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How one small Irish community is re-thinking 'drive-thru tourism'

Pól Ó Conghaile

Loop Head has gone from an economic precipice to a European Destination of Excellence award


Loop Head, Co Clare

Loop Head, Co Clare

Loop Head, Co Clare

How can tourism support communities, rather than the other way round?

The question was posed by a former fishing skipper last week.

"Don't ask, 'How can we get more tourists?'" he said. "Ask, 'Why do we want them?'"

The skipper was Cillian Murphy, who now runs Murphy Blacks restaurant in Kilkee, Co Clare, with his wife, Mary.

Cillian was one speaker (I was another) at a tourism seminar in Mullingar, and he shared the story of Loop Head Tourism (loophead.ie) - a community group from Kilkee, Kilbaha and Carrigaholt that has taken the peninsula from an economic precipice to a European Destination of Excellence award.

Rather than blindly chase numbers, Cillian says, small communities should put sustainability first. "Do you want a million visitors spending €1," as he puts it. "Or 100,000 spending a tenner?"

Take the Cliffs of Moher, which last year attracted over 1.5 million visitors. A short drive from Loop Head, the cliffs are a billboard image of Ireland bringing many benefits to West Clare. But it's also true that locals struggle with traffic, and most visitors don't stay or spend overnight.

Conventional wisdom will tell you such business contributes in a 'trickle-down' way. Coach tours are a key driver of Irish tourism, and arguably more environmentally friendly than having similar numbers travel by car. But another question needs to be asked, Cillian says. What is "drive-thru tourism" costing local communities?

"Overtourism isn't just in Barcelona or Majorca," he says. Loop Head's approach has been "to use tourism as a tool, not the end goal", and to have locals work together, alongside key partners like Fáilte Ireland, Clare County Council and Clare Local Development Company.

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They resisted the opening of a café at Loop Head Lighthouse, for example - so local pubs could sustain their jobs and business.

In Kilkee, restaurants have a rota varying the nights they close, and take summer holidays at different times.

On Loop Head peninsula, food businesses try to source their main ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and producers.

Nine years ago, Cillian says, fishing was "almost dead" and the tourist season ran from June to September. Today, a managed trickle of visitors has created some 100 full-time jobs, stretched the season, and strengthened social fabric.

Word is spreading, and not just to evolving destinations like Mullingar. Cillian recently shared his story on Norway's Lofoten Islands.

He asked locals there the same question. "Who do you want in your home?"

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