Insurance is suffocating rural tourism

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Twenty-five years ago, I remember standing wide-eyed in a crowd of thousands near the Cathedral in Ballina, watching Jack Charlton officially open Ballina Salmon Festival. It was a glorious day and the crowds milled around the bridges to watch the day’s festivities on the River Moy.
Back in those days, anything went. Watersports and raft races were de riguer. The greasy pole competition saw the more adventurous citizens of the town seek in vain to keep their balance and avoid the murky Moy waters. Little thought was given to health and safety.
That innocence now feels distant, compared to the restrictive bureaucracy that dictates festival programming today.
Sadly, gone is the sense of anything-is-possible, madder-the-better creativity surrounding such events. In contrast, today, when an idea is mooted, the first thought now turns towards insurance.
Last week, I read with sadness and not a little anger a Facebook post by the organiser of Strandman, a middle-distance triathlon event due to take place in June near Crossmolina. Modest in scope, but ambitious in outlook, the event was a one-of-a-kind for the region. A challenging route comprising a 1km swim in Lough Conn, a 99km bike ride and 21km run, limited to 50 spaces.
A key motivation in developing Strandman was to create an event that would attract people to an area of north Mayo, not known as a tourism honeypot, to deliver an excellent experience to participants, that would grow in time to benefit the local economy. Unfortunately, due to difficulty in procuring insurance cover, and prohibitive costs, the event had to be cancelled.
A mammoth amount of work went into the organisation of Strandman; sourcing sponsorship, organising event logistics, toilets, food stops, emergency assistance, paying for chip timing, liaising with the Gardaí, recruiting stewards. For nothing.
At least, that’s the way it seemed during a horribly harrowing few days for the organisers, before they were able to come up with an insurance solution, just in the nick of time.
The Executive Director of the Association of Irish Festivals and Events (AOIFE), Colm Crotty recently warned that insurance hikes and other increasing costs are threatening the survival of smaller Irish festivals and events, with 12 members so far this year already closing because of these.
Crotty cited rising premiums and excesses, as well as the limitations, exclusions and restrictions on insurance policies as ‘onerous’. The cost of public indemnities is also a factor, pushing up premium costs. Certain activities are now prohibitively expensive to insure, or uninsurable. Hikes year on year of up to 20 percent, without explanation, place additional pressure on volunteers and sponsors.  
As a volunteer on a mid-sized regional festival committee, I know that insurance determines everything. Can we do it? Can we insure it? In an era where high-street chains with lofty head offices are replacing local businesses in rural towns, where do we find the money? Rather than focusing on developing ideas and nurturing the creativity that has so long been a characteristic of Irish festivals, now imagination, ambition and enthusiasm is stifled in the first instance by this barrier.
Look too at the cost of motor insurance premiums, hoovering money – badly needed in our local economies – out of pockets the country over. And of course, the fear of litigation that hangs over landowners regarding land access rights.
Of course, these issues stem from somewhere and a litigation culture doesn’t help. The level of pay-outs for whiplash, for example, is three times higher in Ireland than that in the UK. Is it any wonder premiums are soaring? In 2016, a hillwalker in Wicklow was awarded €40,000 in damages for tripping on a boardwalk. Mercifully, the award was overturned in the High Court, but such stories do not inspire confidence.
In Scotland, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allowed members of the public the ‘right to roam’ on most land and inland water for recreational purposes. Landowners still have a duty of care, but walkers have an obligation to act responsibly. While not without its issues, is it a model that could be replicated here?
Across the board, insurance issues need to be tackled as a matter of urgency. Imaginative events like Strandman, land access and affordable transport are vital cogs in our rural tourism offering; one of few means of building a sustainable future in rural communities. But if imagination and ambition for such events are being stifled at the outset, what hope do we have?

The Strandman triathlon is scheduled to take place this Sunday, June 24. For more details, find Strandman on Facebook.