Plans are afoot to make the Newry Mourne and Down District Council (NMD) area the sports tourism capital of Ireland heralding a major tourism boost for the area.
At a meeting of the Council Economic, Regeneration and Tourism (ERT) Committee on Monday 11 September, councillors heard how a leading tourism specialist described a golden tourism opportunity for NMD and said that “nobody in Ireland has that portfolio of assets where you can grow over the next ten years.”
The Council Sports Tourism Outdoor Events Framework is designed to contribute to the strategic tourism objectives set out in the Council’s Tourism Strategy. It will added the vision of: Newry Mourne and Down becoming a “premier, year round mountain and maritime destination in Ireland recognised for its EPIC experience in outdoor adventure, its rich tapestry of cultural heritage, myths and unique stories, and its authentic local life.”
The Framework aims to:
* boost tourism benefit in NMD.
* boost sports tourism growth levering off key events in the natural and built resources of the area.
* build up new elite, mass and niche events from to develop the sports’ destination base.
* add to the strategic tourism development of NMD through outdoor event innovation.
This huge opportunity has now caught the imagination of the local ERT committee members who were very encouraged by the presentation by consultant Mark O’Connell who depicted the Council area as an asset that could be marketed at international level making the NMD area a destination about delivering quality sporting experience. He outlined the development steps from establishing a brand right through to creating a strategic marketing platform.
He added that “The core messaging needs to be revised. For example, the Newry area has products such as triathlon events, coarse angling, and the Mournes offers trail running and mountain biking. In Camlough, there is an opportunity for people to train in open water swimming. From niche sports and events, transformational events such as the Iron Man challenges could eventually be developed.
The marketing plan needs to be integrated with the tourism framework already agreed, but it must be done quickly. Other areas across Ireland may take up this idea and run with it. The brand of the outdoor capital of Ireland is something everyone can be part of.”
The councillors’ question session began with Cllr Charlie Casey indicating that he would like to see the Greenways opened up more and said that the overgrown Newry Canal could be cleared out which would provide a link to Lough Neagh and to Lough Erne and tap into another key tourist network. “This needs to be costed out and opened up, ” he said. “The Newry canal tow path saw more visitors than the Giant’s Causeway 10 years ago before the Causeway visitor centre was built.”
ERT Director Marie Ward explained that the Council tourism strategy does recognise water tourism as a key area for development which included the Newry Canal. She also responded to Cllr Terry Hearty’s question about setting aside a bigger development budget by saying “we will need to set a bit of investment aside to bring in international visitors.”
Cllr Willie Clarke said: “We need to have the confidence to be the capital of sporting tourism in Ireland. We need to buy into this vision and we must grasp the opportunity. Officers will certainly need to create a budget for these events and there are certainly gaps along our coast where events and tourism could be developed. And we need to engage the private sector in this development too. We will need them to drive it.”
Cllr Michael Carr said: ” ‘The Outdoor Capital of Ireland’… it has a good ring to it. There are many sports that we could build on such as golf and skiff rowing to name a couple. I agree that mountain biking has been a major success in the district but are we not putting too much emphasis on just a couple of sports”.
Mark O’Connell explains that it is difficult to overplay activities such as cycling and that the Council area needed to play to its strengths. In this way, it would be easier to attract major sponsors such as Red Bull who generate huge interest through their social media.
Cllr Declan McGreevy asked :”Do we have the capability to accommodate and support large numbers of visitors? Do we need a major cash injection from Tourism NI?
Mark O’Connell explained that “the area would start its progress with core events increasing the bed nights, but it is a chicken and egg situation where at some stage the private sector has to move and invest. Therefore, I would not think Tourism NI would come in until they have seen that the tourism generator is working. The private sector will invest once they see the confidence is there. Commercial brands will come aboard building on the good events and experiences.”
Cllr Glyn Hanna asked if this proposal included “all sports” and Mark O’Connell explained again that the core activities in the Framework document will be centred around four sporting tourism hubs: Camlough Water Centre; water sports – sea, loughs, rivers etc; the Mourne Mountain activities; and mountain biking, on and off the road.
Cllr Andy McMurray said: “We need to be clear that these sporting experiences and events are niche activities and will not be played out on pitches as such.”
Mark O’Connell added that a “scatter-gun approach to events and sports that are included will not work”, and added: “You need to drive home the assets for maximum impact. For example, who would have thought that throwing frisbees was important, until Limerick developed the frisbee championships and draws large crowds. It is therefore difficult to define what an event could or should be.”
Councillor Harry Harvey said that “the mountain bike track is very successful. It has proven to be very popular. The Castewellan section is excellent for families and the Rostrevor section is more for adrenalin junkies.”
After a throrough discussion, Cllr Terry Hearty proposed that the officers recommendations be accepted that the Sports Tourism Framework be adopted and linking delivery with the marketing plan implementation.
The business sector will now be looking closely at his development for investment opportunities that lie ahead led initially by Newry Mourne and Down District Council.