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December 2019

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Taming the Wild Atlantic Way

1 December 2019

Ireland’s west coast has been reinvented – by a tourist board

Travel along Ireland’s west coast and you will discover some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. There’s the otherworldly glacial limestone of The Burren, hidden beaches, spectacular cliffs and picture-postcard villages. There’s nowhere else like it in Europe, and it attracts everyone from South American surfers to elderly Americans tracing their heritage. It’s a land of thatched-roof cottages, traditional Irish music, and lots and lots of rain.

This is the Wild Atlantic Way. Developed as Ireland’s first ‘touring’ route, it stretches from Kinsale in West Cork to Inishowen in Donegal, along a 2,500km stretch of rugged coastline. It’s undeniably beautiful, but it also didn’t exist as a concept before 2014 – dreamed up as it was by Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourist board. Welcome to the new world of destination marketing. The beauty of this type of branding is that it creates the illusion that something new has been created, when in fact, everything – the villages, the views, the coastline – is exactly the same as it was before.

This is destination as product: a world of countries as brands; of key propositions and signature experiences; of ‘experiences’ as something to be wrapped up and sold. It’s a world where a view becomes a ‘discovery point’. It’s also incredibly successful, in a climate where tourism departments around the world attempt to sell their product in a crowded marketplace.

“Destination marketing has become more sophisticated and nuanced,” says Andrew Hoyne, the founder of Hoyne, a property branding and marketing firm based in Sydney. “Globalism and the Internet gives people access to a colossal amount of information. It opens their minds to many new possibilities – and destinations – so marketing campaigns have to really lift their game.”

The global tourism market is estimated to be worth some US$6 trillion annually, a value that has grown by nearly 50 per cent in ten years. In short, more of us are travelling, and more of us are spending more money when we do. It’s no surprise, then, that countries around the world are no longer content to rely on their natural scenery or historical sights to attract tourists.

When the route was originally conceived, it was borne out of a need to prolong the time period of Ireland’s peak demand. “At the time, the tourism season in the west of Ireland was as short as eight to ten weeks for some businesses, making it very difficult for local communities to sustain employment and generate revenue,” says Head of the Wild Atlantic Way, Miriam Kennedy.

“We knew Ireland had amazing product along the coast with spectacular landscapes and scenery and after much research and discussion, we came up with the idea of a route that would unite all the coastal counties to attract more visitors and extend the tourism season, delivering real benefits for local communities and businesses.”

Given the sheer amount of signage along the route the branding proved especially important, with the contract awarded to Dublin-based studio Red&Grey. Over 4,000 signs along the route and 188 discovery points are delineated with the chosen logo, which has been placed on traditional signs as well as, more unusually, carved into stone or wood. “We gave the brand a consistent texture while allowing freedom for the tone of voice and visual to change depending on the author and their use for it,” said the studio. “It is a living identity, one that has the ability to adapt and change with culture, people, nature and the West Coast of Ireland.”

Fáilte Ireland identified six separate geographical areas along the coast, all renamed (Cliff Coast, Surf Coast, Haven Coast), to names no local would have ever referred to them as. This is destination rebranding at work: the creation of a place that never existed before.

The idea is that the tourist is king – the names and directions are aimed at the foreign visitor, not the local. As such, it doesn’t matter that no one in Sligo would have ever uttered the term ‘Surf Coast’ to describe its stretch of coastline, it only matters that foreign tourists contemplating a visit to Ireland understand that this is where they can, should they wish to, go surfing.

This type of project is not cheap. It’s estimated the development of the Wild Atlantic Way cost upwards of $13 million, on top of an annual investment of $2 million. Yet those numbers were dwarfed by the increased tourism figures. The year after the Wild Atlantic Way’s launch, visitor numbers were up 11 per cent, resulting in an estimated total of $4.2 billion in revenue to the Irish economy.

“One million more international visitors came to the West Coast [of Ireland] in 2018 than in 2013, which shows the appeal of the Wild Atlantic Way to international markets,” Kennedy says.

“2018 was our strongest year since the inception of the brand – we had more than 3.8 million international visitors, more than five million domestic visitors and between them they spent $3.3 billion, supporting more than 83,000 jobs on the West Coast.”

