Maritime action plan to aid tourism

OUR tourism promotion bodies are scratching their collective heads to find ways of luring more visitors to our shores.

They might be rewarded should they place a bigger focus on marine wildlife tourism.

Whale and dolphin watching is becoming an ever more popular past-time along the south and west coasts, in particular. We are surrounded by some of the richest marine flora and fauna and abundant populations of a wide range of marine species, including seals, sharks, turtles and seabirds, in Europe.

Take Fungie, the dolphin that has cavorted around Dingle Harbour for almost 30 years. In a survey some years ago three-quarters of Irish people visiting Dingle and 42% of overseas people said that the dolphin was the main reason for their visit to west Kerry.

A multi-million euro industry has been built around Fungie, with up to a dozen ferries taking people to see the dolphin each season. What’s happening in Dingle, which also has eco-tours and trips to the Great Blasket — an island with colonies of seabirds — is a clear example of the huge possibilities of marine tourism.

However, the potential for such tourism is under-developed. Tourism Ireland is looking at ways of reversing a worrying downward slide in visitor numbers: we had a million less last year. Why not look more to the sea!

On-the-ball Fine Gael MEP for Munster Sean Kelly recently spoke on the issue in the European Parliament, referring to the vast tourism opportunities Ireland should seize in marine tourism.

He did not have to look outside his own constituency to highlight the wonders of the sea shore, glorious beaches, deep-sea angling in east Cork, whale watching in west Cork, surfing along the beautiful beaches of Kerry and Clare. The list is endless, and so are the possibilities.

Mr Kelly believes the Atlantic Area Strategy debated at the European Parliament should encourage greater entrepreneurship in the area of water sports and coastline activities. He would like to see more surfing competitions, marine festivals and a determined marketing campaign to attract international visitors to the region.

Tourism bodies in Ireland and the UK should regularly co-ordinate a joint maritime action plan, Mr Kelly suggested. They could then draw down funding which would allow promotion of events to exploit the neighbouring tourism markets.

The entire Irish territory falls within the proposed Atlantic Region and Mr Kelly is determined that Ireland should resultantly benefit a great deal from any forthcoming initiatives.

Why shouldn’t the marine leisure sector play a key role in Ireland’s economic recovery? Surfing is becoming a huge sport in places such as Castlegregory, Co Kerry, Lahinch, Co Clare, and several beaches in Co Donegal.

Dolphin-watching has, for long, been a pursuit in the Shannon Estuary — it’s always worth keeping an eye out for these magnificent creatures if you are crossing the Shannon on the ferry between Killimer and Tarbert.

A legacy from the Celtic Tiger era is a large number of marinas in several ports along the west coast. Well-heeled yachting tourism is especially high-yield in terms of visitor spend, according to those that benefit on-shore such as restaurants, pubs and shops.

Ireland has a lot of similarities to Scotland in terms of marine life and conditions. A number of studies have quantified the value of wildlife tourism in Scotland and identified key areas for development. The Scottish Tourism and Environment Initiative was set up to assess the economic value of marine wildlife tourism in the famed Highlands and Islands.

A survey of whale watching in west Scotland estimated close to 250,000 tourists were annually involved in whale-tourism. In remote coastal areas, whale-related tourism accounted for 12% of the area’s total tourism income.

We get an estimated 200,000 whale watchers in Ireland, but the great majority are believed to come to see Fungie (dolphins and whales are in the same category). Seal-watching in the UK attracts 500,000 people, supporting 500 jobs, around 200 of which are full-time.

Similar potential for marine wildlife tourism exists in Ireland, according to Dr Simon Berrow, a well-known marine biologist based in Kilrush, Co Clare. But, it’s an area that calls for far more research, he emphasises.

Many of the species and habitats that could be the target of marine wildlife tourism are entitled to protection under a range of national and European legislation. But, Dr Berrow, leading member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), stresses protected status does not necessarily preclude tourism.

Indeed, it can enhance the conservation of protected species when correctly managed, he points out.

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