The Old Rail Trail Greenway.

Pandemic showed domestic tourists what Hidden Heartlands has to offer

An upside of the pandemic is that it has opened the eyes of the rest of Ireland to the attractiveness of the midlands as a travel destination, reveals Paddy Mathews, head of Fáilte Ireland’s ‘Hidden Heartlands’ region.

“The area has benefited through having a captive domestic audience for the last couple of years,” said Paddy this week as he spoke of the “gems” that have been impressing visitors.

“They’ve been looking for something different, looking for something outdoors, uncongested, exciting, different, new. And they looked to Hidden Heartlands for that – and they got it.

“The responses we’ve got from visitors to the region for the first time have been extraordinary. They’ve been really positive.”

Paddy Mathews, head the Fáilte Ireland ‘Hidden Heartlands’ region.

Paddy sees the Hidden Heartlands as having two strong “strands” to use in its bid to grow as a tourism destination:

“There’s the outdoor element, and then the element of kind of ‘hidden gems’ – heritage and cultural gems that are a little bit more below the radar, that don’t have very big visitor numbers but have the potential to draw more numbers,” he says.

“What we have done with Hidden Heartland is we’ve kind of led out with the natural, outdoor, active-in-nature opportunities for outdoor activity, but also brought along the heritage and culture as well, and the opportunities to uncover hidden gems that are there.”

‘Gems’ he lists in Westmeath now set to form part of the Hidden Heartland offering include Fore Abbey, Tullynally Castle, Belvedere House Gardens and Park, the Hill of Uisneach, Kilbeggan Distillery, the many lakes, the Old Rail Trail Greenway.

The whole “active-in-nature” dimension has, Paddy says, due to the pandemic, become really important over the last two years – particularly among the domestic audience, but increasingly the international audience as well.

Of all the gems in Westmeath, the greenways are what Paddy rates as what he terms the real “uncut diamond”.

“I think that’s where a lot of potential lies. They are unsweated assets at the moment. They’re pieces of infrastructure that have the potential to be developed into really memorable and compelling visitor experiences.

“And that’s the challenge that lies ahead. And that’s what we will be working with the industry on over the coming years as well.

“I think Mullingar in particular has huge potential because it’s probably the only town in the country that has two greenways emanating from it – the Old Rail Trail and the Royal Canal Greenway.

“Its potential as a cycling hub is very rich. I think that’s one of the things that we want to try and explore more with the industry, with the county council and with us supporting it as well.”

“We’re a very accessible destination from large centres of population – accessible from Cork, Galway and Dublin; right in the middle.

“The challenge is to provide a compelling visitor experience that will make them want to come and want to come back again. So we’re slowly unveiling all of that.”