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The Wild Side of Heritage Tourism

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I was listening to the gentle lilt of conversation all around me as I enjoyed my personal pot of tea at breakfast. My itinerary included the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle with its famous bend-backwards-over-an-open-chute-and-kiss-the-stone experience, Irish dance shows, seanchaí (Irish story tellers), and yes, trips to the local pubs. I was in Ireland for the second time in my life as a heritage tourist.

As I traveled farther and farther from Dublin, I noticed something new and definitely different. There were signs with an undulating line – think of Charlie Brown’s shirt or an EKG. These were signs for a different kind of experience, the Wild Atlantic Way.

The Wild Atlantic Way

Even in a country with a healthy tourism industry and heritage tourism culture,* Ireland is expanding its story and offering something more, something different. Tapping into the desire for two types of experiences – authentic and off-the-beaten path – the Wild Atlantic Way answers that call. At its core, the Wild Atlantic Way is 1,500 miles of coastal pathways for walkers, hikers, cyclists, and motorized vehicles, too. The larger story is:

It’s easy to feel the wild that defines this coastline; it’s everywhere, from sheer cliffs that plunge into crashing Atlantic waves to remote, weather-beaten islands. But the west of Ireland is about more than that, it’s about moments of connection. It’s the chat from locals, the warmth of a fire-lit pub, the tapping feet of a traditional music session. From the elemental weather to the oak-smoked salmon, the essence of the Wild Atlantic Way runs deep.

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More Wild Ways

In Ireland, a country that is about the size of the state of Indiana, this desire for something more or different is being promoted at more established venues as well. While visiting Slieve League, I learned that the region is an actual extension of the Appalachian Trail. I wonder how many people who have “completed” their hike in the United States know that.

While in Portmagee and gazing over the Atlantic Ocean toward a tiny island shrouded in mist, I discovered you can sign up for an extreme and exclusive experience, hiking to the top of that mountain and retracing the steps of Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame – or the steps of the monks of St. Fionan who actually lived there IRL. Although that island, Skellig Michael, was granted World Heritage Site status in late 1996, the island is only recently being promoted broadly, making connections between traditional heritage tourists and today’s off-the-beaten path experience seekers. (as well as Star Wars enthusiasts).

Finding Your Wild

Whether your community is well known to visitors with robust and established tourist offerings like in Ireland or you are still working on your tourism strategy, this is the time to look at your community through the lens of authenticity, experiences, and maybe even something a little wild. These types of encounters are attractive to older travelers who have seen it all, but maybe haven’t experienced it all, as well as to younger travelers who are yearning to immerse themselves in a different way of being.

Seth Godin suggests, “we call a brand or a person authentic when they’re consistent, when they act the same way whether or not someone is looking.”

How will you enable your visitors to connect with the authentic others in your area, to get off the beaten path in your town, and maybe walk on the wild side of heritage tourism in your community?


*In 2018, revenue from overseas tourists exceeded EUR 5 billion for the first time and the total value of tourism expenditure to the economy amounted to EUR 9.4 billion, some 3% of GDP. Tourism industries directly employ 225 500 people, accounting for 10.3% of total employment.

Jane Smith
Jane Lawler Smith has spent her career in marketing - from setting strategies to the day-to-day of getting it done. Jane's career has crossed over into downtown enhancement and branding and she has a true passion for livable, walkable, and loveable communities. Jane resides in Lititz, PA - known to many as the coolest small town in America - with her husband and two daughters. She is a heritage tourist at heart and is in pursuit of her goal to visit all 50 states in the US.

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