I wrote here about the continuing decline in the numbers of boats recorded as passing through locks (and moveable bridges) on the Shannon. For the first five months of the year, the total number of recorded passages was jusst over half what it was in 2003. Maybe the current hot weather will increase the numbers, but the long-term trend has been downward for ten years, despite a Celtic-Tiger-inspired spike in usage by private boats.
I don’t know to what extent that decline affects Waterways Ireland’s policy-making. Are the hundreds of economists, marketing gurus, MBAs and other high-powered bods in WI’s marketing department engaged in a major search for new and profitable markets? Certainly its sponsorship programme [can’t find info on the WI website], its lists of events and its descriptions of activities are much broader in scope than mere boating, and even within that category small-boat activities are prominent.
WI is cooperating with other official bodies in developing walking [h/t Industrial Heritage Ireland] and cycling routes [h/t KildareStreet] and. with the Irish Sports Council and Irish Leisure Consultants, it has recently published A Guide to Planning and Developing Small Vessel Water Trails in Ireland [PDF]. WI does not, as far as I know, have a strategy for promoting increasing use of its waterways by cruising boats (private or hired), although I’d be happy to be corrected about that if I’m wrong.
All of this is good stuff, and I’m all in favour of widening the, er, user base (apart from those events for which people dress in fluorescent underwear and run around the streets: I share the late Mrs Patrick Campbell’s concern for the horses).
But three points strike me. The first is that the older waterways businesses — hotel boats, hire firms, marinas — involved capital investment and created reasonable numbers of jobs. I do not know whether Waterways Ireland measures employment, or other economic benefits, as an output of its sponsorship, marketing and organisational activities but it seems to me that it would be nice if it were able to show that the benefits outweigh the costs. It would also be interesting to know to what extent the newer activities can profitably attract tourists from overseas: with the water trails, for instance, is it possible for anyone to make a profitable business out of overseas visitors, given the costs of marketing and selling, or are these trails purely for the domestic market?
The second point is that one sector, that of professional event organisers, may indeed be benefiting from WI’s support. But if that disempowers local or voluntary groups, renders them unable to run events without professional assistance or makes the cost of doing so too high, it may not be an unmixed blessing.
The third is that there is a representative body for owners of inland cruising boats, but these new activities do not have inland-waterway-specific user bodies (if they have user bodies at all). That, I think, must make for a different type of relationship between the service provider, Waterways Ireland, and the users: most inland cruiser owners have nowhere else to go, but canoeists or anglers or walkers can easily switch to the sea or to non-WI inland waters, so WI has to compete for their custom.
This piece is written not to provide answers but to ask some questions.