Open access to our coast and countryside would benefit both walkers and tourism
Opinion: Scotland is generating £1.4bn a year from encouraging visitors to ramble freely
Hiking in the Cooley Mountains: Ireland has as much to offer in terms of scenery as Scotland but is behind it in encouraging nature-based tourism.
Anyone who took advantage of the recent good weather to walk in the countryside will know that, on its day, Ireland is a supremely beautiful country.
Indeed, the number one reason cited by tourists for coming here is to experience the countryside. However, as regular walkers and hikers will know, Ireland has among the most restrictive land access laws in Europe.
Huge swathes of our countryside are off limits or inaccessible to both Irish people and tourists who wish to go walking.
In the past, things were different, but many paths and tracks have gone out of use since the arrival of the car and the depopulation of the countryside. Now our access to the countryside has become severely limited, and while there has been some important work done, such as the Green Way in Mayo, the progress of similar projects around the country has been at a glacial pace.
The problem needs to be addressed, both for our own people and for the estimated three-quarters of a million tourists who visit Ireland hoping to do some walking.
Our neighbours in Scotland have taken the lead in this area, implementing access legislation which opens up their country for walkers, and they are reaping substantial economic benefits.
A recent estimate suggested that Scotland generates £1.4 billion annually from nature-based tourism. Ireland, in terms of natural beauty, has as much to offer, yet cannot compete when so much of our countryside is inaccessible.
In Scotland the Fife Coastal Path generates between £24 million and £29 million for the local economy, supporting the equivalent of 800-900 full-time jobs. Imagine the benefit which might accrue locally if we could open up a Kerry coastal path.
There are also the obvious health benefits. Many of Ireland’s walkers and runners can be seen in high-visibility jackets striding or running on our dangerous country roads, risking their lives in the interest of their health. If there were improved access to the countryside, as there is in nearly every other country in Europe, such a danger would be minimised and more people would be encouraged to get out and enjoy our countryside.
To address this issue, I introduced the Access to the Countryside Bill 2013 to the Dáil and it was debated there on June 14th. The aim of the Bill is to provide greater access to the countryside, by giving the power to local authorities to declare certain categories of land as “access land”. Types of land that might qualify would include land over 200 metres high, land along designated riverbanks and lake shores, land along the coast and along disused railway tracks.
Before publishing the Bill, I consulted many stakeholders, including walking and mountaineering groups, and the three main farming organisations. I fully understand those organisations’ concerns about the need to not to impede farmers in their work.
The Bill proposes that no land that is cultivated or improved grassland would be designated as access land, nor any land around an inhabited dwelling. For those wishing to object, appeals to An Bord Pleanála are allowed for.
The Bill is also written in such a way as to prevent vexatious insurance claims against farmers. It contains a compensation clause stating that a county council may compensate a landowner if it believes a declaration of land as access land would diminish its use value.
Early in 2014, the Bill is to be discussed at the Oireachtas Environment Committee, which will hear from all stakeholders, including walking groups, farming organisations and tourist bodies. It is important that those who see the Bill’s value make their voices heard by writing to the committee to express their views.
Progressing this Bill would help to allow us all to enjoy our beautiful countryside, improve our health and, at a time of great job shortages, would bring tourism-generated jobs to parts of Ireland which are badly in need of them. If enacted, it would give new meaning to the céad míle fáilte which we like to offer our visitors.