Monday, May 20, 2024



A BODY representing hill walkers and climbers has described the proposed gondola project as “illconceived” and “damaging to the special Mourne habitat”. Mountaineering Ireland has urged “a step back from the current proposal” and a “reset”. It wants to see what it calls “a meaningful community consultation” being carried out. Last month, concept drawings of the mountainside visitor centre, at Thomas Quarry overlooking Newcastle, were unveiled, with an information event in Newcastle offering people the opportunity to learn more about the project. The Mourne Mountains Gateway Project will cost an estimated £44 million and will be funded through the Belfast Region City Deal and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Mountaineering Ireland (MI) – recognised as the national governing body for mountaineering, hillwalking, rambling and climbing by both Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland – last week issued a detailed response to the proposal. Setting out its position on the project, as well as some suggestions as to how it believes “a more acceptable, shared vision of a Mourne Gateway project could be achieved”, the submission concentrates on a series of themes. “Mountaineering Ireland continues to oppose the gondola proposal as ill-conceived and damaging to the special Mourne habitat. We are, however, in favour of sensitive visitor management measures to improve access and mitigate impacts on the environment,” it reads. The submission also points out that the body participated in Mourne Mountains Gateway Project consultation workshops in 2017 at which “a wide range of alternative suggestions emerged that would be more environmentally and financially sustainable and would improve the appeal of the Newcastle and Mourne area for visitors”. Noting that, the Mournes “are a hugely significant element in Northern Ireland’s landscape” it states that MI “has consistently been a voice for the protection and care for the landscape and natural environment of the Mourne Mountains, including making a submission in 2012 to the draft South East Coast Masterplan.” In that submission, it continues, “we articulated our concern that the proposed gondola would detract significantly from the scenic quality of the area and urged consideration of alternative options that are consonant with the strengths of the area.” The submission references the route the proposed gondola would take from Donard Park, following a line through the forest, which contains historic woodland. It states it is concerned that “the very existence of the gondola, with associated visual and noise impacts, will inevitably negatively impact on the quiet natural experience” of those enjoying the area’s various trails. Turning its attention to predicted visitor numbers, the document notes that the business case for the current proposal “seems to be based on achieving 365,000 annual visitors” by the fifth year in operation. “There are a number of implications of this figure,” the submission reads. “If the visitor centre is to have the capacity for peak time numbers likely with such an annual figure it needs to cater for over 3,000 people on peak days and over 1,000 at any one time, based on industrytested visitor patterns. These peak figures could be even higher given the weather-dependent nature of the ‘attraction’.” Querying if the projected figure is “realistic,” the submission continues: “Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the current Gateway project is its singular focus on a ‘tourist attraction’ in Newcastle and a lack of consideration of either the wider visitor and community needs, or the overall care of the receiving environment – the very asset of the Mourne landscape on which it all depends. “This is in contrast to the 2013 SE Area Masterplan prepared for the Department of Communities which set out a more holistic vision for tourism, community and economic development. “While this plan introduced the concept of a gondola from Donard Park, it was but part of a Gateway centre which included a swimming pool and leisure facilities, combined with other tourism and economic developments in the town and the wider area. “In the intervening 10 years much has changed, not least the significant increase in those using the Mournes for active leisure and greater awareness of our impact on the environment, both at a macro level with emission-induced climate change and at a more local scale impacts on habitat from fires and trampling erosion. “Given the extent of change and threat to the natural environment it is essential that any proposals are reviewed to ensure they do no harm and where possible enhance the quality of the receiving environment on which tourism, in the long term, depends. “In essence any developments should be nature positive, climate positive and health positive. “Given the substantial investment being allocated through the Gateway project it is surely essential that it is spent in a way that contributes positively to the overall community and visitor infrastructure and not in isolation from it.” The MI submission calls for “a step back from the current proposal which is being put forward as an ‘all or nothing’ fait accompli with people having to choose if they are for or against it.” It adds: “Our suggested ‘reset’ would include bringing together all the voices from the three current initiatives; Gateway (Council and Tourism NI), Mourne Partnership (National Trust, Mourne Heritage Trust, NI Water and Woodland Trust) and Innovation Lab (Department of Finance) to scope out the wider vision, to commission an independent Options Appraisal for the Gateway project, to set out an integrated plan for visitor infrastructure in the Mournes and carry out a meaningful community consultation. “Such a process would avoid the inevitable confrontation which will happen if there is an attempt to simply push through the current proposal which could well result in the loss of the investment.” It adds that, in particular, the landowners of the quarry – the National Trust – along with the forest and Donard Park’s respective landowners, Forest Service and the local council, “need to come together, with the support and involvement of the others, to develop a vision for the Mourne Gateway project and the wider area that everyone can support.” Calling for the project to be “a beacon” for a sustainable tourism project, it adds: “With careful codesign there is no reason why a reconfigured Gateway project fit for the challenges of the next 50 years should not also meet the exacting criteria of the City Deal and the needs and expectations of the Newry and Mourne ratepayers.” MI says it believes there is “a trend to more immersive experiences in the environment, treading lightly, doing no harm and investing in the care and protection of nature, backed up by high-quality food and accommodation experiences” in cities, towns and villages. “That should be where our ambitions lie, not in diminishing nature with mechanical intrusion, eroding the very asset on which future tourism will depend.” Noting that MI staff and members “have huge experience and passion which we will willingly give to finding the right development of visitor facilities in the Mournes,” the document concludes “we are ready to play our part in an open and constructive process for the benefit of the whole local community and visitors.”

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