Ireland's Ecotourism Industry: Great Promise and Untapped Potential

Anthea Lacchia2017 Monthly Focus Topic, Original

Despite growing interest from small businesses, Ireland’s promising ecotourism industry needs more policy-level support.

Dolphins in the Mouth of the Shannon, western Ireland. Image Credit: Susanne Magee

Susanne and Geoff Magee sit on board the Draíocht (Irish for “magic”) passenger ship as it glides peacefully toward the mouth of the Shannon River, on the Irish Atlantic coast. They hope to catch a glimpse of Europe’s largest group of resident bottlenose dolphins, totaling 200 individuals. For the past 25 years, the Dolphinwatch business has brought groups of tourists and scientists closer to the local wildlife, including dolphins, minke whales and pelagic seabirds, as well as the fascinating geology of the sea cliffs.
In 2012, Dolphinwatch was recognized as an eco-friendly tour operator and awarded the highest certification in ecotourism, the gold award, by Ecotourism Ireland, an organization that supports, trains and certifies Irish businesses in upholding the standards of ecotourism. Ecotourism is defined by the organization as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local community.
Dolphinwatch is one of 24 Irish businesses to currently hold an ecotourism award. In order to be labelled eco-friendly, businesses must demonstrate they meet a set of criteria, such as contribution to conservation, commitment to environmentally sustainable practices and participation in interpretation and education. For example, Dolphinwatch boat trips are helping to create employment in the local community by attracting visitors, while training and educating groups about marine ecology. Of course, they only use eco-friendly polishes and cleaning agents on the boat.
These criteria are monitored and continuously assessed, and businesses must periodically apply to renew their certifications.

The Ecotourism Ireland story

The Ecotourism Ireland initiative, which built upon the previous Greenbox Ecotourism label that operated from 2006 to 2009, was developed in 2009 with advice from Failte Ireland, Ireland’s national tourism authority, and the Northern Ireland tourist board. In 2012, it became one of 14 labels to be internationally recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Ecotourism Ireland provided training, funding and certification to businesses, said Mary Mulvey, CEO of Ecotourism Ireland. It was associated with many success stories, Mulvey said, including certified eco-campsites, foraging walks, eco-equestrian centres and bird watching experiences.
However, the Irish financial crisis, which took hold in 2008, severely impacted the availability of funding for the ecotourism industry, according to Mulvey. This funding has not yet been restored. Now, Mulvey is operating on a volunteer basis as the sole employee of Ecotourism Ireland.
At the same time, in Ireland there is a huge interest in ecotourism: “I receive two or three phone calls a day from businesses interested in gaining an ecotourism certification,” Mulvey said.
Similarly, there is a lot of interest from consumers in eco-friendly practices. “People are looking for something different, that more guided authentic experience. Despite this, there is no official (national) policy on ecotourism,” she noted. “If we really want people to come to small (remote) places, the government needs to invest there.”

The Draíocht passenger ship scanning the waves for bottlenose dolphins. The Carboniferous cliffs of Loop Head, western Ireland, are in the distance. Image Credit: Susanne Magee

Putting nature at the heart of decision-making

Of course, an increase in the number of people visiting an area can result in damage to ecosystems. Jane Stout, an ecologist based at Trinity College Dublin and chairperson of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital committee, says ecotourism can damage natural resources (such as animals, rivers, soils, minerals and oceans) and other ecosystem services (such as carbon sequestration, pollination and clean air) if not properly managed.
In order to protect these resources and ecosystems, it is necessary to understand their true value in economic terms. This approach, based on so-called natural capital, has been gaining ground in Europe. It links the environment and economy to enable better decision-making, with decisions based on economic arguments, Stout said.
The natural capital approach recognizes that natural resources, from forests to fossil fuels, oceans and grizzly bears, help deliver ecosystem services from which humans benefit, for instance through leisure activities in nature or heating homes. Ecotourism is slightly different, says Stout, because it results in a financial benefit to some of the people involved, while relying on natural capital.
The Irish Forum on National Capital formed as a voluntary group in 2013. As an organization, it brings together groups and individuals with an interest in the development of the natural capital agenda in Ireland.
The organization seeks to “increase understanding of the (natural capital accounting) approach and how to use natural capital methods across various sectors (business, government, academia and general public), ultimately to ensure the protection and restoration of natural capital in Ireland,” Stout said.

Geology meets ornithology in the Carboniferous Shannon Basin, western Ireland. Dolphinwatch boat trips allow visitors to appreciate this diverse landscape. Image Credit: Susanne Magee

Looking forward with EU initiatives

There is hope that European Union-driven efforts may play a key role in the future of sustainable living, and by implication, sustainable tourism. Natural capital accounting is something that all EU member states must do by 2020 under the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy. The strategy calls for EU countries to map and assess the state of their ecosystems and services (MAES) to investigate their economic value, and promote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems. A key element is a better understanding of how ecosystems will be used to inform future environmental policies in Europe.
In Ireland, the National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has just completed the first phase of this assessment, producing national scale maps of various natural assets such as land cover, soil, geology and habitat in relation to protected areas and their management. These data will help to better assess Ireland’s natural capital, feeding into better policy decisions. Hopefully, these policies will help guide and support Ireland’s burgeoning ecotourism industry.     
Anthea Lacchia is a science writer and postdoctoral researcher at iCRAG, University College Dublin.