×

A lesson from the Emerald Isle

The “If you build it, they will come” proclamation – from the movie “Field of Dreams” – isn’t always accurate. However, upon completion of the Great Western Greenway in Ireland, “they” arrived in large numbers and are still coming.

At just over 26 miles, the GWG is a walking and predominantly cycling trail that runs from the picturesque village of Westport (population 5,543 in 2012) in County Mayo to the village of Achill.

With increasing automobile traffic starting in the 1920s, train service that connected Westport to Achill was discontinued in 1937 after 42 years of service. The former railroad line was converted to a recreational trail and opened in 2011. It is one of two open “greenway” trails in Ireland with two more in the planning stage and nine more proposed trails. To say the GWG has been a success would be an understatement. A more accurate characterization would be a resounding success. It didn’t take long for the GWG to become a “European Destination of Excellence” award winner.

Traveling in Ireland in May and spending three nights in Westport, my wife and I had never heard of the GWG until a local tourist information official informed us about it. We called the Clew Bay Bike Hire shop and made reservations to rent bikes the next day.

Arriving at the shop early, I had a chance to speak with the owner, who told me about the impact the GWG is having on Westport and the villages along the trail. He noted that it didn’t take long for the trail to become a well-known attraction and deliver a significant shot in the arm to the local economy. Michael Ring, Irish minister of state for tourism and sport, stated the GWG had increased local revenues and created jobs in County Mayo.

For 25 Euros (about $28) the bike shop provides a bicycle, a helmet and transportation. A shuttle van from Westport takes trail goers to Newport for a 6.8-mile ride back to Westport, or Mulranny for an 18-mile return ride, or to Achill (our choice) for the complete 26-mile ride. Another option is to start in Westport and ride to one of the villages, then take the shuttle to return. The most ambitious alternative is to ride from Westport to Achill and back, a 52-mile round trip. If someone runs out of energy any place along the trail, no problem. Just call the bike shop, and the van driver will bring you back to Westport.

The GWG was not designed for fast-moving cyclists on road bikes, and few are to be found on the trail. Rather, it’s a family-friendly venue for a leisurely ride through the beautiful Irish countryside with some of Clew Bay’s 365 islands in view. The bike shops also rent carts that attach to bicycles so families with young children can easily transport them along the trail.

Along with Westport, the village of Newport has benefitted substantially from the GWG. While primarily an off-highway trail, the GWG passes through the main street of Newport, meaning that annually tens of thousands of people pedal through town with many of them (like us) stopping for refreshments then meandering through local shops.

This tens-of-thousands estimate is no exaggeration. The Irish Times reported that between March and June of 2011 (the first year the GWG was open), 50,000 people used the trail. The Clew Bay Bike Hire shop owner noted he has 500 rental bikes and on a busy day rents all of them. Two other rental shops have opened as of late to meet the needs of tourists wanting to ride the GWG.

I wonder how much money trail users have spent in Westport, Newport and Achill on bike rentals, in restaurants, in supermarkets (the campers), for lodging, in souvenir and gift shops, in art galleries and in bookstores since the trail opened five years ago? How much will trail goers spend in the next five, 10 and 20 years? All the Westport locals we spoke to were quite pleased with the GWG, especially those in the business community.

After an enjoyable day on the GWG, we did what most visitors do: returned to our lodging, cleaned up, rested a bit, then headed to a pub for a meal and a pint or two of Guinness. Our ride and sightseeing excursion on the GWG was one of the highlights of our Ireland vacation, as I’m sure it is with many visitors.

Of the 975 reviews of the GWG on TripAdvisor as of Aug. 12, 804 individuals ranked their trail experience as “excellent” and 154 as “very good.” No doubt many of these people will return as well as enthusiastically spread the word about their day cycling or walking.

An all-purpose recreational trail in place of existing railroad tracks in the Adirondacks would be just as successful as Ireland’s GWG and provide a significant boost to the local economy. If you build it, they will come.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.

Sources

“Great Western Greenway – A User’s Guide” (accessed 2016), Great Western Greenway, www.greenway.ie

“New 10 million euros package for greenways announced” (accessed 2016), Irish Greenways, www.irishgreenways.com

Shiel, T. (July 30, 2011) “Rail line becomes cycling track,” The Irish Times, www.irishtimes.com

“The Great Western Greenway” (Aug. 12, 2016) TripAdvisor, www.tripadvisor.com

“Western trail wins tourism award” (2011) RTE, www.rte.ie