Part of the success of the initiative is a result of the different way many want to travel: authentic experiences are in, two-week package holidays are out. Tourists want to do more, whether that be surfing, rock climbing, or learning how to cook – it’s the experience that counts – and if that experience can be hashtagged and Instagrammed, so much the better. So far there are more than 980,000 Instagram posts with the #WildAtlanticWay hashtag.

“We’ve moved from top down (ads, campaigns) communication, to bottom up (user generated and shared content) in the past ten years,” says Florian Kaefer, founder of The Place Brand Observer, a branding company. Kaefer believes that tourist boards can take more control of the narrative around destinations these days “as long as that narrative is based on something concrete.”

He cites the example of Bilbao, a fading Spanish industrial city that reinvented itself in 1997 when the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim opened. “Being imaginative is key, and usually works best when the local community is involved,” he adds.

It was no surprise, then, when Fáilte Ireland attempted to replicate the Wild Atlantic Way’s success in other parts of the country. In 2015 they launched Ireland’s Ancient East, concentrating on the south east of the country, and a year later saw the launch of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, which focussed on the midlands. While the Wild Atlantic Way was a natural geographic route hugging the coastline, ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ was more difficult to package, comprising 17 counties as far apart as Cork on the south coast and Cavan in the north west (that neither are in the east didn’t seem to bother the tourism board).

While the signage along the Wild Atlantic Way is understated and clever, the garish, cumbersome signs dotted along the ‘Ancient East route’ don’t instil much confidence. While the Wild Atlantic Way concentrates on the landscape, Ireland’s Ancient East is focussed on stories – its website attempts to link the sites along the routes with ‘signature stories’ under titles such as Castles and Conquests, Sacred Ireland and High Kings and Heroes. That these stories have been watered down is disappointing to some. Content made by Fáilte Ireland announced that “storytelling interpretation does not look or sound like a history book. Think of it as a novel, even a graphic novel.”

“It’s worrying to read,” responded Gillian O’Brien in a piece from Irish website and radio broadcaster, RTÉ.

“This focus on simplifying the past into bite-sized chunks of easily digestible narrative is both disappointing and surprising, especially when you consider the target market for Ireland’s Ancient East is the ‘culturally curious.’”

Is this not the eventual result of destinations as brands? Places become mere ciphers, rather than the complicated, messy things they truly are.

For Hoyne, the key to solving all of this are people, not places. “A place brand is only successful when it encapsulates and reflects the authentic spirit and individuality of a place – two things only people can create,” he says. “How a place develops and manages its identity, image and reputation can influence a diversity of things, from international political relations to economic buoyancy, from community wellbeing to tourism.”

The future then, is complex. A world where experiences are as important as destinations, and an appropriate ratio is maintained between making a place better for its residents – and entertaining its visitors.

Five Destination Marketing Successes

1. Inspired By Iceland (2010)
After the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, tourism numbers fell by 22 per cent that same month. In reaction, tens of thousands of Icelanders created content for the Inspired by Iceland website. It worked: tourist figures rose from under 500,000 in 2010 to 2.5 million last year.

2. Malaysia, Truly Asia (2002)
The Truly Asia campaign is one of the most successful Asian tourism campaigns in history. Focusing on the diversity of Malaysia’s cultural and ethnic heritage, it saw tourist numbers rising from 12.7 million in 2001 to 22 million in 2008.

3. Nebraska, It’s Not For Everyone (2018)
When this US state revealed its new slogan last year, its tag line proved an immediate hit. The campaign addresses preconceived notions about the state using self-deprecating humour – something that its residents are known for.

4. Faroe Islands, Sheep View (2017)
Another example of turning a perceived weakness (it has more sheep than people) into a strength – a campaign saw 360-degree cameras strapped to the island’s woolly residents to stream footage that showcased the archipelago’s spectacular scenery.

5. Oregon, Only Slightly Exaggerated (2018)
A campaign that mixed self-deprecating humour with cutting-edge interactive animation. While stunning photography is ten-a-penny in tourism marketing, this playful campaign – featuring elephant-sized rabbits and newspaper-reading frogs – did something truly unique.

Words: Conor Purcell
Images: Artur Widak

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