Monday, 15 April 2013

Engaging with Rural Communities - NUIG Students Present Rural Sustainability Projects




The Enterprise Centre, Boyle was the venue for a series of three presentations by Masters Students in Rural Sustainability from the School of Geography and Archaeology (Geography), NUI Galway.  The presentations were the culmination of six weeks of research by the students on three project proposals centred on the town of Boyle and its environs.  The proposals were devised to initiate or expand on rural development opportunities in the locality, drawing as far as possible on existing local resources and capacities with the aim that the local population and economy would mainly benefit.  The projects were identified through discussion with the organisations that provided the initial opportunities for them to be undertaken.  The organisations involved were:  Boyle Town & More and Boyle Chamber of Commerce; Lough Key Forest and Activity Park; Úna Bhán Tourism Co-operative Society.  

The first project explored the potential to make connections to place through film-based tourism, based on the highly successful ‘Moone Boy’ television series.  The concept of film-based tourism is used to explain the reasons behind tourist visits to destinations featured on television, video or cinema and the experiences they hope to gain from these visits.  This form of tourism is well established as a successful economic activity in locations in which films or TV programmes have been made or even seem to have been made (e.g. Heartbeat, Father Ted). Based on surveys and test screenings of Moone Boy, the idea of identifying certain focal points in the series that could be linked to Boyle was put forward as one recommendation.  The key words used to describe the setting of Moone Boy were ‘traditional’, ‘historic’ and ‘unchanged’. The fact that Boyle exists as a real place was seen as a very advantageous starting point.  That the town has not become over-developed and retains a traditional, authentic character was another.  Providing a guided tour based around Moone Boy and the focal points as a way of enhancing the experience of visitors was a second key recommendation.  The majority of those surveyed had at some stage taken part in a guided tour.  All of them had a positive perception of what a tour guide added to the tourist experience in terms of knowledge, providing explanations and interpretations, and giving the tour experience a personal touch.  The possibility of developing merchandise relating to Moone Boy was also explored.  In this regard, several traders in the town agreed that Moone Boy had the potential to impact positively on their businesses; however this had only been realised by a small number of them.  A Moone Boy Comedy Weekend was also proposed as a way of connecting Boyle to the series and strengthening the place link.

The second project investigated the importance of accommodation as part of the rural tourism ‘experience’ and the potential this holds for tourism development in Boyle.  It did this through a focus on how the Úna Bhán Tourism Co-operative facilitates and promotes this kind of rural accommodation experience.  The concept of a rural accommodation experience is based on the idea of accommodation as a resource that is key to delivering an overall authentic rural tourism product that is specific to the rural locality in question. It first examined what was meant by a rural tourism experience.  This mainly implies providing an authentic place experience which is built around local traditions, cultures, foods and heritage, as well as the physical characteristics of the location.  The accommodation provider is in the position to draw all of these together in a number of ways; for example, through the form of the accommodation itself which fulfils rural-associated expectations, and through the ways providers actively manage the tourism experience for their guests.  A survey of potential tourists on what they would value most about a rural accommodation experience showed that their host having local knowledge and being able to advise on local activities, sites of interest, places to eat, etc. were the most important.  This was followed by personal touch, i.e. looking after guests and enhancing the authentic experience.  Small scale accommodation was also associated with the rural, with a slight preference for B&B over hotel accommodation, with self-catering also being highly favoured.  The value of the Úna Bhán structure is that it acts as a central support organisation to its members who are also rural accommodation providers.  It centralises many of the functions needed to deliver a quality rural accommodation experience; for example, it sources and holds information on local activities, makes available promotional and marketing material, and provides advice and support in a two-way process –to both shareholders and the general public.  It facilitates ‘packaging’ of rural tourism experiences based on what the individual tourist requires, from activity-based holidays to those based around local heritage, culture or food.  Because the rural tourism industry involves many potential groups and individuals, one of its weaknesses is that management is very fragmented.  The value of integrated structures like Úna Bhán is that it provides co-ordination, interacts with funding bodies, etc., so that individual members can concentrate on what they do best and develop their individual quality accommodation product.

The third project focused on Lough Key Forest Park as one of the most spectacular natural amenities in the county and in the west region.  In collaboration with the Lough Key Forest and Activity Park organisation, its starting point was an acknowledgement that any development of Lough Key must protect and sustain this natural resource for the benefit of the Boyle area into the future, i.e., the concept of sustainable rural development. Lough Key in its entirety is a scenic and natural area which for many people constitutes a ‘therapeutic landscape’.  The concept of therapeutic landscapes comes from health geography.  It refers to an understanding of environments as they contribute to a sense of well-being and healing.  The aim therefore was to investigate a sustainable activity that could draw upon all of these existing attributes of Lough Key but not over-exploit the natural resource base.  Camping was seen as one strong possibility for the following reasons: a) it can work sympathetically with the natural environment in terms of low-impact exploitation; b) Lough Key’s natural amenities ensure an exceptional experience in terms of engagement with the natural environment from the therapeutic perspective; c) camping as a form of accommodation ensures overnight stays and associated economic spin-offs.  Camping is already established in Lough Key Forest Park, so the thinking was expanded to introduce a more novel aspect – that of ‘glamping’ or ‘glamour camping’.  Glamping aims to keep the close engagement with an authentic natural setting, but also the modern conveniences and comforts of more conventional accommodation.  In a short survey of the local population in Boyle, a majority felt that glamping could contribute to Boyle’s tourist industry.  The groups that were identified as potential targets for glamping were families, couples and hen/stag parties.  On the idea of Lough Key Forest Park as a location for glamping, the majority believed that glamping would attract tourists there, and would enhance their experience of the Park and its amenities.  It could furthermore be linked to the other wide range of activities available not only in the Park but also in the surrounding Boyle area.  One of the prohibitive aspects of glamping relates to the initial set up costs, with the smallest size tent or ‘yurt’ priced at over €3,000, and the most expensive costing up to €20,000.  Storage of equipment during off-peak seasons must also be factored in.  

This form of collaboration between the MA students and the three organisations in question was based on a Service Learning approach to teaching and learning about rural sustainability, through a module entitled ‘Engaging with Rural Communities’.  The aim of the Service Learning model is that the students apply and test their knowledge already gained in the classroom setting to real-life rural situations and problems.  In this case, they were asked to engage with their respective organisations, to develop their own insights and ideas based on these interactions and experiences outside of the classroom, and then to apply their learning to devise project proposals that could have meaningful impacts for those organisations.  The other aims of Service Learning are that students develop their capacities for civic engagement, and achieve personal goals in relation to professional development.  NUI Galway is strongly committed to promoting meaningful links and collaboration with the wider community through its Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) and this module, ‘Engaging with Rural Communities’, is endorsed under this initiative.  The module is co-ordinated by Dr. Marie Mahon (marie.mahon@nuigalway.ie) and Dr. Maura Farrell (maura.farrell@nuigalway.ie).  The Masters in Rural Sustainability is a full-time, one-year Programme.
Blog written by Dr. Marie Mahon, NUIG 


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