Green Tourism, How the Islands Are Open and Welcoming to Green Visitors.

From left Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group and Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman at Reenard with the Valentia ferry pulling away and Knightstown, Valentia in the background.

The European Green deal can kickstart the economy post COVID-19, argues spokesmen from two Irish offshore islands. With more and more opinion formers saying the future is green and that we all have to adapt, now is the time it would appear.

MIchael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman said: “Given the ambitious targets set out in the European Green Deal and the associated roadmap with actions I feel Rathlin and its tourism offering can be at the forefront. Rathlin is currently leading an initiative on repurposing derelict buildings to cater to nature based tourism and the Blue economy as well as a multiyear plan to restore bio-diversity impacted by non-native predators. These projects in conjunction with our strive to be leaders in the field of carbon neutrality are very much in lock step with the EU, Westminister and the Northern Ireland Executives green post COVID recovery.”

Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group, from the Valentia island off the coast of Co Kerry speaks in a similar vein saying: “The European Green deal is a clear indication of the opportunities investing in the “Green Economy” can have in driving stimulus to economies impacted by the COVID crisis. The hydrogen model proposed by Valentia, would mean the local economy in Valentia could retain some if not all of its €1.2M spent on energy on the island. With a population of 650 people, that kind of money in a community would create a lot of spin off opportunities. “

Both Rathlin and Valentia are working with the Belfast Met led Interreg North West Europe GenComm programme to generate green energy opportunities for the islands and to develop energy security from renewables. Paul McCormack, GenComm Programme Co-Ordinator states: ”The primary focus of the GenComm project is to demonstrate how renewables including wind, bio and solar can be harvested to provide green hydrogen and this in turn can be used to power many energy options for communities. This Power to X (P2X) with hydrogen as an energy vector can be power to industry (P2I), Power to Mobility (P2M) and even Power to Heat (P2H). We are working with communities across Europe to deliver a paradigm shift in the energy sector and put communities at the start of the new energy grids”.

In September 2020 the European Commission will launch a £1 billion H2020 call for projects relating to the Green Deal to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The thought process is to have zero carbon emissions by 2050, have more energy efficient buildings and to have the EU budget subject to checks to ensure its spent in ways that benefit the environment.

Irish News columnist Denis Bradley, said in June, ‘It may have taken a pandemic rather than incisive politics to promote green issues to the head of the queue but any party who henceforth enters the corridors of power without being properly briefed about the green eceonomy and without a reasonable understanding of the issues arising from climate change is going to be quickly exposed’.

Green tourism itself will now become more important than ever before in Ireland. Maurice Pratt, the acting Chairman of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation said this week: “Shut by government decree for four months from early March and now only allowed to partly reopen, with social distancing rules in place, Ireland’s 20,000 tourism and hospitality businesses are facing a challenge like no other.’  But what can government, business and society do to promote green tourism on these two irish islands, Rathlin and Valentia. MIchael , from Rathlin says: “We already have a positive working relationship with the Northern Ireland Executive which has been developed through the Rathlin Island Policy, Action Plan and Ministerial Forum.  The co-operative working which has come about as a result has already delivered multiple benefits for the island.  I believe we now have an opportunity to capitalize on these existing relationships and to explore how this partnership working could further deliver benefit on a reciprocal basis.  For example, I believe we could work with government both on a central and local basis to enhance Rathlin’s walking and cycling experience.  This would require minimal financial investment from a government perspective and could be used to promote and demonstrate the many benefits of active and healthy living.  On a wider basis, thought should also be given to improved financial incentives to encourage greener living through for example, lower carbon energy generation; lower emission on-island transport alternatives; energy generation alternatives such as wind and wave.  “

Colum O Connell, from Valentia says: “The structure we have in place in the Energy Co-Operative is looking to ensure both business, community and government are recognized as key stakeholders. An example of this is the development of the Better Energy Community grant program – this is administered by SEAI, who are an extension of government green policy. The grants would invite community members to apply at a group level for grant to improve the efficiency of their energy systems on the island. Over time, a story on the continuous adoption of this system could be built into the ECO tour of the island. “

Those in prominent positions realise these times demand a whole new thinking as Paul Stapleton, Managing Director of NIE Networks has acknowledged arguing: “In these extraordinary times we could be forgiven for shifting our focus away from sustainability and green energy. It leaves us with a major challenge to rebuild our economy. But it has also given us a unique opportunity to rebuild our world in a more sustainable and green fashion.”

As the green economy develops both islands spokesmen recognise the potential for a green tourism outlet, even educating the green way with an island experience. Colum from Valencia stresses: “We are putting education as a key building block in our Energy Co-op. Our plans to develop a STEM education program focused on sustainable energy can provide a spring board for a new eco-tourism opportunity. Our goal is to have this in place before the end of this year.”

