'We've one chance to get tourism masterplan for Glendalough right'

'Wicklow is a preferred location for day trips, but there's an opportunity to encourage tourists to stay and spend more'

Concerns: Cllr Shay Cullen

Eimear Dodd at Wicklow County Council meeting in NewtownmountkennedyWicklow People

Councillors have warned there is 'one chance' to create an appropriate tourism masterplan for the 'iconic' Glendalough.

Members of Wicklow County Council received an update on the progress of the €500,000 plan being developed by consultants on behalf of Failte Ireland during their December meeting. Representatives from Consarc Consultants, who are leading the development of the plan, and others from the taskforce outlined some of the work completed on the project to date, which aims to create a plan to respond to an expected growth in tourists visiting the area.

While councillors welcomed the development of a tourism plan, concerns were raised about the level of engagement so far between the consultants and local communities.

Dawson Stelfox of Consarc Consultants opened the Zoom presentation, giving councillors a broad outline of the project, and its six months timeframe, which had been extended due to Covid-19.

The plan would aim to enhance the experience for visitors to Glendalough and the Garden County. A proposal was being developed to encourage visitors to go to other parts of the county, creating 'slow and sustainable' tourism. While some consultation had taken place, community engagement had been delayed due to Covid-19. Sessions may be held online or in Blessington, Arklow and Laragh.

Sarah Steer of Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI) then outlined the analysis carried to date about the experience of visitors to the county. According to the analysis, Wicklow relies heavily on domestic tourists, while the county is less well-known to international travellers. The county is a preferred location for day trips, but there is an opportunity to persuade tourists to 'stay longer and spend more', she said.

In relation to Glendalough, Ms Steer suggested the data shows increasing visitor numbers with traffic volumes and congestion were pressure on local communities. This meant the quality of the visitor's time in Glendalough was becoming poorer.

People and visitor counters recorded a total of 510,040 visitors to Glendalough via the Lower Green Road in 2019, up from 489,942 in 2018. However, the data recorded an uneven spread of visitors to the area with the Derrybawn area receiving only 26,253 visitors in 2019.

Ms Steer cautioned that there were questions about the reliability of the equipment used to record visitor numbers. She recommended investing in equipment to improve the accuracy of data collected.

The 'iconic' nature of Glendalough meant it would be difficult to persuade tourists not to visit the site. However, she highlighted people were looking to enjoy time outdoors in nature while family friendly activities and high quality facilities could help to attract both domestic and international tourists.

Ms Steer finished by noting the impact of Covid-19 on tourism. However, she suggested tourism would recover over time. Increasing number of visitors to Glendalough and local people taking part in outdoor activities could create further capacity issues at Glendalough within five years.

Andrew Haley of The Paul Hogarth Company (TPHC) described areas of the county in terms of the type of experiences they could offer to visitors, arguing that each should 'play to its strengths'. Blessington and its surrounds had a variety of family friendly attractions while Baltinglass had unique heritage. The south-west of the county, including Tinahely and Shillelagh, was a destination for food and gentle walking trails while the east of the county was a hotspot for coastal experiences. North Wicklow offered many outdoor recreation spaces.

The heart of the county was the 'monastic experience' at Glendalough, which could be used to encourage people to visit nearby areas such as Rathdrum and the Wicklow Uplands.

Mr Haley also about the unique quality of Glendalough's monastic heritage. He suggested improved facilities including a new visitor centre, improved car parking and enhanced transport links, would add to visitors' experience and offer economic benefits to the neighbouring villages.

Caro-Lynne Ferris, ORNI, updated councillors on the strategies to enhance tourism around the county including the 'dispersal' of visitors to other outdoor recreation sites by increased promotion of the county's less well-known attractions, improving outdoor recreation spaces and transport links. Another strategy was to improve the sustainability of existing popular sites such as Djouce Mountain and Big Sugarloaf maintaining these areas. She also suggested upgrades to visitor facilities, car parking and addressing the issue of crime.

