Opinion: destinations must be distinctive to stand out from the pack, which can often be a challenge for places without iconic tourist attractions

Tourist destinations are very conscious of the need to be competitive and innovative. This is particularly so with over 1.4 billion tourists arrivals in 2018, the constant emergence of new tourist hot spots and the increasing desire by tourists to have new experiences. A key challenge is to be distinctive and this can be especially difficult for rural tourism destinations, often without iconic tourist attractions.

As the concept of overtourism has become a popular topic of discussion, the regional disparity in terms of where tourists travel is very evident. For most countries, the solution to overtourism is to encourage tourists to travel to lesser known places within their country. This will ensure continued tourism revenue while easing pressure on the places which currently face capacity issues.

Destinations make themselves distinctive in a number of different ways. Some have natural distinctiveness in terms of climate or natural beauty, while others have used events and festivals, key tourist attractions, innovative products, local heritage or strong marketing campaigns to distinguish themselves from others. Often it is local communities, tourism groups, local government and businesses who develop and drive these initiatives.

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On this small island location, Failte Ireland has taken the approach of developing and marketing regional tourism routes such as the Wild Atlantic Way, the Ancient East and, more recently, the Hidden Heartlands. The thinking is that an international tourist is less likely to be attracted to visit Ireland by the marketing efforts of one small village or destination, but the promise of an integrated tourism proposition will be more attractive, create a recognised brand and encourage longer stays. Crucially, the aim is also to encourage tourists to visit areas outside Dublin.

While this strategy has been welcomed by many, it creates a number of challenges for individual rural tourism destinations in terms of ensuring local distinctiveness. How does a village ensure that it is attractive enough for the tourists to want to stay overnight there rather than in the next village along the tourism route? Should local tourism businesses attach themselves to the route brand such as the Wild Atlantic Way for example rather than their local village or town?

Recent research has shown that some tourism businesses have expressed the fear that attaching themselves too much to the Wild Atlantic Way brand could dilute their own distinctiveness, as everyone claims to be part of it (although Failte Ireland are being very careful with the rights over the brand to try and avoid this). These businesses stress the importance of continuing to develop local initiatives to ensure their differentiation from other places along the route.

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So how then do rural destinations operate as part of the umbrella brand of the tourism route and yet retain their own uniqueness? Doing this requires a strong community and/or business grouping who successfully develop a shared vision for what tourism should be in their area and what the unique proposition is.

In the past, many rural destinations saw places such as Dingle and Westport as examples of success they would like to mirror. In some cases, there has been a shift away from thinking about maximising tourist numbers to thinking about attracting enough tourists, and the right tourists, to sustain the village and allow a certain way of life. Of course, the view of the right number may depend on how reliant individuals are on tourism to generate income.

One factor that cannot be overlooked is the vital role of local leaders in rural tourism development. These leaders can be entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, community leaders, leaders from local government or regional or state bodies and people from associated sectors such as food, agriculture and the arts. What they all have in common is the desire to contribute to the development of their local area. They play various roles as chairpersons, visionaries and facilitators, and often act as bridges between local areas and other areas or national stakeholders.

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The importance of such people was evident during The Gathering project in 2013 when more than 5,000 events were organised by local people around the country. The range of events offered is a reflection of the uniqueness that exists across the country. A key element of the Gathering experience was the local pride that it unearthed and this is another vital element in the discussion about what makes a place special, unique and of interest to tourists. This leads to an important point which is that the nature of a place's distinctiveness must be something that can’t be easily copied, in order to sustain a long term competitive advantage.

As tourists are seeking new experiences, the challenge for rural tourism destinations - in fact, for all tourism destinations - is to present a unique experience so that they can remain competitive. For those that don’t have iconic tourist attractions, important roles are played by national, regional and local actors to identify and develop what can be used to highlight the distinctiveness of a specific local area and so ensure its status as a "must visit" part of the tourism routes that appear to be attracting more tourists to Ireland. As tourists and residents alike begin to identify the negative impacts of overtourism, the uniqueness and distinctiveness of less well known rural tourist destinations will become even more important.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