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Inland Waterways Column: Climate Change Threatens Canals

26th April 2011
Inland Waterways Column: Climate Change Threatens Canals
Not just cruising
Every boat-owner on the inland waterways benefits from a large subsidy from the taxpayer, who pays the vast bulk of the costs of running the inland waterways system. If that subsidy is to be justified, and indeed to be continued, the waterways must be seen to provide benefits for far more than the few thousand owners of motor-cruisers and the half dozen or so hire firms still operating on the Shannon.

Thus Waterways Ireland has been embracing the providers of other services — hoteliers, restaurateurs, activity organisers and so on — along the waterways and in the wider Lakelands region. It has also been promoting the waterways with its Discover initiative, under which citizens are offered opportunities to try water-based activities like rowing, canoeing and angling as well as cruising and boat trips.

The most recent Discover day was in Tullamore on the Grand Canal in October, but similar days have also been held in Shannonside towns. The organisation involves cooperation with public-sector, private-sector and voluntary bodies, but with Waterways Ireland taking the lead.

Waterways Ireland also took a stand at the Ploughing Championships alongside the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal in Athy, where it showed off one of its WaterMasters. I have been referring to them as Floating Swiss Army Knives, but at Athy it might have been better to liken them to JCBs, loaded with gadgets like a pile-driver, a tree shears and a dredging pump. There is also, I believe, an attachment for taking stones out of horses' hooves...


Earlier this year the Heritage Council and Fáilte Ireland published a report on the expected effects of climate change on the coast and inland waterways ('Climate Change, Heritage and Tourism: Implications for Ireland's Coast and Inland Waterways' – eds Kelly, B., and Stack, M., Heritage Council and Fáilte Ireland 2009, available on the publications page of

The report pointed out that increased rainfall could affect the stability of sections of canals, such as the embanked lengths of the Grand Canal near Edenderry. Increased water flows could erode the foundations of structures like bridges and the flow, and accompanying flotsam like large trees, could increase the loading on such structures. Stronger currents also make boat-handling more difficult.

And, of course, rain may deter waterways users, especially overseas hirers who are already a threatened species. To quote from the report:

"There has been a general decline in the number of overseas tourists cruising on inland waterways in Ireland in the past number of years. The Survey of Overseas Tourists (SOT) carried out annually by Fáilte Ireland indicates that in 2007 approximately 15,000 overseas tourists participated in inland cruising. This was down from 24,000 in 2006 and 20,000 in 2005."

Tight future on waterways
One of the interesting things about Irish waterways history is the number of times that the waterways have been reinvented. Every so often, new definitions, or new descriptions of their major purposes have been put forward in order to ensure the continuation of funding by the taxpayer. The Grand Canal Company was very good at extracting money from the public purse, whether for supplying water to Dublin or for building locks on the Shannon. Charles Wye Williams, probably the first man to come up with a large-scale profitable trade (with his Inland Steam Navigation Company) to be carried on the waterways, was adept at lobbying the UK government to get it to spend money on the Shannon.

When commercial carrying ceased, the pace of redefinition speeded up. Pioneers like Hector Newenham and Ron Kearsley saw the potential for tourism and won government support for their endeavours. But while the Shannon continued to be a tourist amenity, it also became a heritage object, and waterways became part of Dúchas — The Heritage Service. In the meantime, facts on the ground (or on the water) changed, and the waterways provided a leisure amenity for Irish people, even if the extent of their contribution to the waterways economy was not appreciated.

The assignment of waterways to the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs may have been an unsuccessful attempt to define waterways as contributors to rural economy and rural society. But any such attempt was overtaken by the definition of waterways as a field in which 'north-southery' could be exercised. It's not easy to do north-southery, given that some unionists see it either as a Fenian plot or as an annoying and unnecessary sop to the shinners, while the dewy-eyed innocence of some southern hands-across-the-border enthusiasts can only add further annoyance. But the arrangement has had the advantage of allowing Waterways Ireland to operate without a board, with generous funding and on a very loose rein from the two government departments to which it reports. How long, though, can this last?

Waterways Ireland has been good at avoiding controversy, despite the best efforts of certain northern politicians, and it has also benefited from the southern government's desire to show off its wealth (with the Ulster Canal as the New Bling). This is being written before the southern budget is revealed, but it is possible that the government will have to concentrate its resources on the most needy in society, such as bankers and house-builders, and that there will be less money for waterways in the future.

Hire sector comes up short
Waterways Ireland has been building alliances, though, and showing that it is not just a provider of almost free leisure resources for those wealthy enough to buy a motor-cruiser. Its flagship campaign is the Lakelands & Inland Waterways Brand Campaign.

The campaign implements Waterways Ireland's strategic objective of working closely with 'other organisations, particularly state tourism bodies, regional tourism organisations and local tourism interests'. Its initial focus was on the cruiser hire sector; the result was the adoption by Fáilte Ireland of an Inland Cruising Marketing Development Strategy. A summary of that strategy is available from the Fáilte Ireland website, It highlights the following perceptions of the Irish hire business.

Positive perceptions
Ireland's waterways are considered unique in European terms, offering a visitor experience that is uncrowded, free of commercial traffic and easy to navigate.

The importance of the brand attributes associated with Ireland (people, place and culture) resonate strongly with inland cruising visitors and remain a key discriminator in selecting Ireland over other destinations offering a waterways experience.

The licence-free environment is a significant plus, although one which more destinations are now offering.

Cruising still offers an iconic image of holidaying in Ireland, particularly for Europeans.

