Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Mon March 30 2015

Blazing Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Destination & Tourism | James Ruggia | March 30, 2015

Blazing Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Photo courtesy of Vagabond Ireland's Facebook page

When the UNWTO’s Silk Road Forum at the Berlin ITB sought an expert on destination branding for a route rather than a specific locale, they found the ideal speaker in Ethna Murphy, a tourism development specialist with her own consulting firm. Murphy was an important contributor to the wildly successful Wild Atlantic Way promotion that Tourism Ireland made the main pillar of its 2014 campaign. The Wild Atlantic Way helped Ireland set a second consecutive record out of the U.S. market with about 1.2 million U.S. visitors (+13 percent), which surpassed 2013, a year that also set a record under the banner of The Gathering, a call out to the Irish Diaspora around the world.

According to Murphy, tourism took on a special relevance in Ireland in the aftermath of the collapsed “Celtic Tiger,” when the Irish economy roared between 2007 and 2009. The numbers of visiting Americans also plummeted between 2008 and 2010 due to the U.S. economic collapse, when the banks failed. The combination of economic woes in the U.S. and Ireland made the Irish reassess the value of tourism.

“We had taken tourism for granted and when the economy declined we suffered a decrease in international air access and the Western Counties, which had become reliant on domestic tourism, saw that market decline with the economy,” said Murphy. “We realized that Western Ireland needed to find a way to more effectively attract international visitors.”

The Wild Atlantic Way was just what the doctor ordered. Now as established in Ireland as the Romantic Road is in Germany, the 1,500-mile route relishes in its off-path meanderings along Ireland's riotous western coast from County Donegal’s Malin Head to Cork’s Kinsale, crossing nine counties. It’s now the longest fully-signposted driving route in the world. One of the beauties of it conceptually is that it unites Northern and Southern Ireland culturally as a unified experience, despite the political division.

Tourism Ireland has a real confidence that the footloose traveler in Ireland is going to find intangible richness in the interactions with the Irish people on a local level. Thus they advise visitors to estimate the amount of time they plan to spend on the Wild Atlantic Way and double it. That signals that the route isn’t merely a drive but a total experience and a rich one that needs to be savored at that.

Murphy outlined four tactical points that Tourism Ireland determined would be necessary if the Wild Atlantic Way was to succeed: 1) Capital Investment, especially for the signage that would mark the route; 2) Trade Engagement, to establish stake holding partners; 3) Identifying Stake Holders in the Trade and in the Communities; and 4) Consumer Engagement.

The methodology for the third element was learned during Tourism Ireland’s previous successful campaign, The Gathering. To get the whole country to buy into The Gathering, Tourism Ireland held town house meetings across the country to get a local assessment of what each town and region had to offer tourists. For the Wild Atlantic Way, “We held regional meetings to get the grass roots buy in,” said Murphy. “All of these local communities along the West Coast told us what they found most interesting about their regions. We got ideas we could never have come up with on our own.”

Those insights and local favorites turned up in a list of “150 Secrets of the Wild Atlantic Way.” The Wild Atlantic Way also got a great boost from the hosting of the Adventure Travel World Summit in Killarney in the fall of 2014, which attracted 800 delegates from the travel industry’s adventure

sector. One such participant, Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland Co-Founder Rob Rankin thought, “The Wild Atlantic Way was a great concept. It put a new dimension to Ireland in people’s minds.”

Going forward, the year-long celebration of W.B. Yeats in 2015 will make County Sligo a prominent stop on the Wild Atlantic Way this year. The Nobel Prize-winner was born on June 13, 1865, making this the 150th anniversary of his birth. Both W.B. Yeats and his brother, painter Jack Yeats, considered Sligo a "spiritual home." W.B. Yeats wrote some of his finest poetry there such as the "Lake Isle of Innisfree." Celebrations will take place all over the country especially in Dublin and Galway, but the poet is buried by Sligo’s Table Mountain in a churchyard in the village of Drumcliffe.

The Wild Atlantic Way will get another promotional boost in May when the Great Lighthouses of Ireland will be unveiled. “Technology made these beautiful lighthouses obsolete and we wanted to give them new life as attractions,” said Murphy. “The Commission of Irish Lighthouses agreed to invest in the promotion for 18 months.”

Self-drive visitors to the Wild Atlantic Way can get extra details from Hertz Ireland this year. In a partnership with Smart Traveller, Hertz recently launched, a website devoted to offering personalized tourist assistance and recommendations on attractions and services for visitors to Ireland. The site is designed to give tourists the best possible advice on where to visit, eat, stay, and shop. Once a traveler has booked their car hire with Hertz, they will have access to the service which allows visitors to go to places they might not find elsewhere in travel guides. Hertz hires about a half million cars in Ireland each year to tourists.

Tourism Ireland believes that 2015 will be the country’s third consecutive record year due to a strong dollar and additional 14 percent air capacity, about 40,000 more seats per week, going from the U.S. to Ireland. Tourism Ireland’s Jump Into the Now campaign will be promoted with television ads in important U.S. markets. The return of "Game of Thrones" (April 5) should stimulate tourism to Northern Ireland, which is the filming location for the kingdom of Westeros. Officials in Northern Ireland set a goal for more than 2 million visitors by 2016. In 2013 the region attracted about 1.8 million.

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