In 2018 the Lonely Planet declared Belfast and the Causeway Coast the number one region in the world to visit. Embracing that positivity surrounding his own local area Michael from Rathlin says: ”I believe green ‘education’ can enhance the current Rathlin experience.  Rathlin has an ambitious plan to be carbon neutral by 2030 and is making significant progress in working towards that objective.  We continue to learn from the experience of other island and rural communities both locally and on a wider basis.  We also continue to share our own experience with these same communities.  We have a unique experience to offer tourists and will continue to tap into the sustainable tourism market by identifying opportunities to develop and promote green tourism.  Our rich natural and built heritage and our network of traffic free roads provides us with a unique offer for tourists who are keen to take an experiential and/or active based holiday.  “

Ireland’s green landscapes and heritage make it a major geotourism and geoheritage destination, something not lost on those with the islands interests at heart.  There are advantages that distinguish Ireland from other holiday destinations. The irish people, the scenery, culture and history, nature and ecology, unspoilt environment all feature.

MIchael Cecil says: “Green tourism  is about sustainable tourism, the natural environment and all it has to offer; about active and experiential tourism; about how we deliver our tourist services.  I think there is a greater awareness now of the importance of environmental protection to address the many impacts of climate change and hopefully that will mean that people are more attuned to how their behaviour and personal choices impact on the wider environment.”

In 2019 Tourism NI and the Arts Council of NI introduced a new scheme, called ‘Embrace The Place’ which would use the arts to tell stories of that area, can something similar work for the island experience? Valentia island was the eastern terminus of the first commercially viable transatlantic telegraph cable. A fact not lost on Colum who speaks in a positive vein of an embrace the place idea: “We are already seeing this being put into effect – as part of the celebration of our heritage with the transatlantic cable, an artistic trail of monument celebrating the key locations on the island, relevant to the cable story were commissioned and put in place by local artist Alan Hall. We have already seen these have had a positive contribution to the tourist experience on the island.”

In recent years things like the development of the Wild Atlantic Way initiative have helped a greener tourism be appreciated. MIchael on Rathlin wants the idea adopted more widely saying: “The Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East are both very interesting approaches to tourism development and promotion.  Rathlin lies outside both schemes.  We have a very unique offer on Rathlin and I think there is an opportunity for a similar approach within Northern Ireland that would create a link with the others and would further promote Rathlin as part of a wider tourism package.  Such an approach would bring multiple benefits, encouraging longer stays in the region and creating a more diverse tourism offering. “

Meanwhile Colum from Valentia knows how the initiave has worked saying: “ The Wild Atlantic way has been a fantastic tourist initiative which Valentia has been made a part of and so far has benefited hugely from since its creation. Our experience has been, that given the right idea, package and presented to the correct audience, such initiative will get supported. We have seen this with the local initiative to develop the UNESCO recognition on Valentia for the transatlantic cable heritage. To date close to €1.5M has been committed by the government to restore the local cable station.”

A green recovery can produce a high quality and competitive product in a sustainable way. In the Programme for government for the new ROI government there is a commitment to an average 7 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions every year from 2021 till 2030 with a new Climate Action bill to be introduced in the first 100 days of the new government. A total of £360 million is to be spent on cycling and walking infrastructure every year of the government. This is one of the biggest challenges of our time, the green question and MIchael on Rathlin acknowledges what the ROI government plan are offering saying :” I think the development of a new Climate Action Bill is positive news.  It will be interesting to see how it is delivered on the ground and what incentives and disincentives will be offered to ensure the real change needed to tackle the climate emergency actually happens.  “

But another result of the COVID pandemic is that we are all supposed to be appreciating the natural environment around us more. So that may in the long run help make us stand out more above other markets on this measure.

Michael on Rathlin says: “I believe, that for many people, there is a reluctance to return to the previous pace of life.  Rathlin, for a long time has offered a different pace of life and will continue to do so post-pandemic.  We intend to continue to enhance what the island offers both for island residents and short term visitors.  Key in all of this will be achieving a balance between being sufficiently connected and being able to make a conscious decision to take a step away from a faster pace of life. “

Colum on Valentia agrees stressing: “I have found that everyone who visits Valentia wonders how idyllic life would be to live there. Some familes want to make the change and move to Valentia. But the vast majority simply revert back to their normal life of tried and tested. However, the COVID crisis saw many people with holiday homes relocate long term to the island for the duration of the lockdown and experience the lifestyle and all it offers. With remote working now being tried and tested, creating a life in a slower paced environment is now a reality. ‘Grow  Remote Ireland’ have been championing this argument for the last three years and I believe more and more people with make the move a reality in the future.”

Colum too is full of praise for the programme for government in Dublin welcoming news that a new Climate Action bill is expected in the first 100 days of government, saying “Definitely – we feel the ground work and heavy lifting has been done by the Energy Co-operative in Valentia, with its Energy Master Plan and Hydrogen Feasibility Study. We now have a vision for a hydrogen community that is ready for funding. “

Rebuilding the economy in a green fashion is something Michael on Rathlin is a firm believer in as he maintains: “The Coronavirus pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to rebuild the economy in a more sustainable fashion and to create a world where economic growth and environmental responsibility go hand in hand.  The recent crisis has demonstrated how resilient and innovative people can be.  It has also demonstrated the positive environmental impacts that small changes to how people live, work and travel can have on the wider environment.  We have an opportunity for change and need to build on the positive side of our recent experience to deliver greener and healthier communities that deliver for people on both a social and economic basis.”

Being able to capitalise through green tourism is something the islands populations are ready to do.