Caveat: tourism chiefs should invest more to get that heart pumping

The midlands deserve more than 2% of the budget to develop and market tourism

 The Connacht side of the  Shannon outside Athlone. Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands’ evocation of the river within a green love heart is  an especially clever idea

The Connacht side of the Shannon outside Athlone. Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands’ evocation of the river within a green love heart is an especially clever idea

 

We have given enough stick to the State’s tourism policymakers on these pages over the last two years for their terrible neglect of the midlands. So it is only fair that when they get things right this should be duly acknowledged.

The new tourism brand for the region, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, which was launched by Fáilte Ireland last week in Athlone, has received almost universal praise from within the industry.

The brand’s identity is well-defined and easy to understand, and therefore it will be simpler to market to tour operators and those foreign visitors who may seek respite from the choc-a-bloc Wild Atlantic Way and Dublin regions.

The notion of discovering something “hidden” will always appeal to a certain class of tourist, especially the outdoorsy types that the midlands, with its abundance of walking and water trails, is capable of satisfying.

The brand marque’s evocation of the river Shannon – the region’s primary tourism asset – set within a green love heart is also an especially clever idea.

Anybody who has used Twitter for several years will remember the excessively negative reaction of many users in 2015 when the social media giant replaced its “star” favourite button with a love heart icon. At the time the digital sky almost fell in, but almost nobody complains about it now.

The simple fact of the matter is that in the social media age, with the corresponding elevation of emotion above thinking, the love heart is as suitable an icon for digital marketing as one could imagine.

What symbol could spark positive emotion and feeling about Ireland, and its “hidden heartlands”, better than a green love heart?

In fairness, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands was always going to be better than the previous working title for a new midlands tourism brand when the idea was in development – “Ireland’s Lakelands”.

That sounded way too much like a dairy brand. What were they going to do? Tempt tourists into the midlands with pints of milk?

Strong start

The midlands now has a proper tourism brand. But it remains to be seen whether the region will get the financial backing it needs to make a strong start and fully capitalise on the opportunity that is clearly available.

At the announcement last week, Shane Ross, the Minister for Tourism, revealed that the State would invest an initial €2 million to launch the new brand and develop “visitor experiences”. Good. Now where’s the rest of it.

That sum is less than 2 per cent of the €112 million allocated in the 2018 budget by Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, to develop and market tourism across the State. The State’s heartlands deserve a bigger slice than that, especially as the hitherto neglected region is coming from the back of the field.

When investing public money in tourism development in particular, State agencies tend to be judged by their political masters on the immediate financial returns that they can generate on the cash.

An extra €2 million of State cash spent on a shoulder season marketing plan for the Wild Atlantic Way will produce a more immediate financial payback than a similar sum invested in trying to tempt more discerning tourists into, say, Longford, east Galway or Roscommon.

Therefore officials are effectively incentivised to pump finite tourism development resources into already thriving areas where less of the money will be eaten up by sunken costs.

Heavy investment

To build up what is quite literally a greenfield tourism destination – the midlands – will require sustained, patient, heavy investment over time before acceptable returns materialise. In early years much of this will go on attractions.

Ross acknowledged at the launch that he would have to fight to secure more funding for Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands in future. “Over the coming years I aim to secure further resources to really push the brand forward and ensure it delivers on its full potential.”

The future should start now in the lead up to Budget 2019. Ross, as well as midlands TDs such as Kevin “Boxer” Moran, should make a sustained argument to Donohoe for a much larger pot of cash, which should be ringfenced to help develop the tourism product in the midlands.

If this means diverting some tourism funds from Dublin or the Wild Atlantic Way – (Ireland’s Ancient East needs every penny it can get) – then so be it. Those two regions are already thriving. They don’t need the cash as much.

Everybody knows just how important it is to look after your heart.

*********************

FOOTNOTES

– There was much amusement among journalists in the High Court this week during the Independent News & Media (INM) case when Mr Justice Peter Kelly warned media they must negotiate between the “Scylla of contempt of court and the Charybdis of defamation” when reporting unopened affidavits.

At first most journalists hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. A few quick Googles, prompted by the half-right recollections of a few of the less culturally-deprived hacks present, revealed it to be a reference to Greek mythology.

“That’s his private school education for you,” murmured one journalist present, as others within earshot nodded in agreement.

He might now sound like he is the product of private schooling but Mr Justice Kelly did, in fact, attend the very public north inner city O’Connell School.

The Christian Brothers school was for years, the internet tells me, dubbed “the working man’s Belvedere College” after the nearby fee-paying school.

It seems our learned friend the High Court president did not after all have an exclusive education handed to him on a plate.

*****

– Speaking of Belvedere, one of its most famous alumni is back in town this week for the first time in several years. Sir Anthony O’Reilly is scheduled on Saturday to attend an event in his honour at the Old Belvedere club.

With his old nemesis Denis O’Brien so deep in the media stew over the revelations emanating out of INM (O’Reilly’s old stomping ground), will he be tempted to gloat?

Probably not. If he is feeling magnanimous he might even wish his erstwhile rival a happy birthday. O’Brien turned 60 on Thursday, which was also, six years ago, the day that Gavin O’Reilly, O’Reilly’s son, was driven by O’Brien from the chief executive’s chair at INM.

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