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Lonely Planet Best in Travel Award for Burren – just another award?

tourism business membership tourism business network Dec 16, 2020

Why this article?

It certainly brightened up an otherwise dull Covid-19 November when Lonely Planet recognized the Burren Ecotourism Network as Best in Travel for Community Tourism 2021.  The accolade lifted spirits, not just in the Burren Ecotourism Network, but throughout the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark and beyond.

The destination, the Network and many individual members are no strangers to awards, having already been recognized extensively, nationally and internationally, for their pioneering approach to sustainable tourism development for more than a decade now.  For example, the region is recognized as a European Destination of Excellence for Tourism & Local Gastronomy and the GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Project was recognized with the National Geographic World Legacy Award in 2016.


Noirín Hegarty, Lonely Planet; Catherine Martin TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht and Media; and Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland

It’s easy to get blasé when there is a momentum like this behind a group of people and to come to view it as normal. It’s too easy to see it as ‘just another award’. I smiled when I heard or read congratulations accompanied with something like ‘You guys are great at applications by now!’ or ‘You know all the right things to say’ and ‘Wasn’t all the publicity great?’.  While these were very sincere and well-intentioned compliments, it struck me also that they perhaps glossed over the substance of the award itself, focusing more on the ability of the group to put together an application or to leverage marketing benefit from it (also both critically important, mind you!).

That’s why this week and before this year is out, I thought it would be good to really take stock of the significance of this award and the substance behind it. Now when the world is looking for tangible and concrete examples of good practice in collaborative, regenerative and self-sustaining approaches to tourism development, it is truly significant that the model represented by the Burren Ecotourism Network has been recognized by Lonely Planet in this way. 

I’m well-positioned to look back over the journey and achievement of this group, having travelled with them in some form or another since 2009.  In fact, my very first paid ‘gig’ in tourism was as Animator of the Burren Ecotourism Network, a part-time, one-year contract that ‘got me out of the house’ at the time. I didn’t know how much the group and the project would absorb me and couldn’t have anticipated the journey we would go on together over the coming 7-8 years up until I set up The Tourism Space a couple of years ago. It’s true to say that whatever I know about tourism, I learned from and with this group. Jarlath – my partner in business and in life – is now the CEO of the Burren Ecotourism Network and so we remain connected.

I cannot do full service in this one article (there’s at least one good book in this!) but will try to highlight some of the significant defining milestones and the stand-out actions of this group of businesses and the stakeholders that nurtured and supported them. 

Inspiration for the Burren Ecotourism Network 2008-2011

Full credit for the inspiration and entrepreneurial spirit behind the group goes to Clare County Council who in 2008, set up The Burren Connect Project with the brief of obtaining Global Geopark designation for the area and establishing an ecotourism network of businesses in the area, amongst other things.

The leadership and vision that brought that brief to life came from the appointed Manager of the Burren Connect Project (now Manager of the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark), Carol Gleeson.  Carol secured the engagement of an initial core group of businesses from 2008 onwards and also put in place the framework for partnerships with and between other key stakeholders in the area such as the Geological Survey of Ireland, National Parks & Wildlife Services, National Monument Service, Clare Local Development Company, Fáilte Ireland, Shannon Development and many others.

Early stakeholder commitment and support 2011-2013

Through these relationships and through securing buy-in to the vision from many quarters, pockets of funding and support allowed the fledgeling Network to secure an Animator (my very first role in tourism enabled by Clare Local Development Company through the LEADER programme), create a website (with help from Clare County Council), curate a pilot ecotourism training programme (made possible through further LEADER funding), be a pilot destination for ecotourism certification (thanks to Fáilte Ireland investment). All of these things helped to grow membership and interest.  The region was also successfully designated a Global Geopark in 2011.

The GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Programme 2013-17

The newly designated Geopark went on to secure significant EU funding for a 5-year demonstration project ‘Tourism for Conservation’. There were multiple strands to this project, one of which was ‘Engagement of Tourism Enterprises’.  It was my great fortune that to win the contract to carry out this role between 2013 and 2017. The position meant I got a rare insight into both the perspective of public stakeholders and the perspective of private enterprises trying to unify around a shared vision.

This period of certainty and continuity around funding opened up a window of immense creativity, innovation, collaboration and experimentation amongst the wide range of stakeholders who were involved.  The project enabled up to 2000 training days in a 4 year period for over 100 tourism enterprises as well as the provision of match-funding to the Network for marketing activities. Through putting in place part-time co-ordinator roles for network development and marketing, it created that all-important cohesion that allowed the members to connect with each other and with the vision. 

In turn, this inspired the businesses to become very active in various projects such as advocacy work with school and community groups, creating award-winning destination experiences and events (e.g. Burren Food Trail), pooling resources for destination marketing campaigns, initiating landscape and environmental give-back programmes such as wall re-construction, beach clean-ups and Adopt-a-Hedgerow.  Above all, this 4 year period really consolidated a culture of collaboration and a mindset of ‘Better Together’ and a principle of ‘Destination First’.  This required the leadership of the Geopark, the work of coordinators, the support and engagement of multiple stakeholders and the contribution of time, talent and indeed money by the members of the Burren Ecotourism Network.

The Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism 2014 +

The work with tourism enterprises was just one strand of the Geopark LIFE Tourism for Conservation Programme. The outstanding output from that strand was the creation, testing, refinement and implementation of the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism. This was the major focus of my work during this time. It would take a whole other article or even a White Paper to fully explain the iterative process that led to the final Code and, again, many people were involved in that process, not least the member businesses who tried and tested it. 

