Mayo, and its Wild Atlantic Way, may be a Mecca for motorhomes as the sun shines this summer but it is the village of Graiguenamanagh in the Ancient East, that has become the template for providing facilities for this growing cohort of tourists.
Situated on the river Barrow, the town has a population of 1,500 but has bolstered its annual revenue by €1.5 million, courtesy of its camper van visitors.
Indeed, its tourism hub, which has all the standard motorhome facilities – parking bays, water, waste and electricity – has become a template for other communities interested in harnessing the potential dividends.
Meanwhile, camper van owners visiting tourism honeypot Westport who don’t want to stay on privately owned campsites were greeted with a county council barrier obstructing them from parking along the popular Quayside over the weekend.
“We have no joined-up thinking in this country about providing Aires’ facilities and are way behind Europe in providing for campervans,” says Westport-based Fine Gael councillor Peter Flynn.
He says that “vested interests who have private facilities don’t want to see the development of Aires”,[a French word used for motorhome stopovers.
“The reality is, though, that some of these privately owned camping and caravan sites are only opened for some months of the year and, increasingly, camper van visitors travel all-year-round,” says Flynn.
He was part of a county council study trip to the tourism and activities hub in Graiguenamanagh and argues such services must be rolled out across the country.
“Aires don’t need to go into direct competition with privately run camping and caravan sites. In the case of Mayo, Louisburgh is a perfect example of a small town which would benefit from such services since these type of visitors like to visit the more remote beaches and wild areas,” suggests Flynn.
Aires typically facilitate visitors who want to stay for one or two nights and are on a touring holiday. The overnight costs are usually much cheaper than at campsites.
Ironically, the establishment of the Aires facilities in Graiguenamanagh was “a pure accident,” explains Martin O’Brien, the chairman of Barrow Valley Community Development.
“Our centre had an ethos of outdoor activity since we are located on the river and in the heart of the town. A few years ago, a car park in the town where the rowers use the river was full and somebody pointed a couple of camper van visitors in our direction. I knew nothing about Aires facilities but we had a mortgage to pay at the time and so I knocked on the doors of the six vans, which had parked up. The owners were more than happy to give me €12 each for the night,” O’Brien explains.
O’Brien immediately saw a huge opportunity and the group compiled a survey – which is ongoing and regularly updated – to assess what visitors want.
“Five years later, we have all-weather grass and hard-core parking with electric hookups for 50 vans. We provide fresh water and disposal facilities for black and grey waste and we also have shower and recycling facilities,” he says.
The cost to park a van in a six-meter bay per night is €12 with an extra €5 for electricity and a €1 donation for showers.
As well as rural development funding through the Leader programme, the support of Kilkenny County Council was key to this development, says O’Brien.
Executive engineer for the council, Frank Stafford, says the evolution of the centre into a camper van facility “is now considered a key economic driver for the town”.
“Speaking to local businesses, supermarkets, clothing and gift shops, bars and restaurants, water-based activity service providers and even hairdressers and pharmacies are all seeing the benefits,” says Stafford.
Motorhome Enthusiasts Ireland member Peter Kavanagh, from Arklow, wishes the ethos developed in Graiguenamanagh could be replicated elsewhere in the country.
“We need to develop a continental model here, urgently,” he says.
The group has over 8,000 members on its Facebook page where issues about access and services are often aired.
Kavanagh says the barriers at Westport Quay underscore a general negative attitude by local authorities to such tourists.
He dismisses accusations of camper van owners “dumping their waste in the sea” and says they have a strong ethos of “leaving no trace”.
“Why do local authorities discriminate against motorhome owners? We pay our taxes and insurance but yet, unlike other vehicle owners, we cannot park at the west pier in Dun Laoghaire, for example.”
He says that people who buy motorhomes invest anything from €20,000 to €100,000 in their vans.
“Because they have invested in their vehicles, they don’t have to pay for expensive accommodation in hotels. They have the funds to spend money locally in the shops, restaurants and pubs,” he says.
He extols the community enterprise in Graiguenamanagh and also cites the municipal facilities provided by Cork County Council at Cobh as another excellent example of how Aires can be developed.
A spokeswoman for Fáilte Ireland said it did not have up-to-date figures on the impact of this sector. She confirmed, however, that Clare and Donegal County Councils have carried out studies and Waterways Ireland has commissioned a detailed report, due to be published later this year.
Under the Tourist Traffic Acts 1939-2016, caravan and camping parks must be registered with Fáilte Ireland. There are currently 129 registered and approved caravan and camping sites throughout the country.