Tourism policy issues that hinder development of the hiking and cycling sectors in Ireland

The development of tourist infrastructure in the hiking and cycling sectors in Ireland is hampered by government policies that tend to drive away tourists that have an interest in these pursuits.

The fragmentation of Failte Ireland into a multiplicity of "mini failtes", each with a local agenda, tends to work against the development of the long-distance walking and cycling sectors. Failte Ireland policy supports only "loop walks", circular routes that start and end in the same place and that can typically be covered in a few hours. The rationale for this policy is not clear, but is thought to have originated in vested interests within Failte Ireland, taking a view that long distance walkers did not stay around but walked on to another "Failte" region after a day or so.

The net result of this policy is that Irish long-distance walkers go abroad for walking holidays, and UK and European walkers find plenty of good long-distance routes in their own countries.

The following are two articles that I wrote for the Irish Farmers Journal in 2007; not much has changed in the interim.

 

 

Walking the walk

(Irish Farmers Journal 2007)

It hasn't gone away you know! No, not that, just the issue of walking tourism and access to land that occupied our headlines two or three years ago. Both sides seem to have agreed to disagree and the subject seems more or less closed. It might seem as though I am picking at an old wound, but the debate needs to be revisited.

 I have to confess to a vested interest here. I take the occasional walking holiday, and I have written a couple of books on long distance walking, so maybe I am biased with regards to the whole debate. I love this country, and nothing gives me more enjoyment than a few days walking holiday in Ireland, enjoying the sights at a slow pace. There is much to be seen and enjoyed at walking speed, things that you miss as you rush past in a car.

 It seems to me that our new found wealth has lulled us into a false sense of security; we feel that we no longer need the smaller things that sustained us; rural tourism, sugar beet, or small enterprises like farmhouse bed and breakfasts. Already we accept it as normal to see imported milk in our shops for instance. We think that we can survive on the fruits of our "Celtic Tiger" economy, but this is somewhat of an illusion as we create "wealth" by buying and selling houses to each other. There may well be a day of reckoning, when we will wish that we had kept the baby and just thrown out the bathwater.

 So what has all this got to do with walking and rural communities? Well, while both sides in the access row shout at each other from a distance, the tourists who came to Ireland for walking holidays have voted with their feet and are going elsewhere. Numbers dropped (depending on what figures you look at) by 20% last year and 30% the year before, and with these visitors went the repeat business that comes from their telling their friends about their experience. When we have finished building all the houses, will we wake up some morning and wish that we had kept the walkers, and the sugar beet, and the dairying, and all the other small segments that go to make up a sustainable rural economy? By then it may be too late.

 Maybe we need to understand that rural tourism isn't just about putting money into the pockets of a few hoteliers; it is about bringing visitors and money into an area for everybody's benefit. In addition, a well cared for environment such as attracts tourists also makes for a nice place to live. Other countries seem to be able to do this without conflict; I walked the final 100 miles of the famous Camino Santiago de Compostella last October in Galicia in Northern Spain, an area with a climate and topography very like Ireland. This walk is an example of the way that walking tourism and farming interests can coexist for mutual benefit; each village on this route is visited by a fresh crop of walkers each day, spending money as they go and never trespassing on private land.

 Even the smallest player in this game can make something from it. I spoke to one farmer who had a cold drinks machine in a small shed beside the trail; he replenished it a couple of times a day, and it made about 200 euros a week for him, much more than that shed had earned in the past! A large bin and a bench beside the machine encouraged walkers to rest a while and deposit their empties, but he also patrolled the area nearby a couple of times a day to ensure that there was no littering.

 This farmer's story was repeated all along the trail; an old man selling sticks here, a woman making Tortillas - the Spanish potato omelette was doing a brisk trade in another farmyard, while her raw materials providers pecked at grain in a pen nearby. Every evening we filled all the beds in whatever small town we found ourselves in, bringing money to the bars, restaurants and shops of these rural places. Each day we departed along the trail, and the towns readied themselves for another influx of new hikers that evening. The people who debate walking issues in Ireland would do well to visit this area and see how the Spaniards manage to reconcile the differences between walkers and landowners for the common good.

 This trail was developed along an historic pilgrimage route, utilising old laneways, mule tracks, minor roads and sometimes on gravel paths laid behind the crash barriers on main routes. Nobody sought or demanded a "right to roam", and the communities through which we walked welcomed us and made a nice living from us and the other people who came through each day. There was no conflict, just a viable rural tourism initiative that keeps euros in pockets and allows farmers to make a living from small pieces of land.

 So why can't we do the same here? Simply because we think we don't need tourists like this. We don't care whether they come or not, and we don't want to cater for their needs if they do. Haven't we all plenty of work building houses and selling sites, and sure there really is no tomorrow. Other places have proved that you don't need to trample on people's rights to establish long-distance routes, and demand for such challenge walks is high and growing. We need to meet this demand in Ireland.

