Laois is crying out for improved camping facilities. The dogs on the street are barking it.
It is not a problem, but rather a great opportunity. One that is becoming even more apparent with the opening up of the Slieve Blooms for outdoor pursuits like walks and mountain bike trails. The imminent investment on new blue ways along the Barrow, Erkina and Nore also present great scope.
It is an opportunity which was always there but has been amplified by the Covid overseas travel restrictions and the staycation culture which surged throughout this summer.
Campsites throughout the country were busier than ever, quite often full to capacity, serving just the domestic market, as UK and EU tourers were prohibited by travel advisories, ferry cancellations and quarantine conditions.
Without even considering the pent up demand within the sector which will manifest itself once international travel frees up again, veteran motorhome enthusiasts have been joined by a legion of newcomers with their campervans, caravans and canvass tents.
Unfortunately, many of the campsites which did open and were exceptionally busy since June 29th, did not cater for tents this season as they chose to mothball their shared facilities – toilets, showers and kitchens, citing health concerns and Covid protocols.
For the world of me I don’t see how it can be either hygienic or healthy to close toilets and showers.
All the more when the same sites continued to charge the full rates and tariffs without any reduction to reflect the drastically reduced services, effectively operating as Aires for self-contained units. These campsites enjoyed high occupancy rates and in many instances filling overflow areas.
The unnecessary closure of toilets and shower blocks strikes me as more convenient for the campsite owners, especially when you see the effort made by others to manage and maintain such services, even public toilets in places such as Easkey, Sneem and Lahinch which are all exemplary.
Nevertheless, the demand for camping facilities in all manifestations was evident once the lockdowns were lifted.
The good news is that many campsites have announced an extension of their normal season and intend to remain open right in to the mid-term at the end of October. This will provide some additional options and scope for those still looking to get away.
For whatever reason there has always been a dearth of touring camping facilities in the midlands.
This year’s exceptional circumstances and surge in home holidaying merely served to highlight that gaping deficiency even further.
While the likes of Laois, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath and Kildare are landlocked there is no shortage of inland waterways, stunning scenery and spectacular off-the-beaten track places worth visiting.
There is after all the Shannon, Barrow, Nore Rivers as well as the Royal and Grand Canal networks in case you need reminding.
The joys and pleasures of the slow pace, stillness and splendid isolation of the canals is well captured in Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, which I was delighted to see recalled on a suitably located bench seat along the banks of the Grand Canal at Vicarstown.
Kavanagh would be best pleased.
‘O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.’
The Waterways Ireland marina template in places like Portumna provide a blueprint for what’s possible.
It need not be expensive or elaborate. There is an interesting overlap and cultural connection between the needs of boaters and motorhome owners.
A berth for the night, fresh water point, waste disposal, with toilets, showers and electrical hook up as optional extras.
Places like Cobh and Bantry prove how popular and mutually beneficial well located and properly operated Aire facilities can be.
Aire style stopovers such as those at Goosey Island in Sneem, albeit in an exceptional location, and Graiguenamanagh on the banks of The Barrow illustrate the boost such a hub can be to the local economy, all year round.
This all merely serves to underline the glorious opportunity there is for some enterprising individuals or progressive communities here in the midlands.
The size of the prize is also significant.
On my recent travels I encountered a couple with twenty years of motorhome adventures under the belt, first with their children and now their grandchildren, in the same Hymer in which they started out.
They had been involved in a survey conducted a few years ago which indicated that there are over 20,000 registered motorhomes in the country; over 250,000 such vehicles in the UK and with 100,000 new motorhomes registered across the EU annually.
There are indications that some of the motorhome manufacturers are scaling up their production capacity to cater for and cope with the renewed interest and resurgence in all things camping.
These numbers do not even take in to account the popularity of campervan conversions and self-builds which are all the rage.
The average occupancy of motorhomes arriving off ferries into Irish ports is 3, with an average per capita spend per day ranging from €28 to €42, depending on the country of origin.
You can do the math, but it all adds up to a massive market comprised of outdoor adventure types, young families and grey nomads with disposal incomes and time on their hands.
A case in point is my own home place of County Laois which does not have any touring campsite facilities.
It’s a similar story in Offaly, Longford, Kildare and Westmeath, with the exception of the Shannon waterway.
There is a great opportunity here for landowners looking to develop an additional off-farm income or diversification from traditional agribusiness.
Likewise for pub owners with adjacent property which could be put to profitable use as an Aire as well as drumming up a captive audience and potential customers.
Local authorities too across Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands could do well to tap in to the vast indigenous tourism audience to provide basic services and amenities which would pay handsome dividends in boosting tourism numbers, football and local spend.
Build it, they will come. And once they do motorhome enthusiasts are always looking for local amenities and activities, things to do, places to eat and socialise.
Just last week, down the road in the beautiful village of Vicarstown we encountered at least 100 people out for the day on a Sunday, along the canal banks walking, cycling, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, on barges or touring on motorbikes.
It is great to see barges and bikes available for hire in the village for people to enjoy and explore the locality at a leisurely pace.
A number of those who had hired barges told us that they were astonished that there was nowhere to get anything to eat in the vicinity of the canal from Rathangan, Monasterevin, Fisherstown and Vicarstown that Sunday.
We had fortunately brought our own picnic which we were able to enjoy on the canal bank to the accompaniment of butterflies and dragon flies soaking up the last of the summer rays. Tiny fish daring to bask close to the surface.
It was great to also see the enthusiastic members of all ages who are involved in the new kayak/canoe club in Vicarstown and their smashing new facility, jetty and equipment.
But as one woman said: “It’s a terrible pity there is nowhere to even get a coffee or an ice-cream, we’ll have to get one of those portable wagons up and running.”
I couldn’t agree more missus and I’d like to add, somewhere designated to park up motorhomes and campervans overnight with some basic facilities… And it’s no secret that I’m partial to an Americano and a 99 ice cream!!
As for camping facilities in our incredible Slieve Blooms, just off the M7 and M8 motorways; along the N80 where tourists make their way west from the ferry port of Rosslare and an ideal midway break for campers heading up and down the country.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Ireland’s Hidden Heartland’s are a match for any destination, but we do need some touring camping facilities and motorhome parks to give visitors a chance to stop off and base themselves for a few days … the dogs in the street would tell ye that!
John Whelan is the author of the popular camping blog, Vanhalla – Camper Heaven www.vanhalla.ie