Posted on Tuesday 12 March 2013 by Ulster Business
Adventure tourism and extreme sports are increasingly popular and can mean big business for those destinations smart enough to get their product right. Lucy Gollogly asked how Northern Ireland measures up.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and Outdoor Recreation NI's third annual Adventureland Weekend will try to tempt the uninitiated with over 70 cut-price activities on March 23 and 24. The event will showcase some of the huge variety of activities available, including coasteering and wet bouldering (basically throwing yourself off rocks into the water below – under expert supervision of course), surfing, climbing, zorbing, zip-lining and hovercrafting.
Although that marketing push appears more aimed at locals rather than tourists, the global adventure tourism market is big business. It was worth an estimated US$89bn (£59bn) from 150 million trips taken in 2010, according to the US-based Adventure Travel Trade Association.
The impact of the union flag protests on tourism has yet to be determined, but the NITB estimated in 2011 that adventure tourism was worth around £100m a year in revenue for tourist businesses, with £55m of that coming from overseas visitors. And according to the Republic's Fáilte Ireland, activity tourists spend 33% more than the average visitor.
One of the world's fastest growing adventure sports, mountain biking, is due for a boost here when over 70km of sustainable mountain bike trails open in Rostrevor and Castlewellan, Co Down, in the next few weeks. The £1.9m project, which is expected to attract 22,500 visitors to the Mournes in its first year, is the work of one of the word's top trail designers, Dafydd Davis MBE. Trails are also being developed in Davagh Forest in the Sperrins and Barnett's Demesne in Belfast.
Local businesses have been attending information seminars to get advice on how best to cater for this lucrative niche market (think secure bike storage and clothes washing facilities). And with mountain biking worth tens of millions a year to the Scottish and Welsh economies, it's hoped the new trails will attract people from all over the world.
Rostrevor mountain biker Rowan McMahon says the trails in Kilbroney Forest Park are already a big hit, despite not having been officially opened.
"It's not going to just attract people from Northern Ireland and southern Ireland – it'll attract people from across the water as well, without a shadow of a doubt," he says.
McMahon believes Northern Ireland's stunning landscapes mean it is well placed to compete as an extreme activity destination. And he says enthusiasts aren't put off by our wet weather.
"A tourism product that is dependent on weather doesn't really work that well. But you put adventure tourism into that – people don't care. We go out and ride our bikes if the rain is coming sideways at us – it's irrelevant."
The accountant is also the co-owner of the Portadown based 26 Extreme, which organises and manages extreme running, cycling and adventure sport events. He says he sees "endless potential" for the adventure tourism sector in Northern Ireland.
"Adventure tourism is big, it's massive. That's primarily why we set 26 Extreme up. If you wanted to run a marathon, north or south, prior to 2009, you had to run it on the road. Trail running is massive in America and Europe but there were no off-road alternatives anywhere in Ireland."
He says the company is attracting international entrants to their events – around 30% of the entrants to its Mourne Way and Causeway Coast marathons are travelling from outside the UK and Ireland to take part.
"We have a contract to stage another race up at the Giant's Causeway in May which is being solely sold to the North American market. These are people who have an awful lot of money," he adds.
Another huge draw is surfing, and the north coast is considered to be one of the British Isles' premier spots. Irish National Team Surfer Martin "TK" Kelly is the owner and head instructor at Portrush Surf School (www.tksurfschool.com), one of several schools in the seaside resort. Although he says the majority of his clients come from Northern Ireland, he has also had many customers from the Republic, North America and France.
He says the feedback he gets from international clients on Northern Ireland as a surf holiday destination is excellent: "Everyone loves it. They think the coastline is gorgeous. They're surprised that it isn't as cold as they thought it was going to be. With the good wetsuits these days, nobody's cold. Everyone always takes a really positive experience home with them."
He says the north coast's wide, sandy beaches, excellent surf conditions and nightlife options mean it can compete with world-renowned surfing spots like Cornwall.
"It's growing rapidly and as for the potential of it – it's still going to grow," says Kelly.
Coasteering is growing in popularity among the truly adventurous, and is said to be addictive if you're brave enough to give it a try.
Stephen Brown runs Coasteering NI, based in Whitehead, Co Antrim. He says most clients are from Northern Ireland, but that is beginning to change.
"We are getting more and more people from the Republic of Ireland and we've had a few stag parties over from London. And last year I worked with Polish people, people from the States, Australia, New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, and Italy – so there's quite a wide selection of people.
"The percentage (of overseas tourists) is still quite low overall but we certainly expect to see that rising," he says.
Brown believes the NITB is aware of the potential of adventure tourism and says the development of the Outdoor Recreation NI website, a portal for the different activities on offer, has been particularly helpful. However, he says some tourism providers need to adapt to the growing market.
"I contacted a lot of hostels in Northern Ireland last year about offering a service where we would pick guests up at the hostel and take them coasteering for the day. I didn't get a response from anybody. We're offering them a product that's of interest to their customers – but there was no interest from them.
"So it's hard in terms of getting providers, whether it's accommodation, catering or activities, to work together more. And I think the Tourist Board need to do more to facilitate that, but that said, you can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. All the businesses need to realise that they need to work together."
Photo courtesy of MountainBikeNI.com