An All Wales Outdoor Recreation Network 

Supporting & Developing The Outdoor Sector in Wales 

 Adventure Tourism – Outdoor Recreation – Conservation 

In 2001 the restrictions associated with the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak effectively shut down the outdoor sector across Wales. During this shutdown it soon became clear, even to businesses that did not regard themselves as part of the outdoor activities or adventure tourism sector, that the spend associated with rucksacks, walking boots, canoes and mountain bikes was missing and the economy and communities were suffering as a consequence. Ten years on the sector is now much more widely acknowledged as a positive contributor across a range of government priorities in Wales.

Currently in Wales there are hundreds of SME’s operating in the Outdoor sector. The sector is acknowledged to be largely populated by passionate individuals, rather than organisations with well consolidated economic, political and social influence. External perceptions and a lack of Wales-wide quality data are obvious barriers to the development of industry confidence. This has contributed to the sector suffering from a piecemeal approach to the development of its long-term growth.

However these businesses all play a key role in enhancing the visitor experience in Wales. They provide a huge range of world class, modern outdoor recreation opportunities such as coasteering, kite surfing, rock climbing, gorge walking, caving, kayaking and mountaineering. Many of these activities take place within Wales three National Parks, our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and take advantage of the stunning environments across Wales – the rugged mountainous landscapes, our relatively unpolluted rivers, spectacular coastline and award winning beaches. It is a reflection on the quality of the Welsh natural environment, the professionalism and commitment of businesses in the sector that adventure tourism and outdoor recreation continue to grow and expand despite the economic downturn in recent years.

The delivery of Outdoor Adventure Activities in Wales however is not just about tourism and the economy. Organisations such as the Outdoor Partnership in north Wales are driving generational change, through their work using outdoor recreation to provide a common platform for participation, fun, achievement and employment, which binds local communities, creates a sustainable use and understanding of the environment of Wales. Across Wales opportunities for outdoor recreation takes place via a wide variety of organisations – Commercial, Voluntary, Local Education Authority, Clubs and Youth Services.

It is the view of the Wales Adventure Tourism Organisation (WATO), that there is a real opportunity to recognise the value of this sector, and to support the continued sustainable development of Wales as a destination with world class outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as a place that encourages door-step outdoor recreation for the people of Wales.

This paper has been developed as a proposal to seek more effective engagement with Welsh Government and partners, to establish a Wales Outdoor Recreation Network which would facilitate a more structured and inclusive approach to the management and development of the outdoor sector in Wales. WATO advocate that the discrete geographical regions and socio-economic situations across Wales requires regional as well as national synthesis and strategic planning. The following issues all need addressing:

What are the key factors that will inform future demand for adventure tourism & outdoor recreation over the next 10 years?

  • What key factors will influence the supply of access to places for outdoor recreation over the next 10 years?
  • How are national, regional and local planning and spatial frameworks likely to develop over the next 10 years and what risks and opportunities do they create in relation to outdoor recreation strategy?
  • What role and contribution should outdoor recreation strategy make over the long term in relation to public health and wellbeing outcomes?

The need to integrate outdoor recreation into other planning frameworks, alongside other national priorities, will require significant influence, backed by clear supporting evidence, to be held with decision makers, at national, regional and local level.

Background to the current organisation of the outdoor recreation sector in Wales

In Wales we are yet to achieve a fully joined up approach to the development and sustainable management and marketing of the sector. Other regions in the UK can be said to be much more proactive (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Lake District) In addition, due to the rapidly expanding numbers of people taking part in activities, both visitors and residents, there is increased pressure on the natural environment which could lead to negative impacts, creating access issues and conflicts between users which significantly threaten the development of new products and existing services in Wales.

In 2008, on behalf of Welsh Government, Visit Wales ran a series of road shows across Wales for the outdoor sector to ask businesses for input on a range of topics such as:

  • How can communications between Visit Wales and the outdoor recreation sector businesses be improved?
  • How can marketing of outdoor recreation be improved?
  • How best to establish and share best practice for outdoor recreation across Wales?
  • How best to ensure that activities develop in a way which is sustainable for business, but also for the environments and wildlife of Wales?

It was recognised at these four road shows that there were already three established networks of outdoor sector providers already in existence operating regionally in Wales.

  • Snowdonia-Active (S-A)
  • Brecon Beacons Tourism (BBT) – now the South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group – SWOAPG
  • Pembrokeshire Outdoor Charter group

The businesses attending the VW road shows voiced their support for Visit Wales to formally recognise and support the established networks as a way of answering the questions posed at those roadshows.

It was recognised that there was much best practice already happening regionally, and that by bringing representatives from the above three regional groups together, best practice could be shared between the regions, and communication improved to the outdoor recreation sector.

Wales Adventure Tourism Organisation (WATO)

The Wales Adventure Tourism Organisation (WATO) was formed to bring together representatives from the above three organisations. The overall objective is to improve delivery of activity tourism across Wales, thereby leading to increased business for the sector. The particular emphasis is on working to enhance the opportunities for the small/micro-businesses that  populate the sector.