Andrew Todd, Tandem, outlined the historical significance of Glendalough, and argued visitors had the 'opportunity to touch the past while in the present'.

Mr Stelfox drew the presentation to a close and told councillors that the process was in its early stages. He said he would welcome any feedback and the consultants planned to engage with local communities in the coming months.

Cllr Shay Cullen (FG) welcomed the proposal from Failte Ireland to invest in Glendalough, however, he said he had concerns about the potential outcome. He called for extensive public consultation with neighbouring communities about the plans. This call was also made by several councillors who spoke during the discussion.

Cllr Cullen noted that he and Cllr Pat Kennedy (FF) had been part of a previous steering committee, which he hoped would be resurrected.

Cllr John Mullen (FF) expressed reservations about the division of the county into the types of tourist experiences available. He argued Wicklow should not be compartmentalised and pointed out that significant investment in outdoor activities had been made in the Tinahely area. He argued for a 'more holistic approach' to tourism in Wicklow.

Cllr Gerry Walsh (FF) noted the lack of accommodation options for visitors staying in the county. While the county was well-served with luxury hotels, Cllr Walsh argue more budget options were needed.

Responding to councillors' concerns, Mr Stelfox said the team had not made any conclusions yet. The project's aims were to 'encourage people to come and stay longer' in Wicklow and 'to help them appreciate all there is on offer'. Further public consultations were planned, but had been 'tricky' during Covid-19.

Cllr Melanie Corrigan (FG) highlighted the need for investment to reduce car congestion in other parts of the county. Pointing to the popularity of Knocksink Woods, Cllr Corrigan said there was no walking trail between County Dublin and Enniskerry, that might encourage people to 'walk and spend money in the area'.

Cllr Peir Leonard (Ind) spoke of the potential created by Brexit to attract maritime visitors.

Cllr Patsy Glennon (FF) noted a high volume of traffic for Glendalough comes through Hollywood village and it should be treated the same as Laragh, Rathdrum and Roundwood.

Cllr Tom Fortune (Ind) expressed a hope the final report would answer questions about the need for improved infrastructure and visitor accommodation.

Cllr Irene Winters (FG) pointed to the seasonal nature of visits to Glendalough, questioning if this would be accurately captured by a consultation in January. She expressed concerns that councillors had received updates from the taskforce until the meeting.

Cllr Gail Dunne (FF) said that the area's public representatives had come to the meeting 'knowing nothing about what's going on' with the process.

'While Covid-19 made public consultations challenging, he argued for greater engagement with local communities and their representatives.

'We represent the area and we need to know what is going on,' he added.

Cllr Mary Kavanagh (Ind) argued for minimum development at Glendalough to preserve the 'restorative quality of the area and its walking trails'.

She urged the taskforce to consider the needs of regular visitors and not to focus solely on 'visitors who come once to take a photo'.

She backed calls for deeper engagement with the local community, adding that 'we have one chance to get this right'.

Cllr Grace McManus (SF) asked accessibility and inclusion are considered as part of the tourism plan.

Cllr John Snell (Ind) argued the tourism plans should be an item on the agenda of every municipal district.

Cllr Kennedy expressed disappointment at the process for developing the tourism plan. He also had concerns about the approach being taken and local businesspeople had been in contact with him about their worries.

Cllr Kennedy said there were 'questions to be answered' about why consultations had taken place with state agencies, but there had been little to no engagement with the local community. Traffic congestion affected the area for only 50 days each year. Cllr Kennedy noted a proposal for a car park and asked if the land owner was aware or 'will they read about it in the paper next week?'.

Cllr Kennedy called for local businesses and the community to included on the steering committee and 'given a seat at the table'.

Mr Stelfox said the project had not yet reached a conclusion. He noted that the make up of the steering group was a matter for Failte Ireland, but he said everyone involved in the process recognised the need for further discussions with the local community. Plans were being put in place for public consultations in the new year.

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