The Interview: Rob Rankin of Vagabond Tours of Ireland
Ireland will welcome the Adventure Travel World Summit 2014 in Killarney in October, a gathering of some 600 plus tour operators, destination specialists, journalists and others in the world of adventure travel. I will be attending but I had a chance this week to ask Rob Rankin, founder and owner of Vagabond Tours of Ireland, one of the country’s leading adventure tour companies, about the evolution of active travel in Ireland.
EP: Why do you think it took a while for Ireland to wake up to the fact that it’s a country with lots of potential for adventure travel?
RR: I think there are two main reasons. Ireland always had a strong brand for visitors, but it was an image built on history, heritage, culture, people, music and a gentle scenic image – and golf! With such a strong brand the tourism industry didn’t need to look at diversifying. The perception and perhaps definition of adventure travel has also widened and developed. Nowadays adventure travel is not just climbing or jumping off mountains or extreme sports. There is the realization that most adventure travel is ‘soft adventure’ such as walking, cycling, kayaking, and this is the type of adventure that Ireland is so well suited for. We don’t have massive mountains, but Ireland’s coastline is spectacular and perfect for watersports and the scale and topography on land is great for hiking, walking and other activities.
EP: How has adventure travel changed in Ireland since you began Vagabond?
RR: It has changed hugely in terms of opportunity and infrastructure and to a lesser extent awareness and perception. Since we established Vagabond in 2002 there has been a huge growth in local activity providers such as watersports and cycling operators. In addition there have also been large steps forward in the infrastructure, such as walking trails and cycling routes made possible by tourist board investment and local community involvement. It gives us a lot more opportunities for walks and activities on tour, which is great. I suppose it can also mean more competition, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. The more adventure operators, the higher the profile for Ireland as an adventure travel destination.
EP: Do you get returning Americans rediscovering Ireland through adventure experiences?
RR: Yes indeed we do, sometime customers come back with family or friends who didn’t visit with them first time round but more often it is customers who covered one part of the country on their first visit and now want to see another part. Usually they visit the south west and west of Ireland to begin with and then come to join a tour that includes Northern Ireland. It’s like the ‘advanced’ tour. Last week an American lady finished her third tour with us, all of which covered the same area. But because of the evolving nature of the tours, all of which them were different.
EP: Is Ireland still under the radar in terms of adventure travel?
RR: Yes I think so, both at home and abroad. For example, a recent survey of Irish people who visited the Glendalough Monastic Site in County Wicklow, had not visited anywhere else in Wicklow. This is Ireland’s largest single area of upland wilderness, with excellent walking, superb scenery and plenty of activity options. But awareness of the options still seems low.
Having said that, Ireland’s blip on the adventure radar screen is growing. When Vagabond started we often used to get asked if it was possible to do an adventure tour in Ireland, but with the growth of the industry here, it has given more credibility to Ireland as an adventurous travel destination. Hopefully the ATWS with help build on this growing perception and it will be a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase Ireland
EP: What’s new for Vagabond in the coming year?
RR: A few years ago we branched out from our original Vagabond adventure tours into our more leisurely ‘Driftwood Irish Journeys of Discovery’ to suit our less adventurous customers. Our next step is to develop new routes and experiences to entice past customers back again. It’s interesting how different a visitor experience can be by using different overnight locations within the same general area. We do have a few other plans up our sleeves but they are top secret at the moment, but you will be the first to know.