There are three broad themes to WATO:

  • Communications
  • Marketing and Publicity
  • Sustainability

It has become clear through the work of WATO that there is a real opportunity for an organisation with a wider, national and inclusive remit to bring in all the relevant organisations and businesses involved with the outdoor recreation sector to sustainably develop the sector and reduce the barriers that the current complex situation creates.


The sheer volume and diversity of outdoor recreation in Wales can present a complex picture. Outdoor Activities tend to be delivered regionally and there are numerous groups and schemes that impact on the industry. Recent developments such as the Sustaining a Living Wales Green paper and the emerging Single Body provide opportunity for reducing some of this complexity.

The retention of the Adventure Activities Licensing by Welsh Government provides an opportunity for Wales to stand out as a leader in the safe provision of adventurous outdoor activities. There is a very wide and varying degree of involvement for local communities for experiencing outdoor recreation through outdoor activities and limited opportunities for local people for jobs in the Industry. Access arrangements are handled through National Governing Bodies, local groups, individual organisations and national bodies, creating great difficulties in maintaining and securing access to venues and leads to both confusion and delays in resolving difficulties. Many stakeholders have no direct route to support, consultation and assistance. With the development of the Single Body, existing contacts and networks with key partners will change again, which leads us to believe that this is the right time to create more structure in getting the right people and organisations working together.

The Need for a National Network – Vision

WATO recently invited a representative from the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN), to give a presentation on the structure and successes of CAAN in Northern Ireland. It is clear to WATO that huge benefits could be gained nationally by creating a similar structure in Wales. CAAN is a single umbrella body involving all key stakeholders, which provides a formal and recognised network with a clear focus on outdoor recreation provision and enables many of the existing problems and duplication of effort to be solved at regular conferences and meetings.

A similar formal network in Wales would bring all the key stakeholders involved in the development of outdoor recreation together nationally whilst continuing to recognise the value of the existing regional groups to maintain strong working relationships with outdoor recreation businesses. New Zealand Outdoors presents another and equally compelling example of how to manage outdoor recreation on a national scale.

A Wales Outdoor Recreation Network could:

  • Be an inclusive network for exchange of information and good practice for the outdoor sector in Wales for all stakeholders. Seek solutions where conflicts exist, and give support to all organisations that are involved in the development, management and promotion of outdoor recreation and the natural environment / access across Wales.
  • Increase the opportunities for training and employment within the outdoor sector & equip those already involved in outdoor recreation, whether in a professional or volunteering capacity, with the necessary skills, knowledge and training to enable them to carry out their roles and duties more effectively.
  • Increase the awareness of the local population and visitors to Wales to the opportunities that exist for taking part in outdoor recreation.
  • Develop and promote nationally recognised good practice for outdoor recreation to ensure the protection of the environments and wildlife of Wales. Support the development of sustainable access solutions and increased provision for outdoor recreation.
  • Inform the need for, and oversee the development of effectively managed and sustainable outdoor recreation facilities across Wales where appropriate ensuring a high quality experience for all users.
  • Undertake ongoing monitoring and engagement with the sector to inform future policies to maximise the benefits for outdoor recreation.
  • To develop and co-ordinate outdoor recreation participation programmes for the local community, resulting in increased participation and ultimately improved physical and mental health.

The above outlined network approach is in line with the stated thinking behind ‘Team Wales’ which seeks to ensure the maximum effectiveness & flexibility of all departments across Welsh Government. A Wales Outdoor Recreation Network would seek to maximise the benefits that a well structured outdoor sector can continue to bring for the sustainable and economic development of the outdoor recreation sector in Wales, and would fit with proposals put forward for good management of the countryside in ‘A Living Wales’.

First Steps

Many activity providers in Wales are members of one of the 3 main regional groups listed above – who are in turn members of the Wales Outdoor Adventure Tourism Organisation (WATO). Following outdoor forums in North Wales and South Wales run during March 2012, attended by over 300 outdoor sector businesses and organisations, WATO can confidently state that there is widespread support for the above proposals within the sector. To ensure that Welsh Government, their statutory bodies and those tasked with co-ordinating the development of the Single Body have a clear picture of the threats and opportunities provided by the outdoor sector in Wales we are seeking support from WG to hold a Wales Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Tourism conference.

Invites would be extended to:

  • Welsh Government
  • Visit Wales
  • National Park Authorities
  • Countryside Council for Wales – CCW
  • Environment Agency Wales – EAW
  • Forestry Commission Wales – FCW
  • Local Authorities
  • Wales Activity Tourism Organisation – WATO
  • Land Owners with an interest in outdoor recreation such as the National Trust
  • Wales Sports Association and outdoor activity National Governing Bodies
  • Adventure Activities Licensing Service – AALS
  • Regional Tourism Partnerships
  • Skills Active
  • Sport Wales
  • Institute of Outdoor Learning
  • British Waterways – The Canal & River Trust

This conference would engage with key stakeholders, explore the issues and begin to shape the  future for a network that supports a coherent, vibrant, and sustainable outdoor sector in wales.