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With a little investment and creativity, we can dramatically improve our outdoor attractions for the benefit of locals and tourists alike.

One of my ways to stay healthy during this pandemic is to take a daily walk. It’s free, keeps you fit, and is good for your mental health. What’s not to like? Many people have the same idea and all of our outdoor areas are full of people enjoying the outdoors.

We are very fortunate here in Northern Ireland to have many beautiful places to visit right on our doorstep. In the past few weeks I’ve been to Cavehill, Shaw’s Bridge, Stormont, Riesenring, Colin Glen and many others. I took the above photo of the double rainbow in the Belvoir Forest on New Years Day.

I warmly welcome this change: I think it is better for people to wander through a forest than through a mall. The only problem is that some of our amenities are struggling to cope with demand. In particular, the roads around Divis Mountain were very congested. There are similar scenes in many places in Northern Ireland.

Thousands of visitors flock to Divis and Black Mountain https://t.co/kUZKnDF2fr

– Claire Simpson (@ClaireMSimpson) December 28, 2020

It’s no surprise that closed entertainment options are limited with shops and restaurants. People choose to spend more time with the original entertainer – Mother Nature. Another sign of the boom in the great outdoors was that most of the stores selling rainwear for children were sold out – I have to remember to stock up on the next offer in Lidl.

Judging by the frequency with which we are asked for directions, many people seem to be new to nature. There are a few things we can do to make our attractions more accessible, such as:

Proper parking: In an ideal world, we would all walk or cycle, but many attractions are on the outskirts and difficult to get to.

Signage: Even small forests like Belvoir or Colin Glen can intimidate beginners. It wouldn’t take much effort to have proper route maps, suggested hikes with estimated times, and the main markings and signs in the forest. They have to be proper signs with actual information, like half a mile to the parking lot, not those weird colored shapes that only Duke Of Edinburgh students know about.

Container: The lack of bins in a popular area like Shaw’s Bridge is a constant frustration for people. Let’s not even start with what Headcase thinks is a good idea to tie bags of dog shit to a tree, like a goddamn Christmas ball. Is it really that difficult for our councils to install a few extra bins? ID numbers should be marked on the bins so that you can tell the council when they need to be emptied.

Toilets: While many of us pee next to a discreet tree, it would be nice to have real toilets. I know there are issues with costs and vandalism, but you’d think with a little creativity you could come up with something. Even it was just an enclosed area for a bit of privacy.

Water fountains: not absolutely necessary, but nice to have. In the summer, it is good if you can refill your water bottle or have a drink when you are out and about.

Promotion of less known areas: The old favorites like Shaws Bridge are very popular, but I suspect a lot of this is down to people who are not so aware of other places. It’s easy to stick to what you know. The councils must consider the outdoors as key for tourists. We visit Rostrevor quite often because of the beautiful Kilbroney Park. We can also use parks to revitalize areas.

The question, of course, is whether the outdoor boom will continue or whether we will all return to the house after the pandemic has ended. I think even if we get back to normal, the demand for outdoor attractions will continue. People have discovered how comfortable it is and they will want to move on. Even before the pandemic attractions like Divis Mountain increased their attendance every year.

The question, of course, is who should pay for everything. This question reveals the weakness of our government, namely the silo mentality. It is easy to see that the more people we bring into nature, the fewer people go to their GP or hospital. Exercise and nature have been shown to be more effective than antidepressants for mild depression and without any nasty side effects. The problem is that our system is not designed to keep people healthy: only 2% of the health budget goes to prevention. The executive needs to look at the bigger picture and realize that spending more on outdoor activities is a very cost-effective way to keep people healthy longer.

A cynic could argue that our politicians would prefer to bring people back to stores for the registers to ring. It’s hard to make money from trees. This is a blinking view. There is a lot of potential to monetize outdoor facilities. There are obvious things like cafes or food trucks, but with a little imagination, you can have new attractions.

Belfast’s Colin Glen Forest has done a great job turning a once neglected area into a thriving hub for activity. In addition to their popular Gruffalo Walks, Park Runs, SkyTrek etc., they are preparing to bring Ireland’s first Alpine Coaster to market.

We are very happy to live in such a picturesque country. With a little investment and creativity, we can dramatically improve our attractions for the benefit of both locals and tourists.

I help keep the good ship Slugger afloat by running the business and technical matters.

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