In 1991 the Heritage Town Programme emerged in the context of the similar Theme Town Scheme, which had operated successfully in the United Kingdom. 30 Irish towns were chosen from over 600 submissions. These towns were chosen for their unique heritage resources and potential to achieve tourism development and growth given Heritage Town status. The principle of the scheme was that a number of towns with a strong physical heritage would be developed as being representative of the heritage of Ireland. This development would have the two-fold effect of helping to protect the built environment and providing a marketing tool for the tourism industry in those towns and the country at large.
In line with the proposals set out in The 1994 Bord Failte Document 'The Heritage Town Concept' development in the designated towns included:
- Opening conserved historic buildings to visitors.
- Devising a number of themes including historic, architectural, archaeological, literary, religious linking individual points of interest.
- Devising an integrated signage system.
- Developing an integrated traffic management plan incorporating car parking and pedestrian routes.
- Developing and managing a Heritage Centre.
The core part of the Heritage Town Programme was the development of a Visitor Centre. This Heritage Centre would provide an orientation point, a gathering place and an information centre for the project.
The support for Heritage Towns was given by the Government in their effort to decentralise tourism.