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Tourism town prepares to get back on track

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NOT THE NORM Bridge Street in Westport was almost empty at the start of full lockdown back in late March but footfall and traffic is now on the increase as a lifting of restrictions is gradually leading to a resumption of activity on the iconic throughfare.  Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

Westport faces uncertainty but can still capitalise on its national profile after the ending of lockdown

Town Focus
Áine Ryan

IT may be the jewel in the tourism crown of County Mayo – the town whose river was canalised to ensure it was perfectly straight; the heritage haven that was built by Peter Browne, the 2nd Earl of Altamont in the 1780s; the tourism honeypot dubbed the ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’ by the Irish Times in 2012 – but will that be enough to bring Westport beyond the fallout from coronavirus contagion?
Well, if the planned re-illumination of the bridges on the tree-lined Mall is a symbol of hope, Westport will be alright.
After all it has survived martial law, Free State troops taking pot-shots at the statue of its one time banker, George Glendenning, the bankruptcy of it urban district council, and, let’s not forget, the Great Famine of the 1840s.
Independent councillor Christy Hyland’s decision to allocate some of his local authority funding towards the re-illumination of the bridges is to create positivity and provide impetus as we all tentatively leave lockdown.
“The bridges being lit up again will be a sign that our beautiful town is open for business. Westport is the driving force for tourism in the whole of Mayo and the time was never more urgent for Mayo County Council to promote and support Westport, not only for the town, but for the whole county’s sake,” says Hyland.
He argues that if the proper longterm government supports – local, national and EU – are not in place it will be difficult for some small businesses to re-open.
“Here in Westport there would be a knock-on effect next winter then, for example, when part-time workers in the tourism sector, often students, haven’t been able to earn money to subsidise their college expenses. Their parents will have to dig deep in their pockets, that is if they can.”
But Cllr Hyland is hopeful about the resilience of Westport businesses and cites how the town bounced back from the Celtic Tiger crash of 2008.
“It is really lucky that Westport House is in local ownership, if we had lost it, it would have been a major hit to our whole tourism industry. I’d be totally behind a festival here in the autumn, a ‘Come Back to Westport Weekend’, for natives and people who have a connection with the town,” he adds.  

Uncharted challenges
AND talking of Westport’s iconic historical house, Owen Hughes may be from the town’s most successful cross-generational business family but for the Chief Executive of Westport House, Hotel Westport and Portwest shops, he concedes ‘we are in seriously uncharted and choppy waters’.
Hughes says: “It’s going to be a very difficult and challenging period for all businesses that are dependent on tourism or local demand. Business will have to get used to operating at a much lower level of activity. This is going to be the new normal until a vaccine is found and confidence returns to the market. Things will not return to normal for Westport until we see tourism back up to the 2019 figures of ten million visitors into Ireland. It’s hard to see that happen until 2022 at the earliest and more likely 2023.”
He confirmed that like many other hotels, Hotel Westport plans to reopen under the new restrictions on July 20 as per government guidelines. Westport House will also reopen to visitors at that stage while the Portwest retail shops will reopen at the start of July.
However, the bigger challenge will come in the autumn, observes Hughes, when demand drops and it may not be viable for a lot of businesses to remain open.
Significantly, he observes: “To be honest, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Will people want to stay in hotels this summer and autumn? It’s like starting a new business.”
On a more uplifting note though, Hughes cites Westport and its Clew Bay hinterland’s quality, niche attractiveness and successful branding as an outdoor activity destination.
“This make it less dependent on overseas tourists compared to the likes of Galway or Killarney,” he says.

‘New normal’
NO matter what the natural advantages are or how innovative and progressive the business community proves to be in the coming months, the ‘new normal’ structures for behaviour and interaction will have to apply. So whether pedestrianisation is introduced, or al fresco café and restaurant dining is facilitated, it will no longer be just the weather forecast that poses problems. Just think for a moment about policing social distancing on Bridge Street on a Saturday night in July!
But isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? How to regenerate the footfall – whether that is families, groups of hens and stags or older age action groups – is a more fundamental challenge.    
Unsurprisingly, realistic strategies that are properly funded and implemented is key to how Destination Westport sees the roadmap out of lockdown. The tourism umbrella group is spending some €40,000 on a multi-faceted website upgrade and marketing campaign to highlight Westport’s attractiveness for visitors.  
That is according to its Chairperson, Ciara Joyce, from the Westport Hotel Group, who explains that the development of a new website, featuring the best immersive marketing technology coupled with a national radio campaign highlighting Westport’s ‘unique selling points’ is a basic step.    
“[The campaign] will centre around some key messages focusing on the great outdoors, visiting our beautiful blue flag beaches and experiencing the miles and miles of cycling greenway on our doorstep,” says Joyce.
This will be further complemented by a print and social media campaign with the brand #LoveWestport.
“Our social media campaign #LoveWestport is very strong and in April alone generated over half a million impressions across our social media channels. We encourage everyone in Westport to tag @destinationwestport and use #LoveWestport in their social media posts so we can share our incredible scenery with the rest of Ireland,” says Joyce.

Home market
SHE told The Mayo News there were good signs that the home market would be ‘very strong’ from August and would continue well into September and October.
Westport’s reliance on the older age market for the winter has been well established and has proven very successful in keeping hotels ticking over for the winter months. Each Sunday from October to March the train from Dublin disgorges large groups of older people who come on well-honed package holidays involving tours to Achill and Belmullet, Kylemore Abbey and Ballintubber Abbey, Bridge tournaments and quizzes, spa pampering days and local shopping.
Ciara Joyce expands on this: “Much of the business that comes into Westport in the winter season is the Golden Years Active Age market. As this market is quite uncertain at the moment, we will need to look at innovative ways to attract other sectors. We will be working very hard to promote value breaks and short midweek breaks to tide us over the late autumn and winter period and we are hopeful demand will be strong enough.”
While the weather gods have been good to Westport since the lockdown demanded the closure of shutters and the contagion from Covid-19 has left some businesses on a cliff edge, the gurgling waters of the Carrowbeg river are still dancing polkas and reels as they head out the bay and there is always a rainbow somewhere on its horizon, even when the worst storms are brewing.