Rant I – Handbrake Turn Tourism and Visitor Centres…

This is the first in the series of posts regarding tourism, its under-exploited potential and the wider implications of our current strategy, these posts are effectively bit-sized rants from one epic length, foamy-mouthed, ganshing session.

To the best of my knowledge Handbrake Turn Tourism was coined by my late uncle, anyway, what it pertains to is the type of tourism where tourists flock to a must-see spot (usually a visitor centre), take a few selfies and then head off to the next Instagramable micro destination.

Personally, I feel that visitor centres contribute to this mentality. It gives the attraction in question a magnetic field to attract the ferrous tourists.

I wouldn’t really grumble about it if someone else is paying for it, but, as usual it’s coming from the public purse (so the screw of business rates is further torqued).

Take for example the Heaney Centre in Bellaghy, South Derry.

I’m told it’s a great centre. However.

It cost 4 250 000 GBP to build. It is already over 1 million quid in the red. It was actually built knowing it would be a loss-maker. The local rates payers have to foot the bill.


Meanwhile, Bellaghy’s main street looks lethargic at best (I’m being nice).

So, the tour buses will arrive, go to the world class centre, then maybe the bawn and then hightail it to the next place.

If I was to spend 5 million pounds of public money in Bellaghy I would have done the following:

1/Buy and/or compulsory purchase all the derelict pre-war era buildings and refurbish them (then let them out as social housing, as I believe this would be the proper use of compulsory purchase powers)

2/ Turn the former RUC station (the site of the Heaney Homestead) into a village park (no one seems to build parks anymore)

3/ Paint every building in the main street (by means of incentives)

4/ Beautify the area around Devlin’s Forge https://www.midulstercouncil.org/visitor/places-to-visit/ancient-ulster/the-forge

5/ Rebuild the walls of the Moyola Estate on the Hillhead Road

6/ Purchase, reopen, renovate and lease out the Knockloughrim Windmill Tea Rooms

7/ Apply similar aesthetic measures to Castledawson

8/ Reduce rates for cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants in the area

9/ Pay for uniformed, old school signage on businesses in the area

10/ Give away the remainder of the money as grants to locals who would renovate their old farm buildings or cottages in an authentic style.

Basically, as someone summarised to me “make Bellaghy THE Heaney Homestead” instead of the visitor centre.

With the above plan there would be no public servant wages to pay and people would now have a broader, nicer area to explore rather than be depressed at the sight of Bellaghy’s main street (please don’t even pretend to be offended)

No building maintenance expenditure (aside from the housing but at least they’d be paying rent).

3 villages would now have an aesthetic upgrade.

There would be now a tourist trail of sorts

There would be a greater choice of accommodation and many more restored buildings which is exactly what tourists want to see (do you ever go to rural France or rural Italy looking to forward to seeing modern bungalows or modern apartment blocks?)

Local businesses would benefit

People would have a greater insight to ‘Heaney Country’, not just the inside of a visitor centre.

The Fear

My fear though, is that this is not unique. I noticed a visitor centre for St Patrick’s grave in Downpatrick.

Let us assume that it is excellent. The rates-payer is paying for this excellence.

So, my question would be this; are tourists coming because of the grave (which supposedly has the remains of St Brigid and St Brendan too) and the county museum and the scenery and the Game of Thrones spots and the handsome old buildings and the county museum or because there’s a centre?

Is the centre really a tipping point?

“No! I don’t care if it’s near the Mournes, Killyleagh Castle, Strangford, Lecale, has beautiful streets, a museum, a Cathedral, GoT spots, a viking burial ground, a race course, a vintage railway, is near the Irish Sea and has a nice café, I’m not interested in Down-ruddy-Patrick!”

“It has a visitor centre”

“What?! Okay, I’ll fetch my car keys!!!”

This is a conversation I don’t envisage.

Would it not be better to close the centre and pump the money back into Downpatrick in the form of an aesthetic preservation project or even cycle paths or the vintage railway line that has a famously short amount of railway track?

Paint the place, uniformly decorate the place, do up the old buildings and ease off on the business rates; tourism will take care of itself.

Hence my position on the matter of visitor centres is somewhat reserved as we can achieve so much more without concentrating on them.

Why not use this money to prettify and upgrade towns & villages and let the private sector do the rest?

Thanks to the Courtesy of :


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