Adventure tourism is the way to go

Donal Hickey looks at mountain biking in Ireland

WE are regularly told Ireland is an ideal location for outdoor activities and adventure tourism is a phenomenon we will be hearing a lot more about in the coming years.

Demand from this type of tourist is growing and the 81 adventure centres in the country meet some of it. But research shows that much more needs be done to provide facilities for people that enjoy active pursuits in the great outdoors.

In its recent tourism strategy report, Fáilte Ireland pointed to a big market opportunity in ‘soft adventure’ tourism. Included in that category is mountain biking, which has already established itself as a strong niche activity in Wales, Scotland, the US and Canada.

At present, many Irish mountain bikers travel abroad for their sport, but the scope is also there to attract overseas riders to Ireland, especially in areas close to ports and airports. Mountain biking is a new tourism activity and trails being developed should provide the necessary facilities and attract more enthusiasts.

The first centre in Ireland is open at Ballinastoe, in Co Wicklow, with a second nearing completion in the Ballyhoura area of north Cork and east Limerick. The Ballyhoura Park will provide over 80km of trail, with car parking and other facilities. In both cases, the centres have been built on Coillte land, with support from national and EU funds.

A downhill park in west Wicklow has also received funding, while further centres are at the planning stage in Sligo and Kerry. West Cork also has potential, given its proximity to Cork Airport and the Port of Cork.

Ben Marchant, who is studying for his doctorate at the School of Hospitality Management and Tourism, Dublin City University, has researched the potential of mountain biking in Ireland and is convinced it can become a valuable part of the tourism product.

By definition, it’s an activity confined to rural areas and could benefit, for instance, the struggling B&B sector. Participants often travel long journeys to find suitable centres for their sport and tend to stay for a number of days.

The Coed y Brenin bike park was the first to be developed in Wales and visitor numbers have jumped by 14,000, in 1994, to well over 200,000, at present. More than 60% of the park’s users stay overnight in local accommodation and visits average two days.

People in the outdoors work up hearty appetites and locally-grown foodstuffs, as well as beef and lamb from adjacent farms, are among the off-trail attractions of biking in the Welsh countryside.

Welsh and Scottish B&Bs also do well in the packed lunch trade, with more than two-thirds of biking guests looking for it.

Southern Scotland boasts a seven-strong group of mountain bike centres developed by the Forestry Commission and Scottish tourism bodies, with EU funding. Glentress is the main centre, more than 30km from Edinburgh city. A new £4 million centre is being built at Glentress, as current facilities cannot meet demand.

According to Mr Marchant, Scottish mountain biking is undergoing a boom and is featured on Visit Scotland advertisements. There are 22 centres in Scotland on public and private land.

The Nevis Range facility was developed as a ski resort in 1989, but, due to declining numbers, later added mountain biking to its programmes. By adapting ski lifts to take bikes and developing a downhill course, Nevis is the UK’s top downhill venue.

Last year, Nevis hosted the world mountain bike championships, which attracted upwards of 40,000 spectators, generating £2 million in spending. In Ireland, 73% of mountain bikers ride more than once a week, with the average spend on equipment being €2,000 per year.

The average age of mountain bikers is 26-30, with 34% over the age of 36 years, indicating a higher disposable income. This finding is borne out by market research in the UK which found bikers to be “relatively affluent, young to middle age professional people and college students”.

Mr Marchant, speaking at a recent tourism conference at the Institute of Technology, in Tralee, said accommodation was a high priority for Irish bikers. Around 75% take overnight trips and the average length of stay is almost five nights, with nearly a quarter staying for a week.

“Mountain bike tourism represents one of the activities with potential to increase tourist numbers to this country,” he said.

The Ballyhoura trail offered potential for cafes, bike rental and servicing and a visitor centre, he maintained, while the network of B&Bs and self-catering houses would provide accommodation for the trail users, he went on.

And, the development of trails should attract extra business in places such as Killarney and Tralee, which have a well-established accommodation pool.


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