Goldsmith Festival committee members pictured alongside guest speakers at opening night in Abbeyshule.

Post-covid tourism presents 'significant and sustainable' opportunities for Westmeath

Claire McCormack

Post-Covid tourism presents “significant and sustainable” opportunities for the Hidden Heartlands counties of Longford and Westmeath, the Oliver Goldsmith Festival of 2022 has heard.

From the midland’s record-breaking Center Parcs resort, the alluring potential of its raised bogs, its historic canals, lakes and waterways, vast agricultural lands, hospitable people, and rich literary roots, well-known travel journalist Eoghan Corry has forecast “an exciting future” for tourism in the region.

However, the keynote speaker warned that “pulling it all together” under one brand beyond the current ‘Yours to Uncover’ mantra will be vital to the area’s international visitor success.

Reflecting on the most recent data (2018) regarding the dispersal of international tourists to Ireland at the festival’s well-attended opening night at The Rustic Inn, Abbeyshrule, Mr Corry said:

“The Wild Atlantic Way gets 37.3pc of international visitors to Ireland, Dublin gets 35.1pc, The Ancient East gets 14pc, the six counties of Northern Ireland get around gets 11pc, and the Hidden Heartlands get 2.5pc – we have one brand that gets 37.3pc, and one brand that gets 2.5pc.

“Now if you’re in the business of getting international tourists, and you’ve got a 2.5pc market share, you’ve got to say there is something leaning on us here which is more than just our product.

“If you were to go right across Europe it’s very hard to find a disparity like that, Spain would have 17 provinces and one of the provinces gets 2pc of international tourists, so 2.5pc is way off and that bears out.

“Overall, the numbers are amazing, we get more international tourists [to Ireland] than Cyprus does, and yet under our nose we have this misshapen tourism model which we haven’t rectified.

“If this happened in any other industry where one of your five major regions was getting 2.5pc, the bit that fell off the table and is clearing up the crumbs, somebody would sit back and say it’s time to either redraw the map or do something to positively discriminate in favour of the 2.5pc.

“As it happened, Santa Claus arrived with Center Parcs, so that is being rectified . . . Center Parcs has brought 2,500 sleepers to Ballymahon effectively, with the expansion for 1,000 more are on the way.

“Center Parcs has brought Longford into one the leading positions, but can you imagine if there was a strategy to recreate that across the counties of the Hidden Heartlands?

“It requires something better that ‘Yours to Uncover’. I don’t have a lot of answers, but one of things we can look forward to is the clearing of the boards done by Covid and what post-Covid tourism is going to be.

“We do know that the Barcelona, Dubrovnik crowding situation is probably not going to be the way forward, cruise ships with 5,400 passengers and 2,700 crews floating around the Mediterranean

“We know people are going to look for the separated experience, the wide-open space, the sort of wind going through your hair, and it doesn’t have to be the Cliffs of Moher.

“A country like Germany, which we have a very small market in considering the importance of the German market in terms of numbers and spend, our market share is 0.7pc, it’s 2.4pc in Britain, imagine if we had 2.4pc of the German market.

“What do the Germans think of when they want to come to Ireland? The surveys that Tourism Ireland carry out show - bogs.

“They are not carried away with the sort of imagery that Americans are, of course they do love it, but they want the sort of product that the Hidden heartlands does well.

“The post-Covid world where the crowded pubs of Temple Bar are no longer the ideal is an opportunity for this region – why don’t we take it?

Travel journalist Eoghan Corry and Goldsmith Festival Chairmen Arthur Conlon.

“There is a great Goldsmith quote about remembering the missed opportunities rather than the ones you take, so how we take this opportunity is up to us in this room tonight.”

Darragh Feighery, Village Director of Center Parcs updated the festival – which centred its 2022 theme on the works of the iconic Longford-born, Westmeath-raised author in the context of rural tourism – on plans to further expand the resort.

“We spent more than €233m building Center Parcs here in Longford, I’m very proud that this is the single biggest investment in tourism in the history of the State.

“In 2019, we opened to a team of 1,000 employees – 66pc from the county of Longford and a further 33pc more are from the bordering counties.

“We’re very much about the future of tourism in Longford and in the Hidden Heartlands, so much so that we are very close to submitting our planning application to further grow our offer with additional investment of more than €83m.

“Our future bookings are very strong, today we welcomed 2,542 guests to our village for the weekend, we’ve got four empty lodges tonight, that’s very much the trend of bookings to the end of the summer and beyond – we’re virtually sold out for the next few months.

“We have achieved a Center Parcs guest satisfaction record of 92pc guest satisfaction – it’s never been achieved before in any Center Parcs resort.

“I have a great team around me, the team that we have recruited locally, we’ve found like-minded people with great hospitality values, and they've stuck with us through thick and thin, particularly in the last number of years.

“Today is the first day I can say that we have traded for 12 months consecutively, we never got the opportunity with all the disruption in the last few years. We welcomed over one million visitors to the resort over the last three years, another huge, huge number.

“Everything is lining up, the guests love the hospitality that our local colleagues provide, the environment is phenomenal, the forest is fantastic, the road network is good. Our people are our biggest asset, we hugely value them, they bring the magic alive for us and support us in delivering a world class service.”

Festival Highlights

Other key highlights from The Goldsmith Festival 2022 included fascinating talks on Goldsmith’s educational journey, his love of music, and insights on stage adaptations of his works from Dr David Fleming of the University of Limerick (UL), Prof Moyra Haslett of Queen’s University, Dr David Clare of Mary Immaculate College, and festival committee member Prof Michael Griffin of UL, the leading Goldsmith scholar in the world.

The festival featured the premiere of a play ‘The Philosophical Vagabond’ specially written and performed by professional actor Michael J Ford and colleagues in the idyllic setting of Skelly’s Courtyard in Ballymahon.

A full house turned out for other talks on the vision for the River Shannon and new ways to discover the Hidden Heartlands by Damien McWeeney and Fiona Dunne.

The Innyside Singers, String Trio, and a group of talented musicians from Ukraine captivated audiences throughout the weekend with beautiful melodic recitals.

The festival’s signature ‘Sunday Miscellany’ event also heard inspirational local stories on farm tourism from Fiona Egan and Adrian Elliott, while Seamus O’Brien, Matt Farrell and Irena Cvetkovic underscored the prospects for growing literary tourism in the region.

While Poetry at Pallas, the birthplace of the iconic writer, provided the perfect close to this year’s festival with delightful readings for this year’s poetry competition winners alongside well-known poets Vona Groarke and Mary Melvin Geoghegan.

Arthur Conlon chairman of the Goldsmith Festival: "After virtual festivals in 2020 and 2021 it was fantastic to meet old friends and to also welcome many people experiencing the Goldsmith Festival for the first time. We were very happy with the attendances and with the quality of the discussion. It was amazing to listen to four world renowned experts on Goldsmith and the 18th century on Saturday morning and then two hours later in Skelly's courtyard present the world premiere of 'The Philosophical Vagabond', in a beautiful open-air setting. We strove to provide a varied and interesting programme offering something for everyone and I'm confident we achieved that. I would like to particularly thank all our sponsors and funding agencies, as well as the local and national media for their help in spreading the message of our wonderful and growing festival, and we will back again in 2023 with another exciting programme."