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The ECOCLUB Interview with Mary Mulvey, CEO, Greenbox - Ireland

Mary Mulvey: The region, which was once overshadowed by conflict, is now one of the most peaceful places in Ireland and eleven years on from the Belfast Agreement the destination is in an ideal position to welcome tourists to visit

Mary MulveyMary Mulvey was born in New York. She obtained a BA in Geography from St Patricks College, in Maynooth, a postgraduate Diploma in Irish Heritage Management (University College, Cork), and a Certificate in Ecotourism from Sligo IT. Prior to becoming CEO of Greenbox, she was Project Manager for many natural Attractions in Ireland, in the Irish Tourist Board and the English Tourist Board, and also as a freelance Events Manager, Planner & Promoter.

GreenboxResponsible Tourism Ltd (trading as Greenbox) is an innovative regional tourism development initiative covering the counties of Leitrim, Fermanagh, parts of North and East Sligo, South Donegal and West Cavan and Monaghan. Greenbox aims to 'develop Irelands fist integrated eco tourism destination, focusing on the development of a range of sustainable niche tourism products utilising the natural and cultural resources of its area and developing these in a way that respects the natural environment, involves local communities and, above, all is sustainable in environmental and economic terms'. Recognitions include: Highly Commended Responsible Tourism Awards (World Travel Market, Dec 2006),  Finalist in the Destination Category of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards (World Travel Market, June 2007) and a Green Apple Award in December 2007.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: What attracted you to Ecotourism after a long and varied career in tourism?

Mary Mulvey: I think it had all elements of many work areas I really enjoyed. From natural and built heritage, community development, innovation & creativity, the Greenbox (Web: www.greenbox.ie) established a multi-stakeholder board of key policy makers including representatives from organisations in statutory, regional, local agencies and the social economy sectors, tourism agencies, business enterprise agencies, local authorities, communities, environmental groups and the private sector. The model and funding structure which was put in place in the early days for Greenbox allowed the project a lot of independence to do projects well and deliver over  time and progress.

ECOCLUB.com: How is the Greenbox defined, geographically, economically & philosophically? Do you consider it as part of a green tourism segment (niche) or of a green movement for change in Tourism?

Mary Mulvey: The Greenbox is a completely unique region and is a natural location for Ireland’s first ecotourism destination. It boasts unique ecosystems, an unspoiled landscape, centres of learning, a Geo Park and landscapes of high conservation value including Inishmurray Island. The geographic area is surrounded by water on all sides by the Shannon Erne Waterway, Lough Erne and The Atlantic Ocean. The region, which was once overshadowed by conflict, is now one of the most peaceful places in Ireland and eleven years on from the Belfast (peace) Agreement the destination is in an ideal position to welcome tourists to visit. Economically the region has suffered both sides of the border from lack of investment, emigration and a lack of balanced regional  development.

I consider Greenbox to be a leading force in changing new tourism products and a change model for existing tourism businesses. I see this type of tourism becoming the only norm in years to come and becoming mainstream if the industry is given leadership and training tools to change.

ECOCLUB.com: In a region, as you say, long overshadowed by conflict it must have been a great risk, personal & financial to undertake this peace-building project.

Mary Mulvey: There has been a huge investment in peace-funded programmes which has developed a trusting working relationship  in many agencies. Our main partner County Fermanagh has not been as badly affected or divided as some of Northern Irelands other six counties so, the European Union and both governments were the main financial backers.

ECOCLUB.com: You said Greenbox involves a 'multi-stakeholder' approach. How does that actually work to avoid delays, and beyond stakeholders, is the local community (ordinary citizens) able to directly participate in decision-making?

Mary Mulvey: Yes  we  have   many  consultation  processes  and  feedback at all times  from 150 network members  many of who  are  community  groups  etc  The  original  concepts  came  from 4 Public  steering  meetings  etc  Ireland  is  very open and  my approach  is always  to listen  and  be  flexible  when  things don’t work  to consult further  and  be prepared  to change  policies to suit Every party.

ECOCLUB.com: Are you satisfied with the returns in terms of generating strong cross-community & cross-border links as well as the financial one, or is it too early to say?

Mary Mulvey: Yes, most happy with the networking of up to 60 agencies and got great support on many projects, training,  conference and marketing events..

ECOCLUB.com: Do you see your project being replicated in other tense & depressed border areas in Europe, for example in the Bakans?

Mary Mulvey: I think there is great potential and am aware of some work in new plans for Cyprus.

ECOCLUB.com: What were the main reasons that you chose to develop your own Ecolabel, Ireland's first ecotourism label rather than use the EU Flower?

Mary Mulvey: The main reason was to certify the ecotourism experience many of which is non-accommodation, only a type of  activity. Norway, New Zealand and other countries have created a label that takes account of natural-cultural factors unique to  that country. Our label helps small businesses to develop a tourism experience which is 50% nature-based and we have designed this to suit Ireland, our climate, culture and people. We use this label for all accommodation types, hotels, hostels and self-catering. The label can cover our 2 country issue Republic of Ireland / Northern Ireland and be understood in main markets – for Irish Tourism, it also compliments Blue Flags, Green Flags for Schools and White Flags for leisure centres. Another reason to use was that no other  one was available to such high standards or implemented by either tourists boards.

ECOCLUB.com: So, in what key way do your criteria differ from the EU ones?

Mary Mulvey: Greenbox certifies the experience and it is 50% nature-based, proving that the operators actively give all benefits  back to the community and contribute to conservation. The label, with all relevant training courses, concentrates on the natural heritage, the contribution to conservation and the local community and this can be very relevant and make a different visitor experience.

ECOCLUB.com: Your success will surely attract imitators. Would you - do you - tolerate other eco labels in your "territory" or would you rather have an exclusivity?

Mary Mulvey: I think there is a consensus developing to have one label of high national/international standards and now in times of scarce resources I doubt if a public or private sector new one would evolve. We now work with all key sectors in Ireland and  cooperate with all organisations who are working in this sector.

ECOCLUB.com: Were there any key issues you had not anticipated when launching the label and any key lessons learned?

Mary Mulvey: The commitment of the person who wants to achieve the label is key. A lot of support is required at all stages and sometimes small business has lots of external factors that cannot be avoided ranging from other business / family commitments or in some cases not wanting to change business practices or implement a new system.

ECOCLUB.com: How do you ensure that data supplied from hoteliers is accurate and that there are no conflicts of interest in the certification process?

Mary Mulvey: The inspection process is audited by a third party and is very thorough with spot checks by a third party government agency.

ECOCLUB.com: In light of the current global economic crisis, did you have to readjust your goals, for example to refocus on domestic travellers? And do you feel Ecotourism is better sheltered than mass Tourism in your area?

Mary Mulvey: Our region has always focused on the domestic market and has the lowest number of overseas visitors of any region in Ireland. We have some new 'products' just on the market achieving 60% occupancy. And established businesses are up 30% on last year.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, would you consider expanding your operations to cover the whole of the island of Ireland and beyond, or would you rather opt for a deeper coverage of the ecotourism promotion and certification needs of the current area?

Mary Mulvey: Yes, we  are currently working with the world famous Burren Co Clare destination and expect much of our standards  will be accessible on the rest of the island. Information on our training can be found at www.responsibletourism.ie . We are also working with a national group - Irelands Blue Book - and have several properties including an irish castle seeking certification both in northern Ireland and the republic.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Related information: Download the Greenbox Criteria & Application Form (pdf - 464 KB)

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