Clare tourism tensions continue with locals 'lobbying' against council's latest moves

There has been a growing divergence at Clare County Council’s plans to monetise different parts of the county’s offerings.

By Eoghan Dalton

AN AWARD-WINNING TOURIST attraction in Co Clare is set to lose a prized distinction after a decision by the local council to charge for entry.

The Vandeleur Gardens in Kilrush, Co Clare, which is considered a “biodiversity haven” by experts, started charging the public this year, following a large scale upgrade of adjacent grounds.

The gardens currently have a Green Flag Award from An Taisce, the equivalent of the heritage body’s Blue Flag merit for beaches. However, the group confirmed that the criteria for any recipient is that its maintains free entry to the public.

It’s become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing dispute between Clare County Council and locals in the region who have claimed that tourism is often prioritised instead of local services.

The council has been embarking on a wide-ranging strategy to develop tourism in the county, but tensions have been increasing in local communities at the plans.

Here, Noteworthy looks at the widening dispute – and how the latest incident has seen locals “lobby” against the council’s moves to charge for entry to the Vandeleur Gardens.

Council says ‘clear need for change’

At present, the centerpiece of Clare’s tourism industry is the Cliffs of Moher, an extraordinarily popular attracting boasting 1.1m patrons in 2022 according to council records.

In September, it revealed the Cliffs of Moher 2040 Strategy, which it hopes to set out a long-term vision for not just that standalone attraction, but also reap benefits to spread around the region.

It aims to make the cliffs more than “just a photo stop”, by creating a “paced emotional journey” and “wilder, back to nature experience” along the towering rock.

But the council said at the time that the strategy is “driven by a clear need for change”, underpinned by the “limited capacity” of visitor facilities on site.

Its visitor numbers have “far exceeded that which the site was originally designed to cater for”, resulting in negative impacts on the experience for visitors, “from congestion on arrival to overcrowding along paths and in the visitor centre”.

The council added:

The success of the strategy will rest on achieving a sustainable balance between the priorities to create high quality visitor experiences, protect the cultural authenticity and wildness of the natural assets, increase tourism revenue across the season.

This goal comes amid resistance from locals to efforts to commercialise different parts of the county’s offerings.

A statement to Noteworthy from heritage body An Taisce gives some indication to the tensions in relation to Vandeleur Gardens. It said that it had been contacted several times about the issue, claiming there appeared to be a “concerted lobby going on around the fees” for the Kilrush attraction.

Previously the property of Dutch merchants who came to Ireland in the 17th century, the gardens and visitor centre were restored in the late 1990s. The 2.2 acre space comprises of a maze of paths dotted with all types of plants.

Gardensv4 Vandeleur Gardens is set to lose its Green Flag Award this coming spring because of its new entry fees.
Source: Google Earth Pro/Street View 2022

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Set to lose Green Flag this spring

One local woman who spoke to Noteworthy, and who asked not to be named, said she was among the people contacting An Taisce.

She said was doing so as she believes it’s in danger of becoming “another local amenity taken away from the people that Clare County Council are supposed to be supporting”.

While access to Vandeleur Gardens has been free for many years, the council has invested almost €4 million to upgrade buildings on the wider grounds of the old estate, including the development of a car park and an interpretive center.

The upgrades were made after the council was granted planning permission through its local planning office to proceed with the redevelopment of the grounds.

However, locals who spoke to Noteworthy expressed frustration at the situation and pointed to the council’s 2022 planning application not containing information about any plans to charge for entry.

A ‘Local Access Pass’ allows people to gain year round entry for €20, while you need to pay €7 for regular adult entry and €5 for a child over the age of five. Anyone younger gets to tour the gardens for free with their parent or guardian.

“But there is no guarantee how long the local access will remain at a low rate or even at all,” the local woman said.

The new charge will also bar the council from renewing its Green Flag Award in future, as An Taisce has never actually “stripped” a park of the award.

“As the park was awarded the flag when they were not charging entry, and thus fulfilling the criteria of free entry to the public, and there is no precedent for striping a park of their flag once awarded, [so Vandeleur will] have the flag for this year, but they won’t be allowed to apply for renewal in Spring,” An Taisce said.

“Leeway” in the decision was allowed as “management at Vandeleur Gardens indicated that there will be allocated free access days to the general public” in future.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for the Vandeleur Gardens as they see no way to survive without charging fees,” An Taisce added.

Unfortunately that means they won’t be able to have the Green Flag flying in future years despite it being an outstanding site and biodiversity haven.

Clare Council Council was asked about locals concerns over the introduction of charges and loss of its Green Flag but Noteworthy did not receive a response before publication.

Other unique gardens around the country have adopted a similar approach to manage their finances. In Tramore, Co Waterford, the council’s Lafcadio Hearne Japanese Gardens charges on most days of the week, but allows free entry midweek in a bid to make it more accessible.

Cliffs Tourists Parking Clare County Council has been accused of blatantly “ripping off” tourists over its Cliffs of Moher offerings.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Parking controversy at the cliffs

Recent years have also seen the council boost efforts to charge people who take in the sights of the Cliffs of Moher by walking along the coast.

The Journal reported earlier this year that this has been done by hiring ‘wardens’ to check the incoming road for people dropping off visitors instead of using the onsite car park.

There is a charge of €12.50 for anyone using the car park or entering the council’s visitors centre – but this charge is now being applied to people who are dropped off by car outside the site.

The issue of parking at the cliffs has also found its way before the courts; an ongoing legal dispute has focused on the operation of the council car park at the Cliffs of Moher visitor centre.

Local firm Diamrem Ltd has claimed that it was financially unable to operate its park-and-ride business because the council continues to operate its own 480-space car park at the Cliffs of Moher.

The case remains before the High Court, after the firm won a case at the Court of Appeal last March. Diamrem Ltd and the council both declined to comment when contacted.

Accused of blatantly ‘ripping off’ tourists

Another point of contention arose in September, when bed-and-breakfast businesses accused Clare County Council of blatantly “ripping off” tourists by charging €99 to allow people to watch the sunset with a box of craft items.

The Cliffs of Moher Experience, a visitors centre run by Clare County Council, has priced its “enchanting evening experience” as such, while providing customers several locally made goods in a ‘Crafted in Clare’ box.

Critics maintained that the “bespoke” box, which included a photograph of the landscape, chocolates, lip balm and two types of soap. was not worth the price tag.

In its defence of the venture, the county council said it was a “high-end offering” that demonstrates a commitment to “sustainability” while also being “not for profit”.

The council said it’s still reviewing the package ahead of the summer 2024 season, with a decision to be made on whether it needs to be tweaked.

Comments are not open because of ongoing legal proceedings with this issue.


Why are parking prices at the Cliffs of Moher so steep?

By Eoghan Dalton for Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This article was funded by our readers alongside significant support from our investigative fund. It was conducted in collaboration with The Journal.

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