 

 

Cead Mile Failte

(Irish Farmers Journal 2007)

 Have you noticed the growth in the number of tourism bodies in recent years? The phenomenon has crept up on us; where once there was just Bord Failte, now there are a myriad of small bodies representing almost every county in Ireland. Bord Failte has morphed into Failte Ireland, but this body seems to have divested itself of all responsibility for rural tourism policy in Ireland and has allowed a proliferation of small organisations to look after tourism interests. Failte Ireland seems content to bask in the reflected glory of the achievements of the budget airlines; rumours that they also count our Polish and Latvian colleagues surely can't be true?

So, has this fragmentation worked? Of course not; it appears that nobody is in charge anymore, and the smaller bodies appear generally ineffective except in the matter of drawing down a few grants for "tourism development". The scattering of expertise, as well as rivalry between counties and regions, means that it is impossible to have a workable national policy on any tourism issues, except maybe something like accommodation standards. The latter is no longer an issue really, since the hotel industry knows that standards have to be upheld in order to stay in business, so what exactly does Failte Ireland and all the little Failtes do?

Readers of the Journal will know that I have a vested interest here, but I make no apologies for this. As somebody with an interest in walking tourism - I like to walk long distances in Ireland and elsewhere - I have come to the gradual realisation that the Failtes are making a hames of it. In fact scratch that, a hames was a useful part of a donkey's tackling for the readers who can remember such things.

Donkeys would surely have tackled the job of promoting walking tourism a lot better than the Failtes. In recent times I walked across Ireland from Dublin to Newport in Mayo; anyone who read my recent book, Following in the Footsteps of the Four Famous Flannerys, will know all about this trip. Among other things, I wanted to see if there was a viable alternative to trespassing on private land for a long distance walker who wanted to do a coast-to-coast walk in Ireland. I mapped out a pleasant route, first following the Royal Canal Way to Termonbarry, then following back roads and quiet lanes to the coast. The route makes a great trip for any walking tourist; indeed the Dublin Simon Community were so taken with it that they intend to hold a sponsored fundraising walk along the route in September, keeping walkers in Ireland and spending tourist euros at home. Just the kind of thing that the Falites should be promoting, or so I thought.

Wrong! "We don't support long-distance walks" said the official in Failte Ireland. "Our policy is to support circular walks". In other words, despite the fact that strong demand exists internationally for long distance walking, we prefer to send the tourists to England, or Spain, or America, or anywhere else that promotes long-distance routes. I had called Failte Ireland to offer to waymark the route, for free, if they paid for the marker posts. Along with one of my walking friends, I had offered to create a challenge walk at almost no cost to the taxpayer; we were prepared to spend a couple of weeks of our own time marking out this route for others. "I'm sorry, we only support circular walks" was the mantra that was repeated to me several times before I abandoned the idea.

I tried the little Failtes too. Westmeath tourism had a nice website, but nowhere on it could I find a mention of the Royal Canal which passes through the county and which shaped its development; several months after I pointed this out to them, I haven't even had a reply. Longford Tourism had information that was six years out of date and which essentially told walkers that the Royal Canal Way was only partly open (not true). Again, despite correspondence, they have done nothing to rectify this at time of writing. Other bodies have also failed to respond to my offers to encourage visitors to their areas - once you don't come bearing grants it seems, they have no interest.

It's all about parochialism and blinkered vision (excuse the reference again to the donkey's tackling). Local tourism interests want visitors to come to their small towns and regions and stay there for the duration of their holidays. The reality with many walkers though is that they only want to stay for a night or two and then carry on to the next small place. What the Failtes can't seem to get into their heads is that if you establish a viable long-distance walking industry, it no longer matters if your captive walker only stays for one night, he or she will be replaced by another one the following evening. Simple concept, but beyond the comprehension of the big and small Failtes.

Walking tourism doesn't have to be alien to rural interests either. Good way marked ways don't have to cross private land, or if they do it can be by arrangement and by license for short distances. People who enjoy the challenge of long-distance walking will stick to a route and don't usually wander. In addition, I have seen the benefit to local farming interests of such trails in other countries; having a long-distance route pass your farm gate is a valuable opportunity which almost forces money into your pocket. Walkers are a cash crop; they have to eat, drink, and sleep, and if they pass your door it would be foolish not to take a few euros off them for these services.

Will it get better? First it will get worse. I saw recent reports of another small Failte being set up, this time in Clare; more inter-county competition for the rare species known as the circular walker, and more reasons for the long-distance walkers to go where they are made to feel wanted. Ah well, sure we don't really need these tourists, isn't this the Celtic Tiger. Let's hope it keeps up!