Rural areas are recognised for their complex, multifunctional capacities with a range of different interest groups claiming their rights to, and use of, different rural spaces. The current rural development paradigm that is evident across the globe is epitomised by the European LEADER approach. Using evidence from the proposed National Park in Northern Ireland, we ask the question: what is the potential for sustainable rural tourism to contribute to rural development? In our analysis we consider the scope for adaptive tourism to overcome some of the ongoing challenges that have been identified in the LEADER approach. Four themes are revealed from this analysis: institutional (in)capacity, legitimacy of local groups, navigating between stakeholder interests and sustainable tourism in practice. These issues, discussed in turn, have clear implications for the new rural development programme.