More Irish people are choosing to holiday on the Shannon, with one operator reporting domestic bookings this year up 40 per cent on 2019. But the trend, underpinned by a shift towards staycations during the pandemic, is bringing its own set of problems, including serious safety concerns.
“The Government do not want to know about [the safety issues],” says Leslie Shaw, proprietor of Portumna Marine, which sells and services boats. “There are no NCTs, no safety standards on the water. It’s a big problem,” he says.
As a result of the lack of qualified boat mechanics, “some people go at the boats themselves and do botched jobs on it and it ends up leaving boats very unsafe,” says Shaw.
“The Government have a huge thing about water safety at the minute but it seems to be only for swimmers.”
Ireland’s leisure boat fleet is relatively old by European standards, with vessels averaging in age from 14½ to 22 years. It is something Fáilte Ireland is seeking to address. Last week the tourism body issued tender documents for consultants to examine how best to replenish replace older boats with “greener”, or more environmentally sustainable, ones.
But the river-worthiness of boats is just one issue of concern which has come into sharp focus following a few busy months on the Shannon. Another issue is boating expertise. While “legally you don’t need a license to drive a boat on the inland waterways” Shaw says people should be required to receive training, especially regarding boats that can travel at higher speeds. “There should be a standard license for everyone. It’s the same danger as being on the road, if not more.”
There is a lack of enforcement of various bylaws on the Shannon, he adds, including those relating to the 5-knot speed limit in harbours and near bridges.
“There’s a Garda boat, I think it’s stationed in Athlone, but that’s the only enforcement that seems to be on the water.”
The Shannon’s river economy has gone through ups and downs over the past 20 years. Increased incomes and readily available credit during the Celtic Tiger era, together with the improvement of riverside facilities, saw a conspicuous increase in the number of Irish-owned cruisers. After some lean years for operators, boat hire saw a resurgence during the Covid pandemic as foreign holiday options were limited.
“We had 9,000 registered boats two years ago, to just over 9,500 this year, so a significant increase in boats in the last two years,” says Éanna Rowe, western regional manager with Waterways Ireland, the authority charged with the management, maintenance, development and promotion of inland navigable waterways for recreational purposes. “There’s just under 300 in the cruise hire fleet with the rest being privately owned,” he says.
This increase is predominantly made up of private boats, but some of the cruiser hire companies have also increased their fleets. “Le Boat [which operates Emerald Star] increased their fleet by 15 boats over the last number of years,” says Rowe, “and Silver Line Cruisers this year have also increased their fleet from 65 boats to somewhere in the order of 85 boats in preparation for the next cruise hire season.”
These are “significant” and “substantial” investments on the part of the hire companies, says Rowe. “Boats are not cheap, particularly the cruise hire fleet,” he says.
There has been a 25 per cent increase in the price of boats over the last three years, says Shaw, but this has been mainly due to “Covid and Brexit”, where any boats imported from the UK are now subject to VAT.
Waterways Ireland has invested significantly in blueways and greenways over the last eight years. This has resulted in many visitors who started out using kayaks and canoes subsequently hiring out and eventually purchasing their own boats, says Rowe.
During 2020 and 2021, many tourism businesses in the nine-county area marketed as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands experienced a “domestic bounce”, says Fáilte Ireland. Fifty-one per cent of domestic visitors who hired a cruiser on the Shannon in 2020 were first-timers, and a good number of them returned in following years.
“We came here last year as an alternative holiday, seeing we couldn’t travel abroad with Covid. We liked it a lot and decided to do it again,” Michael Cronin from Blackrock, Cork tells The Irish Times during a stop-off at Lanesborough, Co Longford.
Laurence Murray, from Portrane, Co Dublin, bought his cruiser in 2015 and spent two weeks this summer on the Shannon with his partner Fadila Byrne and their four-year old son, Noah.
“I used to always go fishing up around Shannonbridge,” he says, “and I always saw the cruisers go by and I always wanted one, and about seven years ago I had a chance to buy one and I did.”
He has seen the increase in traffic on the Shannon first hand. “Once the Covid restrictions were lifted there was loads of boats on the water... Obviously the price of boats is after soaring as well which shows you that a lot more people are after purchasing them,” he says.
However, the last few months have not been as busy as he had expected, partly due to the increase in the price of diesel, he believes.
A regular boat user on the Shannon is Morgan Doyle of Loughcurra, Kinvara, Co Galway. “I grew up in Athlone and my father built his first boat himself, a wooden 18-foot sea light boat,” he says. “So I’ve been on the Shannon since that time, since I was about seven or eight years of age.”
He also noticed that there was a visible increase in the numbers of Irish people renting out boats during the pandemic. “Every harbour that you went in to, it was populated by Irish and it was great fun, and I think people were really happy to see what was on their doorstep.”
However, this year he thinks the pattern has changed somewhat. “Now that people can travel again, it seems to have reverted again. Everybody is gone to the sun and our foreign visitors are back again.”
It is now six months into the traditional eight-month holiday period of March to October on the Shannon, and industry figures report a mixed picture.
Waterways Ireland recorded just over 14,000 boat journeys through the locks on the Shannon in the six months to June of this year, which is higher than in the same six-month period last year. There were almost 44,500 journeys in 2021 as a whole, up from 32,000 in 2020. In 2019 the figure was over 42,000.
Emerald Star, operated by Le Boat, one of the main cruise hire companies in Ireland, says that domestic bookings for the year to date were up 43 per cent compared to 2019, but all markets were up only 9 per cent.
Steve Conlon, executive secretary of the Irish Boat Rental Association, says the number of visitors from Germany and some other European countries are down. “On the plus side, they are staying longer, so we are hoping for a neutral outcome on the overall figures.” He believes “the domestic market is at 2019 levels… nothing like 2020 and 2021″ but he is optimistic the final figure will be boosted by last-minute bookings and the recent good weather.
Promotion, or the lack thereof, of the Shannon region has been an issue that, for some, requires further attention.
Conlon believes Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have been too focused on a “three-brand strategy: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s Ancient East and Dublin”. Consequently, he says, “there was no national advertising campaign overseas for the Shannon as it did not fit into the brand categories. There was an attempt to include us in Ireland’s Ancient East but we fought long and hard for the new brand, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.”
Doyle sees it as a slow burn. “There’s great work going on in walkways and bikeways beside the canals and the river, and I hear recently that they’re promoting the idea of camping sites and camper van sites which would be available alongside the Shannon,” he says.
“So the amenities are there, the facilities are there… I think there is very good support for it.”
For those who returned to the Shannon this year, moreover, there is a sense that overdevelopment could spoil the attraction.
“It’s just a beautiful stretch of river,” says Murray. “I’ve been all around Europe, and I don’t think there’s another river that is like it scenically.
“You live in the city... it just unwinds you. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to be.”