Wild Atlantic Way walking path ‘could be Ireland’s Camino de Santiago’

Ambitious proposal being explored by Fáilte Ireland could boost tourism in many rural communities but land ownership issues could be complex

Buoyed by the rip-roaring success of the Wild Atlantic Way driving route, tourism chiefs want to replicate it with a 440km off-road coastal path stretching from Malin Head in Co Donegal to Kinsale in Co Cork.

It would, its champions say, match the famed pan-European pilgrimage trek, the Camino de Santiago, or the Appalachian Trail, which traverses 14 states in the US and is the backdrop to the Robert Redford film A Walk in the Woods.

If not equal in length, its sheer breathtaking scenery would attract homegrown and international walkers of every ability, looking to complete some or all of the route, in annual stages or in one go, as well as local strollers on a day out.

Critically, it would promise Ireland’s terminally declining remote and rural communities along the western seaboard a desperately needed economic shot in the arm, bringing high-value tourists to stay, eat and drink.

Recently-released research by UK government advisers Natural England – which is advancing plans for a walking route around England's entire 4,300km coastline – offers a compelling value-for-money case. Besides boosting the nation's health – 97 per cent of polled walkers reported wellbeing benefits after a coastal ramble – the data shows trails pumped £350 million (€420 million) into nearby business.

Day-trippers spent on average £8.65 (€10) in shops, while overnight visitors splurged £36.73 (€44), creating almost 6,000 full-time jobs on the coast. The figures are expected to soar, with walking tour operators in Britain boasting the “busiest season ever” this year.

So what stands in the way of Ireland, with its world-beating ocean setting, tapping into this lucrative market, promising to rejuvenate both people and down at heel villages and towns?

Unsurprisingly, it is a matter of land ownership. More than 90 per cent of the proposed route is on privately owned land, according to an unpublished feasibility report, commissioned by Fáilte Ireland and seen by The Irish Times.

Only a fifth (20 per cent) of the way either have access agreements in place or do not have access issues, such as on beaches or public rights of way.

"It is recognised that the majority of the route being on privately owned land is a potential major constraint," Belfast-based consultants Outdoor Recreation NI warned Fáilte Ireland in its Wild Atlantic Way Coastal Trail study.

Under right-to-roam rules, Britain – Scotland in particular – has paved the way for easier access to the countryside. In Ireland such an ambitious project pivots largely on the goodwill of landowners.

Potentially explosive, the report backs a major lobbying drive on Government Ministers to bring in new legislation to allow easier access to private farms and holdings for such a tourist project. The coastal trail’s success “will largely depend on political will and appetite for new access legislation”, it states.

Is Harold Kingston, however, the answer to vaulting plans to create the world's greatest walking trail in Ireland? Kingston, who runs a herd of 160 dairy cattle at his family farm Summerhill in west Cork's Courtmacsherry, and who oversees a coastal path through his land, says any attempt to legally enforce access is doomed to failure.

“I would love to see a Wild Atlantic Way trail, but I’d be completely opposed to any legislative change to push it through,” he says.

“A voluntary approach is the key thing. It is an issue that can split family members. If you try to push it through, it won’t happen, there will be resistance straight away, you can forget about the whole idea.”

Kingston was deeply opposed to the use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) for the country’s burgeoning network of greenways, traffic-free cycling and walking paths, mostly on disused railways but which cross private lands on occasion.

“It is better to do it with the co-operation of farmers. It is cheaper than all the court cases involved and you end up with a better product.”

‘It doesn’t cost me’

A father of two and fourth-generation farmer, he granted access through his farm in January 2000 for the Seven Heads Way, a 32km route, because he could immediately see the benefits.

Allowing a safe, legal route to stunning scenery and swimming coves, his fuchsia-lined section of the trail attracts up to 1,000 visitors and locals on a good day through his land.

The way-marked path is relatively easy to maintain – there are payments available – and has had a significant impact on the local economy.

“The extra footfall means more visitors staying overnight in Courtmacsherry,” he says.

“Some come for a weekend, then come back for a week. It means the local co-op has become a supermarket, instead of a corner shop. It also justifies a restaurant. So I can enjoy a meal out where I couldn’t have done before. I have more services available to me locally. The walk has become a key part of the community.”

