Money to be made in getting back to nature


Rhian Waller

NORTH Wales is benefiting from a surge in outdoor activity tourism.

According to figures by Visit Wales and the Wales Activity Tourism Organisation, the income brought in to North Wales by thrill-seekers far outstrips both South East and South West Wales put together.

With an average overnight visitor spending £106.09 per night in the region, and daytrippers shelling out an average of £49, the economic boost is unquestioned.

But one question remains. Are  Flintshire and Wrexham benefiting from the windfall or is it Snowdonia and the more famous North Wales adventure hubs bagging the lion’s share?

Local centres on our doorstep include Plas Power in Southsea, which offers activities like ziplining and outdoor karting, riding centres like Pennant Park near Holywell and a handful of other riding facilities, and Trinity Adventure in Wrexham.

But North Wales’ outdoor activity destinations tend to cluster around Llangollen, Llandegla, the Conwy coast and of course Snowdonia. So why aren’t there more here?

One of the reasons Llangollen and Snowdonia have cornered the market is obvious – the natural features.

Craig Forde, owner of White Active and Safe and Sound Outdoors in Llangollen, said he’d “definitely” seen an increase in the number of people getting to grips with the outdoors in the last four years.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “It’s pretty generic as well. There’s no single growth area in terms of age or activity. It’s right across the board –  rafting, walking, climbing.

“There’s also been a rise in the number of school groups coming to the area.”

With a cluster of attractions in the Llangollen area, including outdoor rock climbing, kayaking and non-outdoor activities, like canal and railway trips, visitors opt to stay over to make the most of their visit.

Mr Forde said: “I hope the sector gets bigger and bigger. A lot of it is from Britain.

More people are aware of what’s in Wales and they are more willing to stay in the UK.”

We can’t move the mountains (or rivers) into Wrexham or Flintshire – but a number of entrepreneurs have adapted.

Andrew Bond, 40, of Trinity Adventure in Wrexham, which gives visitors a taste of activities like climbing, kayaking, canoeing and even bushcraft, said: “Before I moved here, I spent a lot of time driving straight through Wrexham or Filntshire on my way to Llangollen or Snowdonia.

“I think a lot of people are like that. They don’t know that there’s anything here.

“Llangollen makes people stop because of the white water – but not everywhere has that.

“I’d welcome more investment in outdoor activities around here. Anything that would put Wrexham and Flintshire on the map.”

In response, Mr Bond does not have a fixed centre. He operates from a number of venues.

He said: “Up until it closed, I taught climbing at Plas Madoc. I also teach outdoor archery and I have a friend who allows me the use of woodland so I can run bushcraft courses.

“There’s a lot of potential here. And we’ve seen the opening of some big hotels. When I first moved here, there wasn’t anything like that but now we have the capacity to accommodate visitors.”

Other outdoor enthusiasts took a more extreme route.

Richard Wotton, 53, set up a Sphereing activity centre outside Holywell in 2010.

The ‘extreme’ experience, which saw thrill-seekers strap themselves into a plastic ball and roll down a steep hillside, has since shut down.

He said: “We set up in Flintshire  because there was so little here, and we wanted to bring people in.

“We had people coming from all over, from as far north as Aberdeen and as far south as St Ives. We had people from Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand visit.”

Spheremania was suspended partly for personal reasons but Mr Wotton also found himself butting up against bureaucracy.

He said: “The planning process was an absolute nightmare for something that should have been quite straightforward. We did, eventually, get planning permission – but only for three years before we had to apply again.

“It’s such a shame because there was demand. The business was low impact.

“We could pack up and in a year you wouldn’t even know we’d been there – and the visitors kept talking about how beautiful the area was.

“We were thinking of expanding into coasteering, where people explore the coast and leap off rocks into the sea. Bbut after the previous  headache we didn’t have the energy.”

Mr Wotton thinks that, if Flintshire and Wrexham are to capitalise on the outdoor activity boom, officials need to cut through the red tape.

“We attracted people who shopped locally, who stayed in hotels and bed and breakfasts. It helped everyone.”

Storm Croft, co-owner of Pennant Park Riding Centre near Holywell, was more upbeat.

“The majority of our customers are locals,” she said.

“From May to September, we get people who are holidaying who want to go on a family hack, or are regular riders who don’t want to miss out.

“But for the most part, I wouldn't say these are huge numbers.”

Ms Croft said she would welcome more outdoor activity development in the area.

She said: “Having more outdoor activities round here would bring more people this way.

“We have a beautiful county and more tourism would mean more jobs. We wouldn’t necessarily have to compete, either.

“Sometimes you find that you’re catering for part of the family – say, mum and daughter want to go riding while dad and son go and play golf, or youngsters want to do one thing while adults want to do another. It would be good to have a variety of activities around, as we would all benefit.”

A Wrexham Council spokesman said: “While the bulk of outdoor activity is likely to be based around Snowdonia and Gwynedd, it is recognised that in the Clywdian Range (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and the Dee Valley – the outdoor pursuits sector is adding to the growth in local tourism.

“Data indicates that Wrexham’s tourism economy continues to grow, with provisional figures for 2013 showing a growth of around £3m from £95m in 2011.

“The Wrexham Destination Partnership views the outdoor sector as one of the major growth areas for tourism in Wrexham, particularly within the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and  Canal World Heritage Site and Ceiriog Valley.  

“The Partnership has been really encouraged by new and existing businesses investing in the area and reporting good visitor numbers in 2013.  

“Examples of this include the recent FLO-Llangollen forum for outdoor providers in November 2013 and the growing popularity for private outdoor pursuit and thrill-seeking companies in Wrexham and the World Heritage Site.”

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