A special forum has taken place in Strabane this week focusing on developing the tourism potential of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) Ulster Ireland, a cross border long distance walking trail that takes in locations running from west Donegal, through the Sperrin Mountains, the North Coast, and the Glens of Antrim before finishing at Larne.
Organised by the IAT Ulster Ireland, the event was supported by the Reconciliation Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Donegal Local Development Company, Derry City and Strabane District Council, Mid & East Antrim Borough Council and the Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs.
The Outdoor Economy Forum event welcomed a range of experts in the field of outdoor and adventure tourism. It was one of a number of activities taking place over five days which were organised with the aim of strengthening relationships and sharing ideas and best practice, while also building on activity undertaken to date to develop the Ulster Ireland section of the IAT. The activities comprised of round table talks, walking on the IAT/Ulster Way, and focussed on trail development, linkages with other locations, as well as conservation and the development of tourism experiences.
While traditionally associated with North America and specifically the eastern United States and Canada, Appalachian geology can be found also in Greenland, Scandinavia, the British Isles and Europe and North Africa. The International Appalachian Trail running from the US to Canada was first developed in 1994 on the basis of this geology, and has since been extended throughout the world with Ulster Ireland joining in 2013. Its ultimate mission is to establish a network of walking trails that extends beyond borders of all the geographic regions which share the Appalachian footprint with the aim of connecting places and people, promoting natural and cultural heritage, health and fitness, environmental stewardship, cross-border cooperation, and rural economic development through eco and geo tourism.
Acknowledging the success of the event, Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District, Councillor Michaela Boyle, said the Outdoor Economy Forum had been a great opportunity to share expertise and experience which will benefit tourism in the wider North West region.
“The International Appalachian Trail is extremely popular with fans of the outdoors and there is great potential for further development in terms of creating bespoke walking and hiking packages for visitors to the region,” she stressed.
“The trail is a highlight of the new Tourism Strategy for Derry and Strabane, promoting rural tourism and making the most of our outstanding areas of natural beauty. By sharing information and experience with locations with common interests, we can work on harnessing the potential of these areas and drawing more international visitors with a passion for outdoor adventure experiences.”
Among the speakers taking part in the event were a highly expert North American delegation which included David Startzell, President Emeritus of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy ; Suzanne Dixon, Appalachian Trail Conservancy President and CEO; Don Hudson and Paul Wylezol, Co-Presidents of the IAT , Heather Clish of the Appalachian Mountain Club and Larry Luxenberg of the Appalachian Trail Museum, Pennsylvania. All were impressed by programme of events that were provided by hosts IAT Ulster Ireland throughout the week and by the progress being made locally to develop an IAT walking experience.
David Startzell, the CEO for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reflected on their experience of the positive impacts of trail development saying: “The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,188-mile long-distance footpath extending through 14 states in the eastern United States as well as six national parks, eight national forests, and dozens of state and local parks, forests, and game lands. The AT experiences an estimated two million visitors each year. According to a survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service in 2010, the trail, which passes through or near many local communities, generates $125 to $168 million in annual spending, with $27 million in local tourism spending and $36 million in local economic spin-offs. More than 30 communities are now designated as ‘AT Communities’ with promotional signage, school-aged trail-education programmes, and trail-friendly local land-use controls. Four of those communities sponsor or host trail visitor centres.”
This message was reinforced by Don Hudson, Co-President of the International Appalachian Trail and a founder of the IAT who said: “Trails are essential for the travelling public eager to learn about the landscape. The International Appalachian Trail was proposed 25 years ago to connect people and places and to celebrate cultural and natural heritage. As awareness grows of trails such as the IAT, communities in Maine are responding to meet the needs of an increasing number of visitors. Restaurants, lodgings, guide and shuttle services are among the businesses that are growing now in the greater Katahdin region of Maine, because trails provide access to an otherwise inaccessible landscape of deep forests, mountains, rivers, streams, and ponds.”
The goal of IAT Ulster Ireland is no less ambitious. It aspires to follow in the footsteps of the American Appalachian Trail including replicating the same positive economic impacts on local towns, villages and communities located along its route. The forum event held in Strabane, as well as the week’s other activities, are a significant stepping stone on the path to success.
For the IAT Ulster Ireland‘s Magne Haugseng, learning is key to development.
“We launched our section of the IAT in August 2013 and whilst improvement in trail infrastructure is ongoing and progressing well, I am delighted to welcome such expertise as this helps us to focus better on the important aspects of rural economic growth,” he said.
Further information on the International Appalachian Trail can be viewed at www.iat-sia.org.