Activity tourism — another great opportunity flushed down the national toilet
OPINION by TONY GALVIN
TO STATE the absolutely obvious — there are no offshore walking trails. Productive agricultural land cannot be moved to China. Oil, gas and other natural resources cannot be relocated either. Our fish stocks can’t be herded to the Mediterranean. We can’t sell our scenery to the highest bidder.
But what we can do — and have done — is to undervalue our national inheritance so completely that we allow it to be squandered. Here we are, back in the people-exporting market again, while we squat on the resources that could provide many with a livelihood and a way of life.
Like some pathetic banana republic, we’ve always taken the easy option. Our agricultural resources were exported on the hoof to allow foreign companies reap the valued-added benefits. Our fishing industry was given away as a gift to gain admittance to the EEC club. Our natural heritage sold for a song and a promise.
What do we think we’ll fall back on when our multinational industries hop off to China, as some a bit too close to home for comfort are already gearing up to do?
And now, to cap it all, we’ve missed the boat on what could have been a job-creating machine — activity tourism. We have the raw material of spectacular scenery and hospitable people, but we also have a supine political class, which baulks at challenging the assumption that the interests of private property must always be placed above the common good.
The globe is saturated with golf courses. Spa hotels are so 2004 — definitely passé. The real future is in activity tourism: walking, cycling, fishing, sailing, surfing and the like, and the big money lies in catering to Europe’s well-heeled retired.
And what do we do? We give them the two fingers.
Because, in Ireland, the wellbeing of the nation comes second place to a handful of muck savages who pride themselves on their obstinacy, selfishness and stupidity.
Try opening up a walking route and, likely as not, some thicko will stop it, supported in his honourable stance by craven politicians pandering to the notion that we’re a nation of independent smallholders defending our hard-won land against all encroachment, especially by lycra-clad visitors and An Taisce.
Recently, I spent a week in western Majorca, an area that’s a magnet for well-heeled walkers. An industry has been created there based on beautiful coastal and mountain scenery and access to local trails. The Germans and Scandinavians, in particular, can’t get enough of it. On learning I was Irish, walkers I met there sang from the same hymn sheet: Ireland is beautiful but not friendly to walkers and outdoor enthusiasts. Access to the countryside is too problematic and no one goes on holidays to be abused and turned away.
On my return, I spent a week on various walks in the South East, based in Kilkenny. Beautiful scenery, gorgeous walks but almost everywhere I went, blocked trails, re-routed walks and signs making it clear that I definitely wasn’t welcome greeted me.
Even on the much-lauded Greenway walking and cycling route, which now stretches between Westport and Achill, via Newport and Mulranny, the dreaded curse of “no access” rears its ugly head on a regular basis. I’ve cycled the Mulranny to Achill section and despite this being railway — state-owned property — I had to cycle out onto the public road for one 700m stretch, and do so again coming into Achill, because my way was blocked.
I hate to admit this — I was out on the hills twice this weekend and think what this country has to offer to visitors is second to none — but if we don’t cop ourselves on fast, and stop allowing a minority kill the goose that could be laying golden eggs for local communities and local jobs, we’ll be so far back, we won’t have a hope of catching up. Our peasant myths just don’t suit 21st century reality.
Because, contrary to myth, we are not a nation of smallholders. Most of us spring from tenant and landless labourer stock. The labourers were abandoned to their fate as the luckier peasants hit the jackpot and acquired title to some ground, thanks to the various Land Acts. As the country became industrialised and urbanised we created a mythology around our smallholders, which bears no relation to the truth.
But we love our myths, so we ditched the truth, and allowed a sad travesty of what Michael Davitt envisaged to emerge. It was a land grab of the most mean and short-sighted kind, which killed the dream of an agricultural bedrock supporting a productive industrial sector. The plot, not what the plot could produce, became the focus.
Today, those making a living from the land have dwindled to a small minority. Most farm income comes from subsidies of one form or another. Farming is an expensive hobby, subsidised by the taxpayers of Europe, and our green and productive land is just ripe for agri-conglomerate takeover.
What’s stopping this? Our shotgun-wielding noble peasant farmers who will die before they’ll give up the land their forefathers fought and died for? Myth and sentimentality won’t hold much water when they come up against agri-conglomerate lawyers, backed up by EU technocrats looking for a return on their investment.
How long will it be before the state-owned Irish Water is flogged off to the highest bidder? Does anyone seriously think that Coillte will remain in Irish hands much longer?
National hero Bertie Ahern works for a company interested in investing in our State forestry. Roughly translated, this means the Chinese want it. Land is next. The country is in hock. Land is an asset. Who really owns the land?
The Irish State owns all land, not so-called property owners
LEGALLY, it may surprise you to know, the State, and not we so-called property “owners”, owns all the land under its jurisdiction. The Normans introduced the tenure system, which means land is held at the will of the monarch. That’s where the “Surrender and Regrant” we learned about in school comes from.
When the Irish State was founded in 1921, the feudal rights of the British crown were transferred to it. None of us — householders, farmers or companies — actually “own” land. All we hold are forms of interest in it.
Here, it gets a bit complicated, but don’t worry about being evicted because you more than likely have the right to stay put for about 999 years.
But die without issue or heir and who gets it? It reverts back to the “real” owner — the State. You find a seam of gold under the garden, but who owns it? Yes, the State. Try stopping a motorway being built through your farm and see where it gets you. You’ll be compensated for the loss of the use of the land, but the State can pretty much do what it wants with it.
While this is all pretty academic, in most cases the 999 years will elapse before the courts figure out the rights involved, the fact remains that the State can decide on matters such as access.
In Scotland, with an eye to the enormous potential of the outdoor activity industry, a Land Reform Act was passed in 2003. This basically adopted the Scandinavian approach, with citizens having a right to roam pretty much where they wish, but with strictly enforceable provisions. These cover areas such as respecting people’s privacy and the protection of property, stock and environmentally sensitive locations etc. Farmers are generally happy with how it’s working, and the tourism industry has bloomed. Not only have the likes of German and French walkers, our lost tourists, flocked there, but the Scots got with the programme as well. And now, the sons and daughters of farmers who decided to work with the State, not against it, are finding employment in the hospitality industry, as guides, in running B&Bs — a win-win situation all round.
Incidentally, since the introduction of our Occupiers’ Liability Act in 1995, not one walker has sued a single landholder for a mishap on their property.
During the same period, hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ euros have been shovelled into dubious schemes like REPS, some of which pay farmers to ‘maintain’ trails.
Most of these trails will again become unusable as soon as the money dries up. Brussels is already asking why money is being pumped into Ireland for something other countries are using to grow a lucrative tourism industry.
Will we tell them the truth? — We’re a nation of “patriots”, reserving the right to take the money and close off our uplands and beaches. We’ve dodged this issue ever since our lakes and rivers were left in private ownership, and dodging inconvenient reality has become a way of life for us.
If the world’s walkers can’t take a joke — well — walk on by.
• • •
Quote of the Week
“Please Leave Heather For All to Enjoy.”
— Sign in Scottish Highlands