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More resources needed for countywide tourism

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It was with great interest that I read the main editorial in last week’s Mayo News, entitled ‘Mayo’s beauty is worth bragging about’.  In the interests of full transparency, my opinion on this is entirely biased by my experience in my day job. I am paid to promote north Mayo as a visitor destination; to raise the profile of the area, to encourage people to consider it as a destination to visit. Four years after moving back to Mayo after nearly two decades, while it is not easy, I can say with certainty it is as close to a dream job as I will ever have while working for someone else.
Much of last week’s editorial rang true with me; we as natives of the county are absolutely not as familiar with it as we could or should be, due in no small part to its vastness. I would also agree that we continue to be far too reticent and lacking in confidence when it comes to promoting our county and understanding what we have on our own doorsteps. Westport, of course has been the exception; a professional and co-ordinated approach from volunteers right up to large businesses has resulted in the development and enviable profile for the town and is a blueprint many of us have learned from.
It used to be a running joke in Ballina that if you met a tourist on the street looking for information, eight out of ten locals would point them in the direction of the road to Westport. Understandably, when a destination is synonymous with tourism, and delivers so well, it’s a safe bet.
However, on a professional level I am grateful that here, there now there appears to be a much greater awareness of the gems on our own doorstep. Now, we encourage people to spend at least an extra day in north Mayo before visiting Westport – that way everyone’s a winner!
So local education and engagement is a huge part of the groundwork that destination marketing offices like ours do. But there is a bigger picture.
North Mayo, including Ballina, for so many years was underfunded, and lacked investment in tourism, particularly capital investment, but also in marketing and promotion. The latter is important, and private enterprise needs to work within networks, but rural and peripheral areas like ours also need more meaningful investment in community development, capacity-building and education, and in people who will deliver projects post-recession, volunteers have stepped up yet again, but they need help.
Working with festival committees in north Mayo, which are fantastic at delivering events, it is evident that help is needed given the increasing administrative burden. Many of these committees need to structure themselves, build business plans, promote themselves, access funding and attract new volunteers with new skill sets, particularly in digital.
Small tourism businesses are in many cases overwhelmed; they need more meaningful and tailored enterprise support at their level. Help is needed to facilitate networks of tourism businesses that can take a co-ordinated approach at a macro, but more so at a micro level to working together and benefitting from economies of scale.
And as destination marketing groups within the county, we definitely need to stop being insular and reach out to each other, and develop packages that aim to keep visitors in the county for longer, something that could be facilitated by Mayo County Council’s tourism department. There is a huge amount of work to be done. We just need more people to do it.
Ample funding is now available, and indeed Minister Ring’s department has been unquestionably generous when allocating funding throughout rural Ireland. The issue is sometimes accessing that funding and actually delivering projects. Here in north Mayo, we have identified a huge number of initiatives that we could be progressing. The appetite is huge, but the problem is capacity and people power. We simply need more people working in development; people who will drive and progress these plans, write the funding applications, assist voluntary groups to deliver their own projects.
Unfortunately, there is currently no way to fund positions like this, which are in themselves not revenue-generating but will deliver multiples in value back to their communities, particularly in tourism. I hope an investment in people in this way will be considered in the near future; it is something from which a county like ours cannot fail to benefit.