Nestled on the edge of Europe on the Wild Atlantic Way, Clifden Eco Beach Camping & Caravanning Park boasts Sustainable Travel Ireland’s gold eco-tourism certificate. The camping and caravan park also lays claim to being Ireland’s first climate-neutral accommodation. We caught up with Kris Acton, who runs this eco-friendly and sustainable campsite with his wife Tatjana, to hear all about the initiatives they have undertaken and how they have positively impacted not just their immediate environment, but the business and local community too. If you’re interested in making your tourism business more sustainable, read on for inspiration.
Just beyond Clifden town and west of the majestic Twelve Bens mountains and Connemara National Park, you’ll find Clifden Eco Beach Camping & Caravanning Park.
Locally known as Acton’s, this campsite is a leading light in Irish sustainable tourism. Kris took on the business in 2010 and by 2014, Acton’s had achieved a gold standard ecotourism award by EcoTourism Ireland (now Sustainable Travel Ireland) and climate-neutral status in 2015 via Myclimate.
Describing the campsite, Kris says, “The campsite is geographically located on a listed machair habitat site. They are unique to the west coast of Ireland and Scotland so we wanted to protect that. My father farmed close by so I was aware of protecting this for a long time. We’ve been keeping the beaches clean since the 90s.
“There’s so much that’s special about the area,” Kris continues. “It’s right by a special area of conservation for the bottlenose dolphins. And there are several Natura 2000 sites nearby too.” [Natura 2000 is a European network of important protected ecological sites.]
Banning Single-Use Plastic Bottles
One standout action that the business took back in 2014, and which Kris believes most tourism businesses could achieve, was banning single-use water bottles.
Kris states, “We were the first business in Europe to do that. Instead, we offered sustainable stainless steel bottles at a reduced rate. To date, we’ve sold more than 1,500 of them. That’s 1,500 people using those for the next years which is great. And we provide great chemical-free water on the site, so there’s no need for people to bring their own.”
Acton’s was also the first caravan park in Ireland to ban harmful chemicals that people use in their portable toilets. Instead, they sell an eco-friendly product on site.
“It’s actually cheaper than the harmful product, which is carcinogenic and toxic for the environment. And it’s just as effective,” says Kris.
They also offer visitors free transfers, electric bikes and a shopping service.
So how do their customers take to these initiatives? “Communication is key. Our website clearly states our policies. And when people make a booking, we send them a PDF with clear advice on what to expect,” says Kris.
The campsite’s electricity has been green since 2013, supplied from wind farms through Energia, but Kris isn’t content to stop there. His next plan is to invest in a photovoltaic (PV) array for solar power. “These photo panels will supply all of the electricity on site and will cost about €40k or €50k.” Kris estimates that the investment will pay for itself in about eight to 10 years.
There are many other elements to Clifden Eco Beach Camping & Caravanning Park’s eco-tourism policy. A read through it is a treasure trove of inspiration for anyone else looking to follow their example. Eco beach leaves every stone unturned in an effort to allow nature to do its thing.
One big question though that many people will have is what is the cost or return on these investments.
Kris recounts, “Certain things cost more but other things provide savings. For example, all of the detergents we use are eco-friendly and they cost more. But we reduced our recycling costs by 90% by banning plastic water bottles.”
And Kris states that the benefit to their reputation and their repeat business outweigh any investment costs. “In recent years, in particular, a lot of our customers are choosing us because we are eco-friendly. They want to ensure that their holiday is not causing environmental problems. The Germans, French and Dutch are very interested. And we’ve a lot of people now coming from Dublin who are very environmentally aware. We’ve seen a huge push and demand for eco-tourism holidays universally, especially with all the focus on climate change. There’s a real feel-good factor in having a zero-carbon holiday. And we get huge repeat business on the back of it too.”
Acton’s achieves total climate neutrality by carbon offsetting through MyClimate. Visitors can also offset their travel to and from the campsite on their website if they wish.
“We’ve been sponsoring clean sanitation and water in Uganda over the last few years. And we also have money going to protect the rainforest in Central America.”
“We’ve seen a huge push and demand for eco-tourism holidays universally, especially with all the focus on climate change.”
Acton’s also tries to look after their own community too. One simple thing they do is encouraging visitors to go to the local villages adjacent to the local pub, restaurant and shop rather than further afield in Clifden. “If they stay local, they’ll meet locals. But if they go to Clifden, they’ll just meet other tourists,” recounts Kris.
They are involved in the local community council and helped develop the Clifden Biodiversity Plan. They fundraise for the RNLI annually and the Irish Wildlife Trust and are members of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. They have also sponsored the Omey Dash, a local triathlon, and events for the Irish Sea Kayaking Association (ISKA).
As for their guests, Kris and Tatjana, also try to gently educate their visitors during their stay. “From when they arrive to when they leave, we give them pointers without hammering them.” And they provide them with self-guided walking and cycling tours to, for example, the tidal island of Omey. “They get to talk to locals and farmers. It’s very rural integrated tourism.”
Kris adds, “We have a selection of field study guides available to visitors and always encourage visitors to visit the Connemara National Park’s interpretation centre which offers a great source of information on Ireland’s unique peatlands.
“The business has taken off fantastically. I’d say it has grown 10-20% year on year. It’s come to the stage now that during high season, we’d be turning away twice as many people as we have staying.”
Independent Certification Is Key
Kris is a huge believer in certification. “Certification has really contributed to that growth. You have to go for independent certification and auditing so that you stand out from other businesses that may be green-washing. Certification provides a real competitive advantage. And going through the process of certification makes you do a much better job. We thought we were good before, but going through the certification process made us really think through and examine in-depth every process at our business. People definitely choose us now because we have certification.”
According to Kris, the process of getting certified wasn’t easy but he says, “It made us braver. And it was hugely gratifying. It was a step-by-step process but every step was worthwhile. The feedback we get from customers is amazing.”
Sustainable Travel Ireland’s certification is the only certification in Ireland that uses criteria recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).