Could Blueways start a new wave in sustainable tourism?

The Boyne river in Ireland is also part of the world's first network of Blueways. Image: revolution-gd (Canva)

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many voices advocated for making tourism more sustainable in order to combat the often devastating effects of mass tourism. A possible solution to lure visitors away from the famous hotspots and tourist traps could be the creation of so-called “Blueways” – a network of water basins like lakes, rivers and shorelines with an infrastructure suited for outdoor tourism. As Ireland now hosts the world’s first Blueways, could it be the start of a new wave in sustainable tourism?

On April 5, the Irish Tourism Board Fáilte Ireland appointed the Blueways in Meath, Tipperary, Clare and Galway as Blueways, according to national news service RTÉ. Their special status includes being “world-class destinations for water-based and water-side activities” in Ireland. At least 73% of domestic tourists in Ireland enjoy nature-related activities such as walking, hiking, swimming, cycling or canoeing according to the Fáilte Ireland.

Nenagh Castle. Image: David P. Howard (Geograph) CC BY-SA 2.0

The routes are focused on offering recreation for tourism in Ireland, but also highlight the country’s natural, industrial and cultural heritage. After walking, cycling or even paddling along the Irish canals and shores, travellers can for example visit the remarkable Nenagh Castle or St George’s Heritage Centre to learn more about the history of Carrick. The numerous estates, art galleries and towns dotted alongside the routes function as a spotlight on a part of Ireland’s lesser-known history and heritage, The Mayor reported.

Cruising through Catalonia

Although Ireland might have the honour to launch the world’s first Blueways, others are not sitting idle. In 2021, the Province of Barcelona in Spain launched the idea to create several “Vies Blaves’ (Blueways), running through 59 municipalities across seven different counties. The project aims to create a network of sustainable local mobility, improve the accessibility to the region’s diverse heritage and support the development of local tourism, the EU funded cooperation programme Interreg Europe wrote. The first section should be finished by 2025, reported Catalan news platform CCMA. Text continues below video.

The Vies Blaves project explained (with English subtitles).

For the tourism sector in Barcelona, the project is hoped to kickstart “the future of tourism”, according to Fernando Valdés the Secretary of State for Tourism. Apart from making the region’s heritage more accessible to tourists, those involved aim to spread out the huge number of visitors. “We want visitors who are betting on Barcelona as an international tourist destination, to discover that in half an hour or an hour away there is a whole experience”, explained Abigail Garrido from the Barcelona Provincial Council.

Easier said than done

While the waterways might be a new way to explore and include lesser-known territories, the concept of tourism paths certainly is not. In many countries, there are already so-called “Greenways”, which make use of abandoned road and rail infrastructure, turning it into cycling infrastructure overflowing with nature. Well-known Greenways in Europe include the EuroVelo cycle routes throughout Europe, the Via Verde del Pas in Spain and the Waterford Greenway in Ireland.

As interesting and positive as these routes sound, creating and maintaining them is easier said than done. For example, the Irish Blueways are a collaboration between the tourist board, Sport Ireland, Waterways Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland. Local authorities are also involved in order to make the best use of local activities and landmarks.

Meanwhile, the costs for the Spanish Vies Blaves project are estimated at €54 million. The plan also needs to make sure to keep the fragile natural heritage of the region intact during the building of the required infrastructure. While there is much work ahead, the creation of Blueways could certainly inspire a new trend to make tourism more accessible for travellers and locals, while keeping it sustainable for everyone.

Sources: Blueways Ireland, CCMA (Catalan), Interreg Europe, RTÉ and The Mayor