The National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department manages an extensive conservation and recreational property portfolio of some 79,000 hectares. Our 6 National Parks account for circa 60,000 hectares with another almost 20,000 hectares of nature reserves and other heritage sites.
While the existing National Parks are managed from a conservation perspective, it is also recognised that they are ‘core assets’ which play a very important role in Ireland’s tourism and indeed active walker industry. The National Parks and Wildlife Service manages and maintains more than 485km of trails between National Parks, Nature Reserves and other conservation/recreational properties. These are dispersed geographically across the country and attracted in excess of 4 million visitors annually. Within the National Parks alone, the NPWS is responsible for a trail network spanning some 220km, including both cycling and walking trails, which run over some of the most iconic and scenic landscapes in Ireland. In addition, long-distance trails such as the Wicklow and Kerry Way, 129km and 122km respectively, run through the National Parks and are also maintained by the NPWS. NPWS sites have 18 trails currently listed on the National Trails Register.
Given the resources available for capital investment within our National Parks and Nature Reserves, I am ever mindful of the need to focus on the core responsibilities relating to the management of the existing Parks and Reserves lands and have no plans at present to increase the number of National Parks in the country. However, as part of my Department’s continuing commitment and contribution to improving our tourism and recreation product, we have been exploring ways to optimise the sustainable tourism potential of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives. In this context, it should be noted that in late 2016 my Department negotiated the extension of Wicklow Mountains National Park by purchasing almost 4,900 acres of Dublin Uplands at Glenasmole in 2016 at a cost of €800,000. The purchase underpins the Government’s on-going commitment to the preservation of our natural heritage for future generations of citizens and visitors alike to enjoy.
In addition, my Department, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland, launched a strategic partnership earlier this year with a view to growing tourism revenues in the rural areas where the parks are located and increasing Ireland’s appeal as a recreation destination. Fáilte Ireland will be investing capital funding of €500,000 to kick-start the initiative. This initial funding will focus on the five National Parks and five Nature Reserves situated on the Wild Atlantic Way in addition to Wicklow Mountains National Park. The funding will facilitate the undertaking of feasibility, scoping and design of tourism and recreational projects, building on the strengths of each location, as well as further promoting track and trails within our National Parks and Nature Reserves for walkers and tourists.