Towns like Clonakilty – 16km away – are also reaping the rewards, he adds.

Kingston, also chair of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in Munster, says he was delighted with the opportunity to develop the path, after the local development agency promised insurance which indemnified him for public liability.

“It doesn’t cost me anything extra.”

While there have been issues along the way – some walkers wandering closer to his yard, putting themselves in danger, dogs off lead, littering – he says the benefits outweigh infrequent problems which are easily confronted.

“Walkers tend to be responsible,” he says.

“I’ve never had cause to consider revoking access [which he legally can do]. The only time I closed it was during foot and mouth. At the start of Covid I thought about making it one way because of the sheer crowds.”

Not all landowners are as civically minded as Kingston, however.

Prof Padraic Kenna, a property rights and land law expert at NUI Galway, believes opposition to opening up farms for a Walk Atlantic Way coastal path will be sizable.

“I’d say more than 100, maybe more than 1,000 landowners, would object,” he says.

Even if there was a change to the existing legislation, farmers could bog down the process in years of costly litigation, he argues.

“We have a constitution, which you don’t have across the water in Britain, and it is a fairly powerful document.”

A lack of constitutional protections allowed well-organised walking groups in England and Scotland to push through right-to-roam laws during the 1930s and 1940s, while other countries such as Sweden and Finland have further-reaching rambler rights.

“Ireland is pretty unique in our constitutional property laws,” says Kenna. “It doesn’t just recognise a landowner’s rights, but the State must vindicate those rights. It is a very powerful protection.”

Even with law changes to ease access to private land, Kenna says, it would not trump a constitutional right in every case where a farmer was opposed.

“There would have to be court hearings then, which could drag things out for years and years, even if the legislation was in place and deemed proportionate, and the interference of property rights was legally necessary but also the minimum necessary.”

In Galway less than a handful of farmers have been able to frustrate the completion of a Greenway, while disputes between walkers and farmers in the Wicklow mountains are ongoing, he adds.

A Wild Atlantic Way coastal path “is one big challenge, that is for sure”.

“It is doable but very complex. If starting from scratch and you want to go through fields, it is a mountainous task to take on.”

‘Ambitious project’

Fiona Monaghan, head of product development at Fáilte Ireland, who is the key architect of the coastal path plan, insists recommendations in the commissioned feasibility study are "purely for consideration".

“Some of the options will not be feasible in the Irish context,” she says.

Monaghan believes she can forward the project over a phased 10-year timeframe, starting with looking at existing coastal walks, such as the Dingle and Kerry ways, publicly-owned lands, and starting consultations with local communities and landowners.

“It is not going to be a quick win. It won’t happen overnight,” she admits.

“It is an ambitious project, and the rewards will be worth the process and time to do it right, in a collaborative way.”

A recent review of existing walks through private lands showed them to be “working very well”.

Pointing out that the project forms part of the current programme for government, she says both the Department for Tourism and Department for Rural and Community Development are “enthusiastic, open minded and willing”.

“There is a big appetite for this project at political level.”

Fine Gael senator Martin Conway, of Co Clare, said the coastal path could "compete with the Camino as being the world's greatest walk".

“That needs to be our ambition,” he told the Seanad last year.

A tender for consultants on “approach and methodology” will go out next month, after the pandemic delayed the plans, expected to cost more than €100 million.

Crucial to winning over landowners will be showing the economic benefits, as Kingston has experienced, with opportunities for overnight accommodation, luggage services, food businesses and shops for about nine months of the year.

Fáilte Ireland figures show significant growth in walking tourism over the last 10 years.

In 2019, before the pandemic struck, 46 per cent (2.3 million) of all visitors from overseas engaged in walking or hiking while on holiday here, more than doubling from 20 per cent (578,000) in 2012.

“The Wild Atlantic Way [driving route] is huge evidence that communities and towns on their knees have benefited significantly,” says Monaghan.

"In Ballycastle, north Mayo, there is a little coffee shop that was going to the wall. The shop owner gave it one more season when the Wild Atlantic Way opened to see if it would survive.

“Now she is thriving, she is even making picnics for tourists. A hostel has opened. The whole area has benefited.”