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Sustainability Series: Ireland's Loop Head Provides Best-Case Study in Destination Management

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As part of the Sustainability Series in Travel, Euromonitor International spoke to Cillian Murphy, Chairman of Loop Head Tourism, to find out more about sustainability and its growing importance to destination management. In this opinion on Loop Head, we speak about using the existing natural and social environment to benefit the local tourism industry.

Loop Head Tourism, positioned on the western tip of County Clare in Ireland, won gold at the prestigious 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards for Heritage and Cultural Attraction last November. It was the only Irish destination listed in the global sustainable top 100 destinations. Considering the international nature and intense competition for the award, it represents a significant achievement. It can be easy for an area rich in natural and historic wonders to flutter its eyes to lure in lucrative tourism numbers. Loop Head has managed to resist such temptations, which, if mishandled, risk becoming the bane of other small communities lining this breath-taking 2,500-mile coastline.

Loop Head

Source: Carsten Krieger

Ireland's 'Wild Atlantic Way': Protecting for future generations

In 2015, Ireland welcomed nine million tourists, almost twice the country’s population of 4.6 million. Inbound numbers grew at a rate far exceeding previous official estimations, up by 13% on 2014. Its principal source markets are the UK, Central Europe and the US. A huge portion of these are drawn to famous attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher, which received 1.25 million visitors in 2015, an increase of 16% on the previous year. The ‘Wild Atlantic Way’, which encompasses the Cliffs of Moher, lives up to its name in terms of being wild and unspoilt, and represents a great case study into sustainability.

Loop Head’s Cillian Murphy is a shrewd businessman with an eye on the long-term picture. The strategic aim of Loop Head’s community-based Sustainable Tourism Network is to attract tourists with an interest in immersing themselves fully into the local community. Accordingly, the fact that the infrastructure that transports these tourists to Loop Head is anything but world class is seen, ironically, as an advantage. It is this type of raw wildness that attracted growth in visitors exceeding 20% to Loop Head in 2015, during both peak and shoulder months.

The economic benefit to an effective sustainability strategy is simple: those who are not simply passing through are seen as more valuable visitors. Arguments presented by Mr Murphy allude to the example of busloads of tourists, who are as useful economically to an area such as Loop Head as a cruise ship is to a port city; they come, they walk around, they take pictures and then depart. Comparatively, little is spent on local accommodation and the same generally applies to other local services such as food. Therefore, preservation of the area itself takes precedence over any plans to alter it in order to, for example, facilitate access by upgrading roads or otherwise. This also allows the area to preserve its original ‘organic’ appeal to tourists seeking to bathe in authenticity, and, while doing so, spend money in local businesses.

Embracing short-term rentals may be crucial to sustaining overnight tourism

Operators within Loop Head are eager to show to the world the area’s traditional nature, and are switched on in terms of online booking trends. This is facilitated by a strategy geared towards mobile devices. It is estimated that 60% of Loop Head’s bookings are made online. An interesting feature here is the potential for a very happy marriage between both the online and natural worlds in terms of peer-to-peer accommodation booked online.

The west of Ireland is an area that has suffered from emigration for decades. Even during periods when Ireland grew economically, it was considered that the west was treated more to investment ebbs than to flows. The area was particularly hard hit following the economic downturn in 2008, and this drove emigration to a heart-breaking level for tens of thousands of local families, some even comparing the disappearance of so much of its youth to images of small villages in rural Britain with poignant World War I memorials.

There are a lot of empty rooms in a many lonely dwellings and this may represent an attractive prospect for peer-to-peer accommodation providers. It is only a small leap to today’s booming short-term rental market, which can provide an important economic contribution to each area. Both the tradition and the expertise already exist, and short-term rentals can provide opportunities for sustainable growth on Ireland’s west coast.

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