Ards and Down Area Plan 2015
Policy Framework: Tourism
Tourism is an industry with excellent growth prospects in the Plan area and its potential rests firmly on the beauty of the landscapes and variety of interests and heritage features to be enjoyed. Strangford Lough/St. Patrick’s country, the Lecale Coast, Slieve Croob and the Mourne Mountains are recognised for the rarity and quality of their landscapes and offer opportunities for touring and a diversity of individual and organised recreational activities.
Apart from the attractions of mountains, countryside and seashores, the Plan area has a great variety of places to visit including, for example, Country and Forest Parks, historic houses and gardens, historic monuments and visitor centres, such as the St. Patrick’s Visitor Centre in Downpatrick, Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre near Comber, and the Exploris marine life centre in Portaferry.
Downpatrick is one of the earliest settlements in Ireland. The town and surrounding countryside claim close association with St. Patrick, who is said to have built his first church in Ireland at Saul, and after all his travels, to have died there. The present Cathedral stands high above the town, opposite the Mound of Down, the12th Century site of John de Courcey’s castle. To the north west, the ruins of de Courcey’s Cistercian abbey of Inch, are beautifully set by the Quoile River and marshlands.
Downpatrick, identified as a Heritage Town in the Regional Development Strategy, (RDS), is centrally located and has the potential to develop as a base for touring within the Plan area. Investment, which would make the town more attractive as a tourism centre, might include a better range of accommodation, an improved retail sector and facilities for social, cultural and recreational activities.
Newtownards, like Downpatrick, was an important Anglo-Norman town, and one of the earliest 17th century “new towns”. It presently offers limited facilities for tourists, but is instantly recognisable as the northern “gateway” to Strangford Lough and to County Down through its association with Scrabo Tower, the landmark feature on the hill which dominates the town and the northern end of the lough. Newtownards is also highly accessible from the Belfast Metropolitan Area, and is well located to provide accommodation and related facilities, which would significantly benefit the growth of the tourism industry throughout Ards Peninsula, Strangford Lough and St. Patrick’s Country. The proximity of Belfast offers opportunities for business tourism within the Plan area, with hotel accommodation and conference facilities linked to recreational, cultural and landscape/wildlife activity packages.
Promotion and marketing of tourism in the Plan area is primarily the responsibility of Ards Borough Council and Down District Council. Both operate a range of tourist facilities including picnic, caravan and amenity sites. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Forest Service and the Department of the Environment, through the Environment & Heritage Service, manage historic and special wildlife sites such as the archaeological remains of Nendrum Monastry near Whiterock,Ballycopeland Windmill at Millisle and the Quoile and Mourne Countryside Centres. They have also developed walks, bird hides and caravan and camping sites.
The National Trust also owns and manages properties of nature and historical interest: Mount Stewart House and Gardens and Castle Ward House and Estate, both on the shores of Strangford Lough; Rowallane House and Gardens at Saintfield and Murlough Nature Reserve at Dundrum.
The private sector provides tourist accommodation in hotels, guesthouses, bed & breakfast and self-catering chalets, and tourism services such as restaurants, cafes and craft shops. The potential exists to develop the range and quality of these facilities.
Regional Policy Context
The Regional Development Strategy, (RDS), provides the following strategic planning guidelines:
- to promote a sustainable approach to the provision of tourism infrastructure;
- to enhance and develop the 'distinctiveness' of the Region as a key element of its tourism product; and
- to build a Competitive Advantage.
The Department’s operational planning policies for tourism development and accommodation, caravan and camping sites, signage and the protection of tourism assets in Northern Ireland, are set out in “A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland”. Proposals will be assessed on their contribution to the tourism industry, their implications for conservation of the natural, man-made and built heritage, and against any relevant policies in the Plan.
The tourism industry offers economic reward and social benefits. Developing its potential however, requires that developments should not be at the expense of the natural and built environment on which the industry relies and in which local people live. Prevailing regional planning policy provides for the protection of tourism assets, and for the protection of rural character and visual amenity in areas of landscape quality.
Assessment of development proposals related to tourism will take account of impact on the Plan’s assets, such as the scenic routes and views provided along the coastal shorelines and the shores of Strangford Lough, and roads through the foothills of the Mourne mountains.
Realising the tourism potential of Down District and Ards Borough will require investment in marketing, product development and physical facilities in terms of visitor infrastructure, and especially visitor accommodation. However, since a vibrant tourism sector depends on a quality host environment, its growth must be based on the provision of quality tourism facilities and accommodation that contributes to the sustainability of the industry.
Development proposals, which comply with the principles of good design and landscaping, sympathetic location, sensitive siting, and respect for vernacular styles and traditions, will secure the long term future of tourism resources.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has set out a new direction in its Framework for Action 2004-2007. In line with its Corporate Plan, the strategic framework’s target is to increase visitor tourism revenue by 9% every year, visitor numbers by 7% and to increase Northern Ireland’s share of visitors to the island of Ireland. The framework sets out the steps needed to address this challenge. It will deliver improvements in tourism performance across three key objectives of Attracting Visitors, Business Enhancement and Communicating Effectively.
Plan policies and proposals in respect of the Environment and Conservation and Recreation and Open Space Sections in this Volume and plan proposals in Volumes 2 and 3 are in keeping with the strategic planning guidelines for tourism as outlined in the RDS and will assist in the achievement of related objectives.
SPG-ECON 8 of the RDS seeks to enhance and develop the ‘distinctiveness’ of the Region as a key element of its tourism product. Five Signature Projects are identified, two of which fall within the Plan area, which are unique to the North of Ireland, and offer distinctive characteristics that will enable it to stand out in an increasingly busy marketplace, creating a new ‘brand identity’ for the North as a place to live, work and visit.
St Patrick / Christian Heritage
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board promotes this Signature Project with the aim of capitalising on the international recognition of St Patrick while bringing together the authentic Patrician and other Christian Heritage sites prevalent throughout the North, including in particular those in Down.
This Signature Project focuses on this unparalleled Irish landscape, with the aim of capitalising on this beautiful natural asset and to establish the Mournes as an exemplar destination for sustainable tourism development in a protected landscape. This represents a destination where value rather than volume of visitor activity will be targeted.
Despite not being identified as a ‘Signature Project’, Strangford Lough represents a development opportunity within the Plan area related to wildlife and heritage tourism based on bird and marine life, historic monuments, buildings and gardens, and also includes the St. Patrick’s Country theme.
Despite the accessibility of this area and its wealth of natural and man-made attractions, tourism is presently a low-key economic activity. Limited growth in activity levels and facilities, consistent with the capacity of its landscapes and vulnerability of its natural habitats, could therefore create a significant economic return. However, the over-riding objective must be to facilitate increased opportunities for enjoyment of the areas without harming the environmental quality of the area.
“Strangford Lough: A Strategy for Sustainable Development” was published in 1998 on behalf of a group of government agencies, including Environment and Heritage Service (now the Northern Ireland Environment Agency), Planning Service, Ards Borough Council and Down District Council, and in consultation with Strangford Lough Management Committee and local interests. It offers much useful analysis and advice on the potential role of tourism around Strangford Lough and St. Patrick’s Country.
This was followed in 2001 by the publication of Strangford Lough SAC/SPA Management Scheme which is intended to safeguard the conservation status of those features for which Strangford Lough has been selected as a candidate SAC and designated as a SPA. The Scheme sets the framework through which activities will be managed, either voluntarily or through regulation, so as to achieve the conservation objectives of the European marine site. Management of the conservation interests will work to accommodate, and may in some cases encourage, appropriate human activities