I am a lucky man – and I admit it. In the course of my day job I drive around the countryside on a weekly basis, where I am constantly in awe of some of the fantastic landscapes we have at our disposal in this part of the island of Ireland – and can see the obvious potential for these fabulous locations to create an even greater tourism impact on the economy here.
Anyone who has ever gone through the locks along the River Shannon and meandered in a boat into Lough Key near the Forest Park in Boyle, or driven into the harbours and marinas at Portrunny or Ballyleague, doesn’t need me to tell them about the vast beauty of the place and the majestic sights that fill your eyes with absolute amazement on any such visit.
I remember the first time I drove up to the Mining Experience centre in Arigna, when I looked back down around the valley and thought for a minute I was in Wales with the thousands of tourists who walk and trek in the valleys there every year. I genuinely happen to believe that this corner of Ireland has as much going for it as any part of that UK landscape – if only we had the investment for Fáilte Ireland to promote and market and perhaps (directionally) sign it just a little bit better.
Half a million euro grant
Against this backdrop, I was more than pleased last week to read about a new €15 million funding scheme which aims to promote all sorts of outdoor adventure activities and give a major boost to rural tourism around the country, according to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys.
The big idea here in the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (ORIS) is to develop loads of activities on mountains, lakes, beaches, bogs, forest walks and greenways that will not only attract your walkers and your trekkers here but make them want to stay in the area overnight and spend a few bob with the locals. The sort of projects covered under the funding include hiking, mountaineering, equestrian trails, cycling and rock climbing – all of which could happen on any square of the land at Arigna, Kilteevan, Sliabh Bawn, Boyle or Donamon, etc.
The sort of water-based projects they are looking for include kayaking, swimming, tidal pools, surfing, paragliding and hang-gliding activities that could easily be centred in Hodson Bay, Doon shore or Ballyleague, Portrunny or Lecarrow. The potential for the growth of the tourism fare is really endless at all of these locations.
The scale of the funds available from the latest ORIS scheme is also impressive. Small projects in Roscommon can receive €30,000, medium-sized projects will be eligible for €200,000, and €500,000 is available for larger projects under a fund that was increased since the last Budget. The scheme is funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development in Ballina, in partnership with Fáilte Ireland. I know for a fact that it has already produced a few notable successes in this county and elsewhere in the country where city and county councils, state bodies and local development agencies applied successfully for funding of over €87 million for more than 1,200 projects nationwide. I was part of a group that worked with Roscommon County Council on an allocation of 200,000 euro for the new Resilience Park project on the north and south quays in Ballyleague last year – and hope to see work on that starting soon.
New local trails
This time around there’s a very different emphasis on the appeal for entries, with Minister Humphreys highlighting the fact that, during the pandemic, outdoor pursuits and activities became more important than ever – so she feels it’s a good time to appeal for new applicants. This is fighting talk from the Minister, so let’s see if it is justified.
I think the landscape has very definitely changed (so to speak – not literally!) since previous ORIS launches –and increasing the number of outdoor adventure activities available to international tourists will not only have a wider appeal to community groups and local tourism service providers looking for international visitors, it will have a burning appeal to local domestic clubs such as walking, jogging, triathlon clubs and even ORCAS swimming groups – all of whom came into their own during the long and boring days of the lockdowns in the pandemic (remember that?!)
In those miserable days, we all had to stick to our 5k walk or 10km run because of the restrictions on movement and many of us discovered locations we never even knew existed. So, now that the country is open again, we can probably all see the potential that really exists with visiting tourists if we just improve the quality of the attraction on our doorstep that can then in turn play an important role in the scale of the recovery in the tourism industry after the pandemic.
Community groups here in Roscommon who have an interest in applying for the ORIS would do well to take note of some of the key changes in the application process and some of the new areas that can be covered by funding. For instance, the scheme may also provide some limited funding for the marketing and promotion of new infrastructure – typically as part of a wider project involving capital supports – so if you have just helped to create a 5K waymarked trail in your parish, then perhaps the new brochure or website to go with it might also be considered for a grant in an effort to make sure the rest of the world gets to hear about this great new attraction.
As somebody who has been deeply involved in the Lough Ree Access for All boat project in Ballyleague for the last five years, I was pleased to see the continued emphasis on equality. The 2022 scheme emphasises the opportunities to support recreational infrastructure that provides an inclusive approach for communities to deliver outlets that support a diverse range of users, including people with disabilities and older adults.
Above all, however, if your local group is thinking of making an application, they must engage in collaboration with others who would be affected by the new infrastructure, and ensure, in advance of the submission of an application, that the local community has been consulted and their feedback taken on board.
Some groups and activities are definitely NOT eligible for the scheme. The term ‘recreation’ may apply to sporting and recreational activities which operate in the countryside, but it does not include sporting activities which take place on confined courses or pitches specifically designed and constructed for those sports – so that rules out golf, football and showjumping, among others.
As it stands, however, this new scheme offers some fantastic opportunities for places like Kilteevan, Strokestown, Rahara and Castlecoote to embrace local opportunities to develop forest walks, mountain access routes, trail access to birdwatching locations, floating boardwalks on lakes, and much, much more. All that is needed now is the push from the local community and the cooperation of landowners to get this going. I urge everyone to make the most of this golden ticket that is being offered to them.
The first step is to get together at local level this week and identify one or two local sites that might fit the bill for an ORIS project and then get in touch with Roscommon County Council – who will take it from there. Don’t say you were not offered the opportunity to be part of it.