similar tales of success are peppered across the county. In 2016, The Shandon Hotel & Spa opened its doors after five years out of action. In its previous incarnation, the hotel had closed during winter months but, under current owner and managing director Warren McCarthy and general manager Carolynne Harrison, there was a determination to change this.
"I never once considered closing during the winter!" laughs Carolynne. "Even when I was taking the coast road to the hotel in the depths of January, before we opened, I could see the potential and how the Wild Atlantic Way had opened up the coast."
With support from Fáilte Ireland, the team has worked hard to 'brand' winter in Donegal - think cosy turf fires while waves crash onto the rocks outside - with such success that The Shandon now enjoys occupancy levels of over 80pc even in the weakest months. It has launched a new bar, a new restaurant is on the way, and construction has begun on 18 new bedrooms.
"I've no fear that 2017 was the year of Donegal and that's it done," says Carolynne. "I've so much confidence that, if a visitor has sampled Donegal, they will always come back for more and probably tell their friends and family too."
The county's success hasn't been confined to its Atlantic coast. "What we've found is that along the Wild Atlantic Way, there aren't big accommodation hubs, so that leads visitors to the towns and villages inland where they end up discovering hidden gems off-route," says Joan.
So far, some €4.2m has been invested in promoting the region (€2.3m by Fáilte Ireland alone), with more projects in the pipeline. Next year will see a new €438,000 visitor centre at Fanad Lighthouse, while the tender process has begun on a major visitor experience project at Malin Head.
"There's been a partnership approach with the local authorities, Joan explains. "Donegal Tourism has been so active. They were probably one of the first centres to have Wild Atlantic Way Discovery panels in place. Basically, we all want to make sure visitors slow down and take their time along the route. We want them to feel there's enough for a two- or three-day stay in one spot before moving on."
With 2018 bringing the Irish Open to Ballyliffin, and the world's longest yacht race, the Clipper Challenge, stopping off in Greencastle, there's plenty to suggest even more visitors will be flocking to discover this not-so-hidden gem of a county.
"The success of Donegal is still very much in its infancy," says Joan. "There's still huge potential for growth and more to be discovered."
See govisitdonegal.com and wildatlanticway.com for more info.