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Off the beaten track: Adventure sport operators primed for a crucial summer

There is cause for optimism in Ireland’s adventure tourism sector as ‘the crisis before the current crisis’ takes a tentative step towards reform.

File photo: A group climbing Carantouhill for charity in 2015.
File photo: A group climbing Carantouhill for charity in 2015.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE KAYAKS ARE high and dry, mountain bikes gather the wrong sort of dust, hiking gear lies waiting to be wind-battered and the stand-up paddle boards are, well, stood up.

As the sun heated up the end of February and Ireland looked forward to a third month of Level 5 lockdown, many of you may have pined for the great outdoors, a wee adventure beyond your home’s 5 kilometre radius. Had you broken that barrier, your options would be limited by what you could confidently take on to do by yourself; a mild hike, bike or whatever equipment you invested in for your hobby of choice.

The businesses within Ireland’s adventure tourism industry are well used to a few quiet winter months, but this time around spring is no guarantee that they can swing back into action.

This time last year, the sector had to argue its way to permission to remain open right up through Nphet Level 4. And at that stage travel restrictions still presented an insurmountable hurdle as so many adventure sport operators earn their corn by being positioned closer to mountains than market towns.

The nature of such businesses mean they often do not have a fixed premises and rarely conduct their adventures at a given address, so many companies found themselves caught between well-meaning government funding streams until Failte Ireland’s business continuity scheme was put in place last month.

Financial strain is a common refrain from all businesses, but adventure sports had already been put to the pin of its collar before Covid hit.

5 April is a day circled on all of our calendars as the time when the current restrictions might be reduced or reviewed. However, this weekend may also hold a red letter day for outdoor pursuits in Ireland.

Insurance has long been a millstone around the neck of experiential businesses, with some in the trade remarking that premiums are effectively the cost of another full-time employee. This in a sector where full-time employment is scarce as it is.

The hope is that a major step towards insurance reform can be taken on Saturday when the Judicial Council votes on new recommendations around personal injuries guidelines presented by a seven-judge group chaired by Judge Mary Irvine.

“It was the crisis before the current crisis,” Irish Association for Adventure Tourism (IAAT) chief executive Brendan Kenny tells The42.ie.

“One (of our members) had a 300% increase on their premium from 2018 to 2019. It was completely unsustainable and we’re way off the mark in comparison to international competitors.”

“At the moment in Ireland, the guide for a minor injury, non-ligament, is actually €21,200. The same injury in the UK is about £4,500. So we’re way, way above our neighbours and the likes of Germany are capping pay-outs at around €1,800.

“We’ve got this guide to pay out huge amounts of money and it’s creating an enticing pot for claims to be put forward. We hope to have that addressed, have that reformed and bring it down by 80% to bring us into line internationally.”

As ever, reform requires more than one single strand to be straightened out. Along with the Book of Quantum guide and personal injury, Kenny is hoping to see a review of duty of care laws, which place a punitive amount of the onus on a service provider.

”The insurance crisis needs to be part of the recovery. It cannot be a crisis we return to,” says Kenny.

Last year’s grounded flights, cancelled holidays and 5km travel limits were the final straw for a handful of businesses who now will not be around to meet the bleary-eyed national market emerging from lockdown.

The businesses who have survived will offer a welcome break in the routine for those who seek them out when restrictions allow.

Many of us have felt the value of outdoor exercise throughout the past year and taken on the habit of returning again and again to particular local space in which to do it. The notion of going out to clear the head and a breath of fresh air is more than just homespun wisdom.

“Not only does it sound intuitively like a good idea, you can study it and see the difference when people get exercise out in daylight,” Mental Health Ireland CEO Martin Rogan told The42.

“Four and a half million years of evolution says that’s where we’re supposed to be. We’re designed to be active. So not being active works against our natural design.”

Any sort of outdoor activity offers the brain a sense of ‘challenge’ to take on and take satisfaction in completing. Adventure tourism, even if it amounts to a gentle bike ride or hike in a new location, is simply a another rise in the gradient of effort.

“You don’t go for a walk in your slippers. You have to dress for it, you have to be prepared for it.  You can be rained on, you could trip. All of that is ‘a challenge’ in nature and that makes it such a wonderful environment,” says Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, course director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Limerick.

“Nature automatically engages us in a different mindset, outside the structure of normal life or a profession. That helps us ease stress.”


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Outside of the mental health benefits, a smooth reopening for adventure tourism this year could serve to avoid a talent drain either to nations where the industry thrives or to other jobs here.

It is a sector driven by instructors, first aid-trained guides and safety conscious assistants. The very same group of people have already made the industry a fertile ground for the requirements of operating within Covid, says Kenny.

“Long before Covid, safety management would always have been central to our businesses. Implementing safe protocols and social distancing has been quite easy for our businesses to adapt to.”

“Our attitude is that, with activities generally taking place in wide open spaces outdoors, by lakes and rivers, hills and seas, that makes us perfectly positioned to reopen early, to give people something to look forward to and experience.”

Kenny adds: “It’s an extremely resilient sector. Given the nature of outdoor activities, our sector is confident and determined to lead the recovery out of Covid-19.”

Reduced global travel will continue to be a body blow to the cohort of businesses who have hitherto relied almost solely on overseas tourism. But if the national market can at least open up then there is cause for some optimism this summer.

“Given the fact that we’ve so many amazing experiences here in our own corner of the world, it would be nice to see people engage with those,” says Kenny.

“We’re hopeful we’ll get open as soon as possible and we would encourage the public to get out there, out to the great outdoors and take advantage of what’s on our doorstep.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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