What is the Wild Atlantic Way?

Between 2013 and 2014 when I visited the West Coast of Ireland, there was a massive change. The coast road had been renamed and it set off a tourism boom. I know what you're thinking, Ireland has always been popular. But this was something different. An exercise in the power of branding.

Everywhere I looked there was a squiggly zigzag line and the letter N or S. I was so confused. I started to see travel bloggers tagging #wildatlanticway in posts  pertaining to Ireland. So I started asking around and doing some research. My first thought was, I've been all up and down the West Coast, how could I not know what this is? But then I realized it hadn't existed before. They simply took the coastal route and renamed it, put in some new signs and started promoting the hell out of it.
It was brilliant really. Take something that has always existed and change the name to garner publicity and tourism money.

County Donegal - Wild Atlantic Way Sign 

Since the TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange) conference was in Dublin in October 2013, there was a wealth of travel bloggers and travel industry insiders ready and willing to take on the challenge of spreading the word and spread the word they did. This single campaign has increased tourism to almost pre-crash rates. Tourism in 2014, 2015 and projected in 2016 was nearly double the population of Ireland.

Doolough Valley, County Mayo - with Wild Atlantic Way Signpost

 Bus tours now run from Dublin to "do the Wild Atlantic Way," in a day. For a route encompassing 2,500 km winding from Cork to Donegal, this is quite a stretch. Tourists can pick up a "passport" of the route and get stamps along the way like a theme park. I'll say it again, the scheme is brilliant but the reaction has been mixed. Sure everyone thinks it's great to have tourism dollars rolling in (nearly 4 billion Euro according to Tourism Ireland), but on the flip side many think the buses whipping across the country and up and down the coast leaves a lot to be desired. While speaking to a friend about this in September 2016, I said, "Well wasn't that always the way with the Cliffs of Moher anyways?" She said yes, there were always buses but not on the scale it is now. She further expressed that for the amount of increase in bus traffic, she is not sure the tourism money is actually making it into the small towns. As I traveled up the coast in 2016, I talked to each person I met about this, especially if they were in tourism. The comments were mixed as well, as with most changes, there seemed to be a love/hate relationship with it. Good for the economy overall but bad for traffic and overall busyness.

I always worry about places I love being irreparably changed or co-opted by too much tourism or branding that feels just a little bit disingenuous, I've seen it a lot in my travels. I have complicated relationship with branding. But the more I look at these campaigns, I realize they highlight some of the best parts of this small but spacious island. There are of course the cheesy touristy things but there are also activities and places that highlight a complicated religious, pagan and political past. They show that even though things change, there is still a fire of the ancient a-light in Ireland.

Due to the success of this scheme on the West Coast, the East Coast has been clamoring for something of their own. Enter "Ireland's Ancient East" campaign. Using a similar concept here, re-naming something that has always been there, this 2016 campaign highlights sites like Newgrange, Powerscourt and even Hook Head in Wexford. I started seeing these signs during my September 2016 trip. This route runs down the East Coast but also touches on some inland sights as well.

So why am I telling you all this? For one really good reason, don't go to Ireland to "do the Wild Atlantic Way," or "Ireland's Ancient East." Don't go to check off a box. Go because the scenery is stunning, the people are kind and loving, the earth feels alive and the history is incredible.

Most of the stops have signs that are hard to miss. Luckily they are easy to cut out of pictures - see below.

Killarey Fjord, County Mayo, 2016 - This sheep really wanted to be in my picture.
It waited until I was set up to casually stroll across my path.