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Glory days

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Bringing back those glory days

Tourism in Achill has suffered in recent times and the community is facing tough decisions on how best it can be revived

News Feature
Anton McNulty

ONCE upon a time, Achill Island was the mecca of Mayo tourism with thousands of people descending on the island every year to enjoy a range of activities from fishing to walking, swimming to dancing. The rich and not-so-rich would cross the bridge at Achill Sound, mingle with the locals and leave their worries behind for a week or two before heading back to the hustle and bustle of their daily routine.
However, those glory years of tourism on the island are a fading memory and the last two decades have been difficult for locals trying to make a living out of tourism. The B&Bs and guesthouses are struggling to keep their doors open and hotels such as the Atlantic, Wavecrest and Slievemore closed for business some years ago and have not been replaced.
While the island is not exactly empty during the summer months – for many involved in the business – a busy August Bank Holiday weekend is a must to save their summer. Many reasons have been given for the fall in numbers coming to Achill, but the common perception for Achill’s decline is that it simply took its eye off the ball and did not change to cater for the needs of the modern tourist.
The job of restoring Achill as a top holiday destination has fallen to Achill Tourism, who have through the years been on the receiving end of criticism from people on the island. Kenneth Deery has been the chairman of Achill Tourism for the past year and feels it is time those involved in, or connected to, the tourism industry on the island put the blame game in the past and started to work together for the good of the island.
“There is a disconnect between certain businesses in certain parts of the community. Achill has always suffered from the problem of ‘if something is going to the bottom half of the island, it’s a slight in some shape or form on the top half of the island’. Instead of being happy that it was good for the island, the row would take place about why it wasn’t happening in ‘our village’. That disconnect, from the point of view of outsiders looking in – be it investors or agencies – would have put people off because doing business in Achill can be frustrating when communities and groups of businesses don’t work together,” he explains.
Despite that traditional divide on the island, Mr Deery feels that in the last couple of years the community and businesses have started to work more closely together rather than be in competition. However, he adds that Achill will also have to work with traditional rivals like Westport, rather than pulling against them, to ensure that people travel to the west of Ireland and not elsewhere.
“What we in the west of Ireland have to get out of our mind is that Westport and Clifden are not our competition. Americans who were happy to fly into Shannon for two weeks are now going to places like Dubrovnik and north Africa because of price and the weather. The competition is not just up and down the road and we now all have a responsibility to work together. People complain about Westport but the onus falls back on businesses from Achill to have a high-quality business to draw people here and give them a choice to stay in Achill.”
This year the Achill half-marathon was largely organised by Achill Tourism and its success has given the organisation a boost in terms of attracting similar events to the island. The local tourist season is usually limited to eight weeks in the year and the need to extend that season is of paramount importance to Achill Tourism. However, Mr Deery feels that changes have to be made for that to happen.
“If Achill continues in the direction it was going – in the sense of saying the tourist will come because they have always come – then you will be looking at an island that will continue to go into serious decline. We have no choice but to rise to the challenge and find some angle on a market. We need to be able to develop a number of anchor events like the marathon that bring people to the island. It brings the runners down and they bring some family and friends with them. They all need accommodation and the majority of them stay and make a weekend out of the event. We have noticed that a number of people are coming back to Achill on repeat business who had never been here before the marathon.
“We now have funding from Údarás na Gaeltachta to develop a Seafood Festival with a view to slotting it in to July next year as a follow-on from the marathon. Next year’s marathon will be on July 4 and we are looking to build in more to the marathon so there will be an extension from the marathon through to Scoil Acla and a Seafood Festival mixed in. We are moving from a weekend of activities at the end of the month to a month of activities.”
Achill can be jewel of adventure
ONE of Fáilte Ireland West’s main strategies for developing tourism in Mayo is to make it the playground of the west for adventure. Unable to rely on weeks of uninterrupted sunshine to attract the visitors, Achill Tourism feel they could become the jewel in the crown of outdoor activity on the island. Mr Deery feels that Achill should look further afield than to its neighbours along the western seaboard to put together a model to make the island a hub of outdoor activity.
“We have in one area encapsulated what it is Ireland West is trying to do over a whole region. The outdoor market is a huge group; we have no option but to target it and we need to look bigger than our neighbours up and down the west coast. It might sound off the wall, but if you look at Queenstown in New Zealand, it is deemed to be the outdoor hub of the southern hemisphere. Outdoor enthusiasts travel there from places like London and there is no reason why, given a three- to five-year strategy, Achill could not be attracting people flying from London into Knock for a weekend of intensive outdoor activities.”
Improvements needed to bring Achill to next level
HELEN Applegarth took over as Manager of Achill Tourism earlier this year having left the hustle and bustle of London for the land of her mother. She admits that the job has been a challenge but is encouraged by the enthusiasm of the local people in coming up with new ideas and developing projects.
She says there are a lot of improvements to be made but there are also small things that can be done easily, like providing picnic tables and providing signposts to help walkers. She also feels that services should be provided beyond the traditional season months of July and August and sees events like the Achill half-marathon as a way of bringing extra people to the island.
“There are improvements we can make and we have to bring ourselves to the next level. We have to improve the infrastructure for our members and that includes improving the technology. We have people ringing us looking for accommodation when you should be able to look at the website and be able to see what accommodation is available.
“We also have to promote outdoor tourism in line with what Fáilte Ireland West want to achieve. The Achill half-marathon is a perfect example and we would like to work with other organisations to stage cycle races and triathlons, which would bring people to the island. The marathon has grown year on year and people can’t wait to come back.”
Time to put product into a package
IN HIS student days, Belfast native Gerry Brannigan would come to Achill in the summer time and work as a lifeguard on the beaches. He has since settled in Achill with his family and operates a clothing business called Blackfield, and also has a coffee and dessert house, surf shop, surfboard hire and bicycle hire business.
He explains that, while Achill Island is a well-known tourist destination, there are still people who do not know where it is and still think you have get a boat to get to it. As an outdoor enthusiast, he feels there is no place in Ireland like Achill where all the activities can take place in one area, but feels the infrastructure is not in place to make the most of those resources. He adds that to make the most of what Achill has to offer, the tourism boards have to package and sell Achill as a product.
“Achill needs to be packaged as a product so tourists coming to the island will know what is happening in the morning, afternoon and evening, and they will have a choice of what to do. In skiing packages, they know what there is to do during the day and at night. Here you have to do things by yourself and there is no coherency between activities. We need to bring people and show them how the day can pan out and to do that businesses must work together,” he says.