Some weeks ago Waterways Ireland kindly supplied me with the Shannon traffic figures for the final three months of 2013 and I have just now had a chance to add them to my spreadsheets and produce some graphs.
The usual caveats apply: the underlying figures do not record total waterways usage (even for the Shannon) as, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded. The passage records are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the Shannon but they would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats. On the other hand, they do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business.
It is good to note, incidentally, that, in its draft Corporate Plan 2014–2016, Waterways Ireland says that it intends to
Develop and implement a research programme to measure waterway usage and inform planning and development.
It won’t be easy to do, but we need much better measures of all types of activities on all seven of the waterways managed by WI.
The final outcome for 2013 won’t greatly surprise anyone who has read earlier bulletins on this subject, like this covering the figures to end-September 2013. All the illustrations are based on information supplied by Waterways Ireland, with some minor adjustments by me to eliminate anomalies, but the interpretation and comments are mine own.
The decline in traffic since 2003 seems to have been halted …
… but it is 40% below what it was in 2003.
Traffic in private boats seems to be recovering, but what is perhaps more significant is that it never went more than 10% above or below the 2003 figure. It has been remarkably stable over the period, despite the economic crash and despite the anecdotal evidence of boats being sold to overseas owners and trucked out of the country. Perhaps larger boats were replaced by smaller? Perhaps only boats bought in the boom were sold in the bust? Unfortunately the deficiencies of the registration system make it very difficult to determine what has been happening.
But if private-boat traffic has been remarkably stable since 2003, the same cannot be said of hire-boat traffic. The best that can be said of 2013 is that the figures didn’t get [much] worse, but a 60% decline since 2003 is really, really dreadful.
WI’s draft Corporate Plan, which does not explicitly mention the hire industry, talks of
… unlocking opportunities to achieve recreational growth, and economic and social development.
I don’t know whether that omission means that WI sees little prospect of a rejuvenated hire-boat industry. And I note that, other than in the titles of organisations, the draft plan rarely mentions tourism or tourists. Are the waterways only for natives? If so, is that a deliberate policy decision? Or is there something that could be done, cheaply, to help to revive waterways tourism?
- social energisers, which are gangs of young people interested in “new and vibrant destinations”, which I take to mean Temple Bar
- culturally curious folk aged 50 or over, with money, who are interested in “exploring new landscapes, history and culture”
- great escapers, who like energetic rural holidays with their partners.
No families with kids, I see, although “Families & Loved Ones” (the latter term, by the way, nowadays seems to mean either dead people or their relicts) were one of the two “primary target customer segments” identified in Fáilte Ireland’s Inland Cruising Market Development Strategy. (Fat lot of good that strategy did, but we mustn’t be bitter.)
Anyway, without having done any market studies (though WI has funded lots of them), it seems to me that there is scope for more tourism on the waterways, but it might not be on traditional cruisers. It might involve outdoor activities like cycling and walking along the canals and Barrow: WI’s plan discusses them, but without adverting to an overseas market. And it might involve small-boat activities — canoeing, touring rowing, small-boat sailing, camping — on Shannon, Erne and SEW: WI says it will support micro-enterprises, and those providing outdoor activity holidays may need expertise and assistance rather than hard cash.
I admit to having little evidence on this, but it seems to me to be too early to give up on the tourism potential of the waterways. And the decline of the cruiser hire business does not necessarily mean that all waterway tourism is doomed.
That said, 2013 was the year when, for the first time since Noah was an Able Seaman, the number of passages by private boats exceeded that by hire boats.
Finally, this chart suggests that any structures that were not built by the Shannon Commissioners in the 1840s will not attract many visitors. The extensions off the main stem of the Shannon — south to Limerick, west to Ballinasloe, east through Clondra, north to Lough Allen — are much less used than the main line from Lough Derg to Lough Key. It seems unlikely that any further extensions, especially to small towns that it would take three hours (at canal speed) to get to, are likely to be any more successful in attracting traffic.