10 Things We Learned At The 2024 Inspiring Sustainable Tourism Conference

The Maharees Conservation Association at work on their sand dunes in Kerry.

The Maharees Conservation Association at work on their sand dunes in Kerry.

There was an extraordinary buzz at the Ardilaun Hotel, Co Galway, on 25 Jan 2024 as we gathered for the fourth annual Inspiring Sustainable Tourism Conference – and the first in-person event since the Covid pandemic. Here are just 10 of our favourite learnings from the Inspiring Sustainable Tourism conference. The event was made possible by our lead sponsors KPMG Future Analytics and KPMG Sustainable Futures and Certa also supported our second panel discussion. The theme of the day was Climate Action, Community & Collaboration and these motifs were infused in what all of our contributors brought to the event and all the lessons they taught us. 

Our next Inspiring Sustainable Tourism Conference will take place on 23 January 2025 (location to be announced soon). Register your interest here.

1. Sustainability Really Can Save You A Tonne Of Money – Even If You’re A Small Business

Kris Claes from Slieve Elva B&B in Co Clare told us about how he and his wife Ireen started his business on a sustainability journey because it was the right thing to do – but that he wound up saving a fortune! He started with small things like changing to LED bulbs, installing thermostats, running appliances at night and running cold washes. Then he reinvested the savings into bigger projects like a solar PV and battery system that provided them with hot water. The pay back on this was just four years. They also switched from fossil fuel heating to biogas, saving more money again. Kris says that the savings they have made have allowed them to keep their prices stable – meaning higher occupancy. But also that they can afford to take more time off as the business makes a profit more quickly. It’s a win-win all round!

Read more about Slieve Elva’s journey

2. Ireland Is Getting A New Tourism Policy Framework

Minister Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, announced her intention to “publish a new Tourism Policy Framework in the coming months, which will shape how our tourism industry develops in the period to 2030”. In her video address, she added, “While I want to see the sector grow, I want it to do so in a manner that is consistent with our broader sustainability targets and ultimately ensure that Ireland will be a brand leader in sustainable tourism practices.”

Watch Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin’s video address.

3. The Power Of Plants To Deliver A Natural Punch

Ladybird on yellow flower. Ladybirds are one of nature’s best pest repellents.

Powerscourt Estate and Gardens now plant flowers that attract ladybirds as they are one of nature’s best repellents of destructive insects. (Photo: Lorraine Wenham, Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to sustainability, we can sometimes get bogged down in energy, waste and water. And sometimes Mother Nature has some really simple solutions to our problems.

Lisa Moran from Powerscourt Estate and Gardens told us about how they are working to eradicate the use of pesticides in their world-famous gardens. They have started using companion planting to solve the problem and she explained this concept which was new to a lot of us with the example of how marigolds are a new favourite in their gardens because these flowers attract ladybirds. And it turns out that ladybirds are one of nature’s best pest repellents. Whereas all-natural or chemical bug repellents get rid of all beneficial insects as well as the nasty ones, ladybirds encourage the beneficial insects but discourage garden pests like aphids and mites. One ladybird can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime!

Martha Farrell from Maharees Conservation Association (MCA) told us how the humble plant marram grass has saved a whole tombolo (a sandbar that connects an island to the mainland) in Kerry along with 300 houses, a way of life and a treasured multi-generational holiday destination. Groups of volunteers have planted marram grass to regenerate the dunes that were badly degraded due to trampling and storms and the project has proven key to regenerating this coastal landscape.

Barry Flanagan from Erne Water Taxis says that the power of nature has allowed his business to boom. He is the proud owner of Ireland’s first electric and solar powered tour boat, which is also wheelchair accessible. One of the tour’s huge appeals is that it is silent! He says that people now frequently have a “profound experience bonding with nature” as they tour Lough Erne. This also means that the tour is especially appealing to those who have sensory issues. The trip is so quiet that, at times, they have to politely ask water birds to move according to Barry.

4. Virtually No Paper Cups Are Recycled Or Composted In Ireland

In Ireland, 200 million single-use disposable coffee cups are used every year. That’s 528,000 a day and 22,000 an hour. No disposable coffee cup has ever been recycled in Ireland – no matter what it says on it. As for single use cups marked compostable, virtually none are composted. As discovered by panellist Louise Byrne, Sustainability Manager with the Killarney Park Hotel in Killarney, bin companies won’t take compostable cups in brown bins as they clog the machines. Which is what drove Louise to set up the Killarney Coffee Cup Project. Together with a voluntary team, they brought more than 50 businesses together and have now virtually eradicated disposable coffee cups from the town. They are one of the first places in the world to achieve this!

5. It Takes A Village…

Maharees Conservation Association volunteers planting marram grass to protect the dunes.

Volunteers from the Maharees Conservation Association planting marram grass to protect their dunes.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well it also takes a village to develop an effective sustainability project! If you really want to make an impact with your work, you’re going to need to engage lots of people and listen to lots of people’s thoughts and ideas in your community – be it a business community or just normal citizens. That’s the best way to get them to work together effectively, open up about their ideas and, crucially, stay working together. And the best way to get them to engage is to help them get to know each other in a fun and unpressurised environment.

