A Shannon Trail would have greater appeal than Ireland’s Ancient East
Such an initiative would distribute tourism spend more equitably and slow rural decline, which is particularly acute in the midlands
The ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise, near Shannonbridge, Co Offaly
Irish tourism is currently enjoying rude good health. Visitors to Ireland increased by 8.8 per cent in 2016 with earnings from overseas tourism reaching a record €6.6 billion. The economic upswing within the industry’s source markets, the perceived safety (touch wood) of this country as a holiday destination, along with the romantic appeal of the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) have all contributed to the upturn. Certainly, there is much to be cheerful about for 2018 as our tourism agencies predict happy days for our hospitality sector.
A fly remains obstinately immersed in the ointment, however. When we look at where visitors did their spending in 2015, a picture of startling inequality emerges. Expenditure by foreign tourists in Dublin amounted to €1,726m. Within the eight counties along the Wild Atlantic Way overseas tourists spent €1,835m, which represents an increase of over €500m in two years. For the remaining 17 counties, of Ulster, the midlands, the south and the east, total spending amounted to €629m or about 15 per cent of the total.
Dublin and the traditional tourist counties of the Wild Atlantic Way are powering ahead, while the remaining areas languish. Likely this trend will continue, and may indeed become more pronounced, as the timeless appeal of the WAW reaps full reward.
The success of the WAW arises largely from the fact that it is perceived as an unforgettable journey. Since medieval pilgrims footed it to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago, people have shown themselves captivated by the sense of freedom and imminent discovery that comes with exploring unfamiliar landscapes. The Spanish Camino, US Route 66, the Inca Trail, South Africa’s Garden Route and Australia’s Great Ocean Road stand modern testament to the enduring popularity of iconic journeys.
As a challenging follow-on to the WAW, Fáilte Ireland has created the somewhat more clunky, Ireland’s Ancient East. Difficult to define precisely since it is an artificially fashioned entity without a clear unifying theme, it is problematic to say where it begins or ends. It isn’t a route but a concept, and one where it takes a considerable leap of imagination to place Killaloe, Clonmacnoise and Cavan within its easterly remit.
About 80 per cent of our overseas visitors enter through Dublin. Typically, they spend a few days exploring the capital and, if time allows, they then head west. Stop-offs are likely at major Ancient East attractions such as Clonmacnoise or the Rock of Cashel, but these visits rarely detain them and mostly they will segue onwards to do their serious spending along the WAW. The Irish midlands is thus falling between two stools; the region lacks a clear brand identity and has become mostly a transit area for the predominant East-West flow of international visitors.
Even for WAW counties, a continuation of this imbalance may not be for the best. This summer, when I visited the tourism honeypots of Killarney, Dingle, Doolin and Galway, they were heavily crowded and clearly very close to their full carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is defined as the maximum number of visitors that can use a destination without an unacceptable alteration in the environment or a decline in the quality of the experience. When this happens, tourists begin voting with their feet. In the past, the Spanish Mediterranean lost market share due to the widespread belief that tourism was growing too fast and the local infrastructure was inadequate to handle visitor numbers.
The time has come to recognise that the east and centre of Ireland is too large and diverse to cater for under one brand umbrella. The midlands should be accommodated separately under a distinctive identity and we should learn the lessons from the success of the active WAW concept when compared with the static Ancient East: a new trail is required aimed at moving visitors on a north/south axis through the region.
A feasibility study should examine the merits of a “Shannon Trail”, through the centre of Ireland that would link Limerick city with Lough Allen, Co Leitrim, by following the meandering course of our greatest river. Marketed as the “Heart of Ireland”, it would be much shorter and thus more manageable than the present 2,600km WAW. Not only would this make it an ideal driving route, there would also be an opportunity to create a compelling cycleway and water trail for slower tourism. Similar to the WAW, the new trail would have Discovery Points enroute – for example at Clonmacnoise – where visitors, cycling, waterborne or driving, would be encouraged to pause and explore nearby attractions.
Brexit allowing, the trail could later be extended to follow the memorable Erne Waterway through Northern Ireland to reach Ballyshannon. Such an initiative would distribute tourism spend more equitably, slow rural decline, which is particularly acute in the midlands, and facilitate a return visit to Ireland for visitors who had previously sampled the WAW.
John G O’Dwyer is a tourism consultant and guidebook author. His guide to walking in the midlands and south of Ireland will be published by the Collins Press in the New Year.