Midlands peatlands are our ‘Amazon forests’ – tourism boss

The Midlands bogs are Ireland’s Amazon rainforests and offer huge potential for tourism growth, according to Paddy Matthews, a Mullingar resident who leads Fáilte Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands initiative.

Addressing Westmeath County Council’s monthly meeting, Mr Matthews told members that Fáilte Ireland was working on strategic policy with Bord na Mona. Foreign visitors are fascinated by our peat bogs, as many countries no longer have them.

He referred to Scragh Bog, purchased in the 1970s by a Dutch conservation group and then returned to the nation. The Corlea bog in Kenagh has been re-wet, turning the local landscape into a huge tourist attraction, Mr Matthews said.

Peatlands are part of our heritage and have an untold story, he added.

Mr Matthews was responding to Cllr Denis Leonard, who had recommended that Fáilte Ireland work with Bord na Mona to capture this unique biodiversity asset, and Cllr Hazel Smyth, who wondered what was being done to promote Westmeath as a center of ecotourism. .

Cllr Paddy Hill suggested that traditional grass cutting demonstrations would be a big attraction on the bogs – to which Mr Matthews replied that the bogs are the Amazon rainforests of Ireland and have a rich story to tell, and sustainability is an important part of it.

Mr Matthews said ‘tourism must act to regenerate tourism by working with communities and nature and this is best expressed through our approach to ecotourism’. The latter is a strongly emergent strategy for the Hidden Heartlands of Ireland. Durability is no longer an add-on, the spotlight is on it right from the start.

Cllr Tom Farrell said agritourism should be marketed in a way that everyone benefits, including the farmer. Mr Matthews said agritourism was a great opportunity to broaden sources of income and that Fáilte Ireland worked with farmers on projects.

People involved in tourism in Westmeath need to network more and market themselves to visitors, Mr Matthews advised. Hidden Heartlands brings businesses together and encourages them to network. They also worked on improving networking and upgrading company websites.

They gave 100% support to 40 companies to modernize their websites and 85% of them now offer online bookings. There has been an increase in website visits and the length of time visitors stay on the sites.

A Shannon Hidden Gems brochure was released last year and can now be found in hotels, cruisers and rental accommodation.

They are also investing in the redevelopment of the Athlone website, in collaboration with the county council. Mr Matthews said the council has been a star partner at all levels in many collaborations.

“Visiting friends and relatives” represents an important part of visitors and constitutes a strong motivation to visit this region. They may not be staying in hotels or guesthouses, but they do spend money locally and often take their guests out for meals, he said.

There are relatively fewer private tourist attractions in this area than in others, but there are plenty of local government and community owned attractions which are more attractive to visitors.

Raising awareness of Hidden Heartlands is a priority for Fáilte Ireland and the development of the network is crucial for this, noted Mr Matthews. He said they wanted to make the region one of the main regenerative tourist destinations with a strong message of sustainability.

Their five-year strategy aims to improve the range and quality of attractions on offer and to increase employment. They intend to build partnerships between the public, private and community sectors to achieve these goals.

Throughout the region, there is a new model of footbridges and greenways, which they hope to see expanded. They want visitors to stop and stay in the Midlands rather than drive through. Mr Matthews said greenways are underused and Fáilte Ireland will focus on this in association with the county council and Waterways Ireland.

Fáilte Ireland is working with Westmeath County Council on several projects including the Athlone Castle visitor experience and providing local buses to attractions such as Fore, Tullynally Castle, Belvedere House and Gardens and Castlepollard . They also backed the fleadh to Mullingar to the tune of €80,000.

Chairman Cllr Aengus O’Rourke said Athlone’s restaurants had done a great job over the past ten years and visitors now came from Galway to eat there. To survive in the hospitality industry in Athlone you need to be on top of your game, he said. He called for Fáilte Ireland to bring together all actors, international, national and local in promoting the region.

Cllr Frankie Keena has urged Fáilte Ireland to move its tourist office to Athlone, saying where it is ‘hard to get to and hard to find’.

Mr Matthews said there were no plans to move the tourist office to Athlone, but pointed out that people are now going online more for information and the tourist office is no longer the main source.

Fáilte Ireland intends to set up stand-alone information kiosks at strategic locations and tourist attractions.

Cllr Vinny McCormack observed that 39% of tourists to the area come to visit family and friends and suggested this should be capitalized on through a targeted campaign. He welcomed the announcement of the candidacy of the hill of Uisneach for UNESCO heritage. If successful, it will be “a major draw for us” and he urged Fáilte Ireland to push for it.

He asked that more be done to promote and market Hidden Heartland gems and to make them more user-friendly. “When we have visitors, we want to link them to as many attractions as possible,” he said.

Mr Matthews said Fáilte Ireland advertises overseas and targets people looking for their roots online. He welcomed the news that Uisneach is in the running for UNESCO status and assured the meeting that Fáilte Ireland is constantly working to promote these attractions.

Mullingar is the poor relation in terms of tourism, but that is slowly changing, Cllr Ken Glynn remarked. He said the greenways in this area are underdeveloped in services and facilities such as bike repair, toilets, basic amenities. Greenways are a fantastic addition and offer huge opportunities, he said.

Mr Matthews said the private sector needed to be involved in promoting greenways and Fáilte Ireland would engage with them.

Cllr Leonard suggested that Active Travel should be used to connect areas near or on greenways so that people visit towns and villages along them.

Mr Matthews said Fáilte Ireland will do all it can to help food initiatives, as food, particularly the organic sector, is now at the forefront of the industry.

Cllr Farrell praised the Mullingar and Athlone Chambers of Commerce for the work they were doing. He said Moate has Dun na Si and Kilbeggan has Locke Distillery. These attractions should be marked on the map.

He welcomed the fact that Hidden Heartlands will give the Midlands its own identity for the first time and called for a tourism fair in Westmeath.

Cllr Frank McDermott, chairman of Fore Heritage and Community Group, said he and the vice chairman, Cllr Hill, had worked tirelessly for 10 years, with considerable help from the county council.

“We had a poorly performing cafe, now we have three and a distillery, all very successful.” He and other members praised Una Darcy for the work she has done for tourism.

Cllr McDermott said he was disappointed with the Office of Public Works. “If I won the lottery I would put a roof over the abbey and make it the best visitor center in the world – it could be done, but I have to win the lottery first.”

He wished the anglers taking part in the international fishing competition on Lough Lene a safe journey and some free time.

Cllr John Dolan said Tidy Towns Committees play a major role in showcasing our towns and cities and their contribution should be recognized.

Mr Matthews agreed that the Tidy Towns groups had always been an important initiative in tourism, having been founded by Bord Fáilte in the 1950s.

The Fleadh Cheoil will provide a boost to Mullingar and help tourism figures, said Cllr Bill Collentine. He feared that tourism would be affected by the lack of accommodation and car rentals.

Mr Matthews said there are limits on the prices that can be charged and the lack of hire cars is a problem this year but hopefully that will be resolved next year.

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