At least that’s the learning that Louise Byrne from the Killarney Coffee Cup Project and Fionn Kidney, co-founder of Common Knowledge in Co Clare, and Martha Farrell from the MCA shared with us at the conference. And they have led on some very impressive projects.

Fionn was involved in ‘Homeworks‘, a project Common Knowledge ran where they co-designed a climate action toolkit with members of the LGBT community. The first thing the group did was hold a pot-luck dinner and have a singsong. It broke down all the barriers and people felt comfortable enough to share brilliant new ideas.

As for the Killarney Coffee Cup Project, it was one of the ideas born from the Climate Action Cocktail night that a group of interested people started holding in Killarney.

Martha Farrell from the MCA says the nature walks and community litter picks that they run with both locals and tourists have really helped people understand that they must stay off their precious sand dunes if they want to save the Maharees from being washed away.

In other words, it might be a good idea to forget committee meetings, to start with at least, if you want new faces, new ideas and new energy.

6. Good Governance Is Key

Now governance may not be a sexy word but it will make a big difference to your efforts. Otherwise, it can be very difficult to raise money for your projects if you’re not a registered charity. Martha Farrell from the MCA said that even though their group is voluntary they have been able to tap into big pots of funding due to their governance structures. They set up a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) and it has given them amazing credibility despite their size and remote location.

For the Killarney Coffee Cup Project, setting up a CLG was a bridge too far. But Louise explains that they were able to team up with the local Tidy Towns organisation which was a CLG and to harness their governance to enhance their fundraising abilities. So that’s another way to tackle the issue.

7. You’re Likely To Get Great Media Coverage About Your Sustainability Story

Gaining sustainability credentials can lead to a lot more media coverage for a business.

Gaining sustainability credentials can lead to a lot more media coverage for a business.

Our panellists told us how they received lots of media attention on the back of their sustainability work. It’s been a lovely bonus!

The Killarney Coffee Cup Project has featured in The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Journal, The Mirror, RTE, The Irish Examiner, Outsider.ie … and the list goes on. The list where the work of the Maharees Conservation Association’s work has featured is The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, and many more too.

Achieving certification by Powerscourt Estate and Gardens and Slieve Elva got coverage in The Clare Herald, on Clare FM, Hi Style.ie, Clare FM, The Clare Echo, the Independent, the Greystones Guide, Extra.ie, and The Irish Post. And the news was shared by Tourism Ireland in their Media Room.

8. Maybe It’s Better to Start With a Carbon Budget Than Be Overwhelmed by Shooting For Zero Carbon

Charlie Cotton from the E-Collective introduced us to the idea that every business should have a carbon budget – just like you have a marketing budget or a tech budget. And it’s a budget that you must stick to and try to reduce year on year. So if you’re invited to an overseas conference, instead of being wracked with guilt about the carbon footprint of travelling or just ignoring the impact, weigh up whether it is worth it and see if it can be accounted for in your carbon budget. Maybe it is worth it, or maybe something else is more worthy of that carbon spend.

Of course, key to having a carbon budget and reducing it year on year is to measure your carbon footprint to start with.

9. Hold Space For The Rule Breakers

Our keynote speaker Dianne Dredge from The Tourism CoLab joined us online from Flinders Island off the island of Tasmania where she was fittingly working on a community tourism project. She introduced us to the idea of the ‘Communiversity’ which proposes a new approach to the economic, social, technological, educational and moral transformation that is needed in society to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. She also urged us to make room for the ‘rule breakers’ – or the people who just approached problems and projects from a different perspective as these people are quite possibly the ones within our communities that hold the key to new solutions and new ways of thinking as the old ways just don’t work.

10. Expect (Fabulous) Unexpected Consequences If You Embark on a Sustainability Journey

For Slieve Elva B&B, the biggest unexpected bonus of their sustainability journey was how it made Co Clare seem so much more like home to them. The Claes family hails from Belgium but they felt that the businesses and community around them took a lot more interest in them when they heard about their sustainability work. Kris began mentoring other businesses and they just felt like it really connected them to the landscape and people around them.

In Killarney, a strange thing happened! More and more people started taking a break to have their coffee. They sat down and talked to each other and local business owners. They made more connections.

And in the Maharees, lots of the locals and the tourists seem to have fallen in love with nature and have learned about the rare species that live there, like the natterjack toad, whose loud mating call can be heard in the summer months, and the bee orchid whose flowers resemble the back of a furry bumblebee. So many of the locals and the visitors, the farmers and the surfers, have engaged with the conservation project, and they’ve gotten to know and respect each other. Something a bit bigger than just a conservation project has flourished.

Our next Inspiring Sustainable Tourism Conference will take place on 23 January 2025 (location to be announced soon). Register your interest here and we’ll keep you up to date on our next events.