Barring an unforeseen calamity in the world, 2018 should be another boom year for tourism in Ireland, following last year’s record 10.6m visitors.
However, with some of our more popular destinations being chronically overcrowded in peak season, serious questions have to be asked about how tourism is managed here. Is it all about numbers and are we going down the road of mass tourism?
Natural scenery is one of the main reasons tourists come to this country, surveys regularly show. However, there’s glaring evidence of damage to our beautiful, wild environment because of overuse for hillwalking and other recreational activities. Scarred landscapes reflect a lack of protection for mountains and uplands. And need we mention illegal burning! Traffic congestion is another critical issue and, at this stage, is turning people away from places such as Glendalough, in Co Wicklow, and the Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare.
Tourist magnets such as Killarney, Blarney, and Dingle are congested in the summer. This also makes it awkward for locals as they get on with their everyday lives.
A Dingle tourism operator told me recently he counted 50 buses, each with a capacity to carry 50 people, parked in the town at lunchtime one day last summer. That’s 2,500 people, considerably more than Dingle’s permanent population. The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience, which now welcomes 1.5m tourists, has introduced special rates for visitors in off-peak times to ease crowd pressures between 11am and 4pm each day.
A pilot project is underway in Kerry to devise a system of controlled access to the MacGillycuddy Reeks, one of our busiest mountainous areas, with 5,000 people recorded going through the main entry point to Carrantuohill in August alone.
A Friends of the Reeks group has been set up to raise funds for the repair of eroded paths. Twelve main paths have to be repaired as they are widening dangerously due to people walking on the sides and thereby causing further erosion. Some locals are being trained to repair the paths voluntarily.
Mountaineering Ireland bemoans a “virtual absence” of integrated planning for upland areas at national and local level covering all aspects of land-use, including recreation. Poor legal protection for wild and scenic landscapes has resulted in an over- reliance on nature conservation designations to protect upland areas, with nature then being portrayed negatively as a restriction on development,’’ it says.
There is a failure to protect areas set aside for nature conservation, including EU-designated areas. All such areas require legal protection, management plans and resources to implement those plans.
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