As a summary, it is a Code based on 6 principles that coincided exactly with the mission of the Geopark itself: working together, a cared-for landscape, vibrant communities, strengthened livelihoods, a well-understood heritage and sustainable use of resources. 

For each principle, the Code spelt out exactly what a business could do to honour and implement the principle and what evidence they could provide to prove it.  The project also created an online system where progress and evidence could be recorded and where the combined actions of the group could be collated. Further details on exactly how it all worked can be found Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism | Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark (burrengeopark.ie

Benefits & Impact of the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism

What is really important is the impact that the Code of Practice had:

  1. It ‘translated’ global sustainable tourism standards and aspiration into a localised set of principles and actions for businesses.
  2. It provided a common, accessible language that was easily understood by all businesses.
  3. It created a common Code that linked the largest visitor attraction with the smallest single-person business. Each could implement and adopt it and each could fully understand and trust what the other had achieved.
  4. It created positive peer pressure and created an interdependence between the businesses. Every business had a role to approach the Code with integrity or else risk damaging the reputation of the entire group.
  5. Because it was evidence-based and subject to independent verification, it gave credibility and integrity to the group.
  6. It enabled every business in the region to get started on the sustainability journey, opening the door to every business irrespective of their current level of activity. It promoted a ‘journey of continuous improvement’ and focused on empowering businesses to begin and continue the journey.
  7. It married the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability into one unifying Code, interweaving marketing and business development with conservation and community projects.

The moment I knew there was a unique strength and transferability to the Code was when a member said to me upon first seeing it. ‘I get it. For the first time, I really get it. I know what I need to do and I know why.’  This was strong endorsement indeed as that same business owner had been with the group for a number of years by that time and had already been certified by a national certifying body!

Today, the strongest testament to the value of the Code of Practice is that it is still voluntarily adopted by the members.  It is the members themselves who set it as an entry requirement for their Network and it is the members who invest business time and resources in ensuring they implement it.

A shared award for a shared vision

It’s clear at this point that the Lonely Planet Award, as with previous awards, was a recognition of the work of many people over a long period of time.  Without the commitment and often extraordinary voluntary contribution of many people, in both public and private organisations, the project would have faltered long before now. There were certainly bumpy patches on the journey and even a few pretty bleak ones.  The group has learned the hard way and the slow way. I believe the shared commitment to a vision that was bigger than any of the individual people or organisations is what has made the Burren Model endure.  This is the shared vision statement agreed by the Burren Ecotourism Network and the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark in 2011, that is still upheld today:

“To become a premier internationally recognized ecotourism destination ensuring the future economic and social growth and sustainable development of its communities, environment and heritage.”

Spotlight on the special contribution of the businesses

The truly outstanding legacy of the overall process instigated by Clare County Council in 2008 is that it has sustained the engagement of a large number of tourism enterprises in the region for more than a decade now. 

So what of the businesses and the Burren Ecotourism Network itself? All the while acknowledging the leadership and support of other bodies, most notably the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark, what is noteworthy about the businesses and people that comprise the Burren Ecotourism Network itself?  

  • The truly extraordinary amount of voluntary effort and time that they have invested. In the early days, many evening meetings and long drives were spent just working out what an ecotourism network should be and could be.  It’s definitely more focused now and Zoom has eliminated much driving, but the meetings and conversations continue.
  • The ability of the businesses to work together in a meaningful way, to shed local rivalries and perceived competition.
  • The willingness of members to contribute their skills and knowledge to the work of the group, leading to a significant talent pool working for the good of the overall destination.
  • The lack of hierarchy and positioning within the group – the largest and the smallest are equal members in decision-making and contribution. The fact that they were doing this long before it was popular or topical. In fact, for most of the journey, it would be fair to say that what they were up to was ‘niche’ or ‘fringe’.  We actually had a policy not so long ago of ‘keeping the sustainability stuff under the bonnet’, such was its ability to switch other people off. 
  • The willingness of the more established businesses to support and encourage new and emerging businesses.
  • The rules and constitution of the Network are set by the members and they set the bar high for themselves. Evidence of implementing the Code and commitment to further improvement is the minimum requirement for full membership. Fees are not inconsequential and membership places demands on your time.  It’s not a Network where you join and expect benefits to flow your way. Rather, it’s a network where when you join, you get to pay your fee, be subject to inspection and get to contribute your time and talent to the goals of the group. It’s a distinctive mindset that buys into a proposition like that!  You then reap the rewards through networking, referrals, marketing and training and the overall satisfaction of working together and contributing to the destination.
  • In times of little or no funding and little or no resources, the Network kept itself going. Fuelled by volunteer effort, stubbornness, pride and an absolute refusal by a few stalwarts to let the great momentum that had built up fizzle out.
  • The Burren Ecotourism Network has crossed that elusive threshold of moving from complete dependency on funding and the leadership of the Geopark to managerial and financial independence and sustainability. Clare County Council, Clare Local Development Company, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland continue to support and partner with the group on individual projects and some sponsorship opportunities have also been realised. The Network is adept at identifying opportunities for funding and in-kind support.  It is business-like in its approach, seeks to enhance member and partner benefit over time and makes itself easy to work with.

I’ve no doubt that this group will continue to journey together and to break new ground, and I look forward to what might unfold for the Burren Ecotourism Network and Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark in the future.

 

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Some of our projects have been part-funded by the LEADER program, through the National Development Plan and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.