Heritage sites: our tourism industry must manage the congestion
There is an onus on visitors to choose carefully where – and when – they visit
There’s nothing that ruins a visit to a place of natural beauty more than a traffic jam at the entrance. For most people, the preparation and anticipation for day trips is part of the fun – but overflowing car parks at weekends in places such as Glendalough, Co Wicklow, is forcing people to turn around and choose an alternative place to go.
Other visitor hotspots such as the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare and Brú na Bóinne in Co Meath are suffering from traffic congestion too as local and international tourists see these sites as must-see places to visit. Traffic jams on some parts of the Wild Atlantic Way is another issue as the driving route becomes better known.
What can the tourism industry do to manage congestion in this, the busiest time of the year for daytrippers and holidaymakers alike?
“We are concerned about certain sites and counties – such as Galway and Kerry becoming clogged up during high season,” says Alex Connolly from Fáilte Ireland.
Through advertising and marketing campaigns, Fáilte Ireland is actively encouraging people to visit the Wild Atlantic Way in Mayo, Sligo and Donegal rather than Galway, Clare and Kerry and also to consider visiting sites on Ireland’s Ancient East as an alternative to automatically heading west. However, the monastic site at Glendalough is one of the prime sites on Ireland’s Ancient East that arguably suffers the biggest congestion of all – particularly on bank holiday weekends in the summer months.
“Glendalough has a particular set of problems because the vast majority of the traffic comes through Laragh village which is a small country village,”says Frank Shalvey from the Office of Public Works (OPW) which manages the monastic site at Glendalough and the car park next to the visitor centre.
While the OPW records visitors to the monastic site at 80,000 in 2016 – this number is only a small percentage of those who drive to Glendalough to walk or picnic by the lakes and in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.
Wicklow County Council manages the car park near Glendalough Upper Lake and but when this car park is full, there is traffic chaos with cars turning around at the last minute to return to Laragh.
In the summer of 2016, the council ran a shuttle bus from Laragh with cars parking in the village GAA grounds. However, this option did not receive unanimous support from local people and is not operating this summer. Geographical features and sensitivity to the monastic site means extending the car parks is out of the question.
Sean Quirke, director of roads with the council, says the council is considering installing signs to alert drivers of congestion so that they can turn around before reaching the Upper Lake car park.
Until such a system is in place, visitors might be well advised to either arrive very early or consider alternative destinations in Wicklow such as Avondale House and Forest Park, or Glenmalure valley which is eerily quiet compared to Glendalough.
Encouraging people to consider alternative destinations is what Fiona Monaghan of Fáilte Ireland is doing for the Burren and Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare.
With 1.4 million visitors in 2016, the Cliffs of Moher are Ireland’s most visited natural visitor attraction in Ireland. Almost half of all visitors come by coach with about 300,000 people a year visiting the site on day tours alone.
Since 2015, the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience has imposed a limit on the number of coach licences issued to operators visiting the site between March and October. The car park at the cliffs site often becomes full at 11am during the summer months.
“Since 2014, we have been offering a reduced price for bus tours that pre-book and arrive before 11am or after 4pm. This also encourages groups to stay overnight locally,” says Katherine Webster, director of the visitor experience.
In June 2017, visitors coming from the south on the Ennis-Ennistymon road and from Milltown Malbay are also informed by digital signage of traffic congestion and full car parks to give them the option to divert to other places. The cliffs visitor experience is open from 9am to 9pm daily in July and August.
Meanwhile, Fáilte Ireland is carrying out a visitor experience development plan for the Burren/Cliffs of Moher. “There has been a huge growth in visitor numbers since the revamped visitor facility opened in 2007 and we want to encourage people who travel by coach or by car to visit other places,” says Monaghan.
The tourism agency is particularly keen to encourage travellers to plan their trips in advance and spend longer in one specific region. “The Cliffs of Moher is one of the most used images of Ireland in the world so we’re looking at presenting it from different angles – for example from a boat,” says Monaghan.
Campaigns that show photographs of the cliffs at sunrise or sunset or from the sea suggest to visitors arrive early or late in the day or to take a boat trip around the cliffs. Promoting other attractions in Clare such as the Caherconnell stone fort, the Poulnabrone dolmen and the sea cliffs at Kilkee are also part of the plan.
Monaghan tells how a similar initiative in Co Kerry has already been implemented to encourage visitors to consider sites other than the Skelligs. “So, we talk about the Skellig coast from Caherciveen to Waterville, taking in places like the 12th-century Ballinskelligs Abbey, the Bolus Head looped walks, the Skellig Experience on Valentia Island. It is part of a wider visit to the area, especially on days when the boats can’t go out,” she says.
These congestion issues are similar to those faced by popular tourist destinations the world over. And while online booking systems and traffic alerts regarding congestion will help in some places, they are not a fail-safe solution.
Perhaps there is an onus on visitors to choose carefully where – and when – they visit. When people become more open about discovering other places of natural and built heritage that are often equally beautiful and less crowded, they might even enjoy their time more. And create a whole new bucket list for savvy travellers in the process.