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Overtourism the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

February 16, 2020
Harold Goodwin
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“People are slowly waking up to the fact we are not going to run out of tourists…. it is environmentally sound and attractive destinations…. that are becoming scarce. People will not stop moving around the globe, but they will do it more selectively”

This quote was made by the property developer Tony Goldman to the author Arild Molstad in 2012, for his book, “Last Chance Destinations”.

It seems Tony Goldman wasn’t wrong, we are definitely not running out of tourists any time soon… and ‘overcrowding’, ‘over-tourism’ or ‘capacity issues’, take your pick of the framing, is now a recognised problem within the tourism industry. Forward-thinking communities, like those of us on the Loop Head Peninsula and leaders such as Ann Heidi Hansen and Hanne Lykkja in Nordland Co Co who care for the Lofoten Islands, have looked at what is happening elsewhere and decided the best, and most effective, way to manage an overcrowded site is actually by planning for it not to happen in the 1st place.

Others, like the National Trust (NT) at the Giants Causeway (GC) and Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge (CAR), with over 1.5m visitors to the site, have come to the realisation that enough is enough…that it will be unsustainable and irresponsible for them to continue doing what they have always done and expect a different result. So, they have embarked on a journey to understand how they can continue to deliver their primary mission, conservation, while still managing those assets responsibly, for themselves, the environment and the local community.

I believe the tourism industry has singularly failed to recognise that its viability, its very sustainability, is almost totally reliant on a social license to operate from the host community within which it takes place, a license that has been, mostly, freely given in the past because the perceived benefits have outweighed the perceived costs. But this has changed, and ongoing situations from all over the world clearly demonstrate that we cannot expect local communities to put up with the negative social, environmental and economic impacts any longer, communities have found their voice, they are becoming less understanding of the prevailing ‘tourism = good’ narrative and are more demanding of their right to live unaffected by tourism.

It stands to reason then, that if we want to manage these sites with a view to supporting a sustainable tourism industry, we have to really involve those communities in the decision-making process on a far deeper level. There are very strong advocates for the economy and the environment, but historically we have had no such strong advocacy for the local communities. That this would be required at all is such a ‘revolutionary idea’, that when the NT went to tender earlier this year for consultants to deliver the community engagement portion of their capacity study they struggled to get what was considered to be an appropriate response. My partner, Matt Scrimgeour and I, both consider community conservation as important a goal as environmental or cultural, and we designed a 15-month long program that would deliver meaningful, open, long term future communication between the GC/CAR portfolio and the host communities that will ensure a co-created, asset-based, sustainable destination.

Our work program is primarily about Identifying stakeholders and their stake, building relationships, opening clear communication channels, building trust, identifying projects, empowering community groups/clusters and ultimately creating a forum where all actors can discuss a common sustainable future for the area”, and drinking lots and lots of cups of tea…

One of the most important things we undertook was the neighbourhood survey designed to find out the local sentiment toward the NT, to tourism in general and to tourism to the GC and CAR.

And without boring you all to death with too much detail I will run through some of the interesting findings from the 315 responses we got.

Community engagement; 81% of the respondents were not involved in the industry. Historically tourism development, and operations, is undertaken with little or no engagement with the non-industry community. The volume of responses to this survey should make the tourism industry and development stakeholders sit up and pay attention. The community has a clear wish to be asked for their input, are willing to engage when asked, and have very strong views as to the impacts of tourism on their daily lives and how this manifests.

The environment; Approx. 64% of respondents across every sector felt the biggest negative impact of tourism would be on the environment. Given that the NT stated ethos is primarily about conservation they should be ideally placed to be local heroes in this regard, but they are not, far from it. This clearly indicates a breakdown between the perception by the community of the primary purpose of the NT, as custodians of a protected area, and their current role, as managers of the sites as a tourist attraction.

Access to the GC; There is a huge contradiction at play here; Historically, the NT has been seen to facilitate increased public access to sites that communities have not been allowed into, however in this instance, the local perception is “they”, the NT, are restricting access to a site that “we”, the community, have had public access to for 1000s of years, and this restriction is almost solely for monetary gain that doesn’t benefit us. This perception makes it almost impossible for the managers to manage the site. Finding a workable solution to this will be key to unlocking the capacity for the Trust to move from volume-based to a value-based metric, one that would deliver far higher benefits for the environment and the local community.

Traffic; A great example of how having a deep community engagement process can be of benefit, increased traffic levels are cited as one of the biggest local concerns, but when we sat down with local people, drank some more tea, and dug a little deeper, we found their concern was more about how safe they felt on the road, rather than the volume of traffic. Foreign drivers on the wrong side of the road, in rental cars they are not used to, distracted by the wonderful scenery, large coaches driving too fast, on roads not designed for vehicles that size, vehicles of all types parked in inappropriate locations. This information, which was not captured by the quantitative survey methods, being run alongside our work, fundamentally alters the discussion about what the potential solutions might be.

In short, we need to radically rethink our tourism development strategies, we need to focus not on creating a ‘sustainable tourism industry’ nor indeed ‘sustainable destinations’, we need to focus instead on the sustainability of the host community and their environment, and we can only do that by putting them right at the very centre of the tourism development process, and, with a hat tip to Cormac Russell from Nurture Development, move from the current position where tourism almost always happens to the community’ in the destination and tourism development is done for the community’, to a situation where we on behalf of the NT are at the very least trying to create a destination with the community’  and where the ultimate goal is the destination and tourism development will be delivered ‘by the community’.

 We need to co-design an industry that best fits in with who they are, what they want, for themselves and their home, because in the midst of all this tourism development talk, we shouldn’t forget, for communities its not actually a destination, first and foremost it is their home, and it is to the credit that the NT have recognised this and have set in motion the mechanism to ensure the community have an equitable stake and voice in any discussions surrounding its development.

Cillian Murphy MSc & Matt Scrimgeour


“Responsible Tourism Development; Sustainable Tourism Destinations’

T: +353862780161

E: cillianmurphyconsulting@gmail.com

Twitter; @Tri2bResponsibl

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