A summer of walking
Sligo's many walking routes are one of the main reasons why people come to stay in the county. Micheál O'Domhnaill reports on their success
With a month remaining in what has been a busy Summer season, SligoWalks.ie caught up with some of those involved in the promotion of tourism in the county, in particular in relation to how visitors engage with walking.
The good news is that walking numbers are up up, visitors are finding more and more of our walks, and walking continues to be one of the main reasons people come to stay in Sligo.
Aoife McElroy is Senior Travel Advisor with Fáilte Ireland in Sligo, and she says that 90% of those who come in to the Fáilte Ireland tourism information centre on O'Connell Street are looking for information on walking.
"The most popular walks this summer are Queen Maeve's Trail, Knocknarea, Killaspugbrone and the Devil's Chimney - very popular walks for families, couples and every fitness level," she says.
"We're finding that the Doorly Park walk is very, very popular as you can walk (there) from Sligo town, people are looking for more walks in the town so they don't have to travel and the free guided walking tour in Sligo town is going absolutely brilliantly," she adds.
The Local Experts workshops, which Aoife co-ordinates - have helped businesses and tourism providers to see what type of information the tourist requires, and the impact on providing quality and relevant information to the tourist is now bearing fruit.
The Local Experts programme, where local hoteliers, restaurant owners and other people working in tourism help visitors find a whole range of experiences when they visit the county, has been so popular here, that Sligo has more people filling this role as voluntary tourism ambassador for the county than anywhere else in Ireland.
"We have 364 Local Experts in Sligo, they are all aware of the huge walking product that we have in Sligo and they are getting in tune with that.
"It's all about preparing the visitor for the right walk, that they're not going there and it's too difficult for them. So you are explaining the right walk, suitable to the fitness levels, that would be key," she says, adding that tourists want to know not only how hard a walk is, but how long it will take, what else they can see there, because of constraints on their time in what can be a busy holiday schedule.
Along with all of the local providers, agencies like Sligo County Council have been at the core of walks development in the county, and increasing tourism numbers visiting these walks is just reward for this hard work.
"The growth in the number of local people as well as visitors who come to Sligo for walking and to avail of the natural environment has increased," says Dorothy Clarke of Sligo County Council.
"Through collaborative effort with community groups, people who are involved like the South and West Sligo Tourism, Sligo Tourism itself and other stakeholders who are involved in this area, the accommodation providers, it's important that we all work collaboratively."
Sligo has benefitted very considerably from funding schemes such as the Town and Village Renewal Programme and the Outdoor Recreational Infrastructure Scheme to develop walks in the county.
Efforts continue to develop other projects, and while the proposed development of the Sligo Greenway has still some obstacles to overcome, there is no doubt but that Sligo has the potential to become one of Ireland's major walking destinations.
Chris Gonley is CEO of the Sligo Leader Company and is also a keen walker, and he underlines the potential for Sligo to grow significantly as a walking destination.
"The range of walks - hill walks, coastal walks, lake walks, walks along rivers, town walks, the choice we have is absolutely amazing really. It's the variety that's the key for me.
"You have biodiversity, culture, heritage, the Yeats element, all of these influences, and you can understand then why the culture is so influenced by the landscape.
"When you are out there walking or on your bike, you really get a chance to feel and understand those walks."
Sligo Leader, Sligo County Council and other agencies like Coillte and community groups around Sligo have begun to really see the bigger picture when it comes to developing business tourism infrastructure.
"We see queries every day of the week nearly at this stage about how people can develop their tourism infrastructure whether it's accommodation, or how to set up marketing elements around shops or retail businesses," he adds, stressing that the door of Sligo Leader are always open to local communities interested in developing walks in their area.
Sligo Tourism recently launch a social media campaign challenging visitors to pack as many experiences as possible into a 72 hour stay in Sligo.
Entitled 'Sligo Stories' it encourages people - locals and visitors alike - to share their experiences - walking or otherwise - of their stay in the county.
The manager of Sligo Tourism, Neil Faulkner emphasises the appeal walking has for visitors and what it can do to develop tourism in Sligo.
"Sligo has so much to offer. It's all about giving people a chance to spend time in the outdoors. What we are trying to do at Sligo Tourism first of all is about attracting visitors to Sligo, making sure they know where to go, what to do - and Sligo Walks has an important part to play in that, with all of the outdoor activities in Sligo.
"We also have a very strong food product in Sligo, so if we can put all that together, package it and then it's all about getting visitors to stay that bit longer in Sligo.
"If they stay longer, they'll enjoy themselves, they'll spend a bit more money, they'll talk to other people and we'll get the revisits. Linking it to the great outdoors, that is the strength of Sligo."
For more on walking in Sligo, visit www.SligoWalks.ie. The next Local Experts workshop will take place at the Sligo Southern Hotel on Monday 9th September.