Negative perceptions
In general, hiring a cruise boat was considered an expensive holiday option with Ireland considered particularly expensive for visitors coming from Europe.

Boat quality was considered inconsistent and much of the fleet was perceived as jaded with the general standard of fit-out seen as having fallen behind generally accepted standards.

Recent investments were acknowledged but, despite this, there was a widespread view that the task of rebuilding the reputation of Ireland's waterways would take a longer time to catch up and that continued investment in facilities was required.

The demise of air charters in favour of scheduled airlines has had several consequences including capacity constraints at weekends and a decline in available transfer services.

Marketing activity is considered sub-optimal with much of the activity too focussed on product rather than on visitor experience and an uncoordinated approach across responsible agencies and organisations.

The strategy identifies two 'primary target customer segments': Sightseers & Culture Seekers and Family & Loved Ones, and two secondary, Relaxers and Outdoor Actives, and it sets a primary goal: to 'increase boat sales from the current [2006] level of 7,500 weeks per annum to just under 9,500 weeks by 2010. This will be achieved by increasing the fleet utilisation from 18 weeks to 21 weeks and to grow the fleet from its current size of 410 craft to 450 craft.'

It seems unlikely that this goal will be achieved, as fleets are being reduced rather than increased in size. Furthermore, some of the larger hire firms prefer to fly their own flags rather than that of the Irish waterways: try searching for 'Lakelands' (other than Fermanagh Lakelands) on their websites.

But the broader concept, developed from 2007 onwards, is of a 'Lakelands and Waterways offering" that brands the midlands as 'a strong midland destination that could compete with other destinations such as the Dublin Region, Ireland West and Cork-Kerry', with 'the lakelands and inland waterways [as] a natural spine'.

The Lakelands encompasses, according to Waterways Ireland, 'a region loosely based on the Shannon, Shannon-Erne and Erne from Limerick to Belleek and taking a 30km radius of those waterways and in some cases an increased radius if a town of attraction merits inclusion.'

Admittedly, a new concept launched during a recession is likely to struggle, but in the long term this initiative may achieve three things:
• raise awareness of the waterways
• build new alliances between Waterways Ireland and tourism promotion bodies
• promote new thinking about the definition and purpose of the waterways

More to canals than cruising
It seems to me that the Inland Cruising Marketing Development Strategy needs to be broadened into an Inland Waterways Marketing Development Strategy. If Cruising (ie, hire of cruisers) is not going to grow, then other activities need to be encouraged instead. And perhaps the Outdoor Actives need to be promoted from secondary to primary status amongst the target customer segments.

That would mean helping the development of more facilities for those interested in touring by canoe, kayak, open sailing boat or rowing boat. It would also mean encouraging firms to hire out such boats. And a separate market in short-term (day- or half-day) hires for locals or for land-based holiday-makers who would like a day on the water. Waterside camping sites should also be encouraged. And we need more places where non-boating people can take a picnic and bathe on a fine day: there have been some improvements in facilities in recent years, but more clean, supervised recreational areas are needed.

Such leisure activities have several advantages. They are relatively environmentally friendly and fit the so-called 'green economy' as well as the poor shattered remains of Ireland's green image. They attract younger users, who may have a lifetime of visits to Ireland ahead of them. They may even build on the 'brand attributes associated with Ireland (people, place and culture)', allowing more contact between the visitors and the natives.

Irish Ring is main draw
The other area in which the product is underdeveloped is waterways heritage tourism. The heritage features of the Shannon, and its recent history as a navigation, are insufficiently highlighted. The extraordinarily rich heritage of the Lower Shannon — extending from Kilrush, up the Shannon Estuary to Limerick, thence via the old Limerick Navigation to O'Briensbridge and Killaloe and from there up to Shannon Harbour — could provide Sightseers & Culture Seekers (one of the primary target customer segments) with a week of activity along the waterways. The extra 250m of floating jetties to be installed at Killaloe over the winter are very welcome, and much needed, but visitors need to be attracted further south.

But the main attraction for those (including many Britons) interested in waterways heritage must surely be the Irish Ring: the triangle formed by the Grand Canal from the Shannon to Dublin, the Royal from Dublin back to the Shannon and the section of river and lake between Clondra and Shannon Harbour.
There are hopeful signs. Waterways Ireland has appointed contractors to dredge parts of the Grand Canal (Circular Line Locks 1–5) and Royal Canal (Locks 1–6) in Dublin over the winter. Furthermore, the Inspector of Navigation has made it clear that, from 1 March 2010, the hard-edged areas in Shannon Harbour will be kept clear for visiting boats.

Thus the infrastructure for increased use of the canals is being developed, but it is not yet clear whether the planned 'visitor experience' is receiving equal attention. To quote the Inland Cruising Marketing Development Strategy one last time:

'Marketing activity is considered sub-optimal with much of the activity too focussed on product rather than on visitor experience and an uncoordinated approach across responsible agencies and organisations.'

Getting that experience right will be crucial to the future of the waterways. And, given the continuing need for taxpayer support, it is as important to boat-owners as it is to visitors.

Christmas book
The Heritage Boat Association has published a second book about older vessels on Irish inland waterways. This one is called 'Fine Lines – Clear Water' and it includes Irish barges that were not covered in the previous book, some barges that have come to Ireland from overseas, and a good number of the wooden cruisers that grace Irish waterways. See for more information.

First published in Afloat Annual 2010

Published in Brian Goggin Team

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