I am grateful to Waterways Ireland for letting me have copies of the recorded numbers of boat passages through Shannon locks and Portumna Bridge for the first five months of 2014. All 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 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
- figures like these, for a small number of months, will not necessarily be representative of those for the year as a whole. The winter months, January to March, see little traffic in any year; for April and May, the weather can have a large influence on the amount of activity especially, I suspect, in private boats.
On the other hand, the figures do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business. And they are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the inland waterways.
The total amount of traffic continues to decline.
Private-boat traffic is still below its average for the period but increased slightly on the same period of the previous year [but see the third caveat above].
Hire-boat traffic is just over one third of its 2003 level.
Since 2003, both private and hired traffic have fallen, from the highest figures attained within the period, by about 60% of the 2003 figure. But private traffic first rose by 40% of the 2003 figure, so it is now only about 20% below that figure. Hire traffic has fallen pretty consistently since 2003.
Hire traffic is usually greater than private traffic between April and October (roughly speaking), but the gap is closing.
Carál Ní Chuilín, NI’s [SF] waterways minister, said the other day:
Waterways Ireland delivered a presentation to Ministers entitled ‘Ireland’s Inland Waterways — Building a Tourism Destination’. The presentation provided an overview of the progress that Waterways Ireland is making in placing waterways and the waterway experience at the centre of the tourism offering in Ireland and internationally.
And a good thing too, but the waterways need new water-based tourism products to complement, and perhaps to replace some of, the hire-boat cruising business. Opening new waterways — Royal Canal, Longford Branch, Ulster Canal, Kilbeggan Branch or anything else — is a waste of money until demand, domestic and visitor, private and hired, exceeds existing capacity.