Slowly and steadily, tourism in Kilkenny is on the path to recovery, post lockdown.
Working together with strong leadership, the tourism, business and local communities who are bursting with pride for this county are taking steps to make visitors feel safe and very welcome.
A myriad of measures have been put in place to combat the dramatic fall in visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic - it’s a challenge Kilkenny County Council’s tourism officer Martina Comerford couldn’t have predicted when she took up the role last January.
However, it hasn’t dampened her love for the county and her enthusiasm to share its gems with visitors.
It’s been a tough couple of months, with visitor figures in some places just 20% of what it was last year. But on a positive note, local attractions confirm that since reopening at the end of June numbers have increased steadily week on week and they hope this trend will continue.
Kilkenny has an advantage when it comes to tourism, with new attractions being added to the city. These include the opening of the Butler Gallery in Evans Home and the creation of a sculpture trail across the city by the Design and Craft Council as well the opening of the Riverside Park in the Abbey Quarter to come in October.
At the start of the year, when Covid wasn’t even on the horizon, Martina set to work within the County Tourism Strategy. There were “great plans” for developing an international marketing plan for Kilkenny. New signage and a new visitor map were being developed to get people around and encourage them to strike out further than the castle.
Martina would also have been tasked with highlighting trails and recreational spaces under ORIS, the Outdoor Recreational Infrastructure Scheme.
“Then came Covid,” Martina said.
Those plans are still there, but in light of the changes all over the world in the last six months, the tourism trade has also had to adapt. Kilkenny is no different.
“We’re still working on those plans, and working closely with Kilkenny Tourism to keep the Kilkenny message out there,” she said.
Fáilte Ireland established 23 Tourism Recovery Task Forces across the country. One of the first was set up in Kilkenny.
This task force, which is chaired in this area by the Chief Executive of Kilkenny County Council, Colette Byrne, has a membership of 20 stakeholders. They are committed to working on Kilkenny’s tourism recovery for the next 18 months.
The task force is responsible for many of the interesting changes happening across Kilkenny city and county. It has come up with short, medium and long term goals.
It’s an energetic group, with lots of ideas and a great work ethic. One of the first actions was to carry out a reopening survey to see if local people felt comfortable welcoming visitors coming back and would they be happy to shop in the city.
The task force is conscious that some people are nervous about the virus and social distancing and not everyone might be happy to be throwing open the ‘doors’ to the county.
But the response was overwhelmingly positive. People can see the economic importance of tourism to the local community, Martina said.
Other ideas that came from that task force, which are already in place, include the one-way traffic system in the city and the installation of outdoor tables and seating in several areas, encouraging people to ramble around the city while acting as a support for businesses.
Footpaths are really narrow in some parts of the medieval city and the one-way traffic system allows for pedestrian space to be extended for social distancing.
Narrow streets also mean that cafés and restaurants can’t set out tables and chairs, like some other towns, so the task force suggested creating new seating spaces.
The first of these is already complete in the Market Yard car park, where tables and benches have been set up for people who would like to have a drink or something to eat and stay in town.
Additional seating will soon be in place on the Mayor’s Walk while there will also be a seating area on Parliament Street.
Conscious that not every tourist spot is open fully yet, and that some people would be more comfortable outside, there is a new audio guide to Kilkenny on the way.
It will be launched during Heritage Week and will give visitors a taste of the attractions around the city, without taking from the full experience inside.
Over the Bank Holiday Weekend another of the task force’s initiatives was put in place - the Kilkenny Welcome Team. Volunteer street ‘ambassadors’ will be around the city to answer any questions visitors might have - from opening hours of attractions to where to get a cup of coffee.
The team have been trained in social distancing protocol and how to deal with the public and have lots of information on what’s happened in Kilkenny, because things are changing all the time.
“The people we have on board are so enthusiastic,” Martina said. “You’ll see them out and about along the Medieval Mile, in bright jackets.
There is a lot of this kind of work going on in the county to support tourism at the moment, and Martina said it is her job to support that and pull the ideas together.
“The sum of all these small things will make Kilkenny attractive and ties in with the Fáilte Ireland ‘More to Explore’ campaign,” she said.
Kilkenny is more than just the castle and the Medieval Mile. With the Discovery Park in Castlecomer, Graignamanagh and its river activities, beauty spots like Woodstock and Inistioge, heritage sites like Jerpoint and Kells there is definitely ‘more to explore’ around Kilkenny.
That will be the word coming from Martina, the tourism task force and Kilkenny Tourism for the foreseeable future.
“It’s not that we have forgotten the international visitors,” she added. “The world will eventually come back to some normality so our plans are still there, just on hold until the right time, Martina said of her plans from the start of the year.
“I’m from Kilkenny and I am very proud of Kilkenny,” Martina said, and with a similar attitude from the task force visitors get a sense of that.
“It’s easy to polish the diamond that is Kilkenny when all is well,” she added.
“We are dealing with this challenge really well, coming together, supporting business and supporting our citizens. We are working really hard, the sum of the small things we are doing makes it worthwhile.
“We are safe, we are open,” she finished. “You are welcome to Kilkenny.”