The Gathering has provided a tailwind to bring growth back to Ireland’s tourism
Opinion: we must now build on local successes in restoring the big welcome
Members of the American Irish Police Association march in this years’s St Patrick’s Day parade. “The Year of the Gathering” has attracted an extra 220,000 visitors this year. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
As the summer season draws to a close, tourism businesses up and down the country are taking stock, attempting to predict what the market has in store for them and starting to map out a course for 2014.
Thankfully, for many of these businesses the “Year of The Gathering” has been a success, helping to attract an additional 222,000 overseas visitors so far this year. Irish tourism is now on a firmer footing. This is of enormous importance considering the contribution tourism makes to the wider economy, providing 196,000 jobs and almost 4 per cent of gross national product.
The boost from The Gathering is particularly visible in our North American market, with visitors up almost 19 per cent in the year to date. Many of these are high-spending tourists who travel around during their stay, delivering a boost to local economies. We have also benefited from growth in European markets, up 6 per cent since January.
Of course, other Government initiatives have played a vital role over the last two years. Thanks to pro-tourism measures, we have gained a competitive advantage when marketing Irish tourism internationally. The reduced tourism VAT rate – and lower PRSI – have enabled tourism businesses to survive and take on thousands of jobs at a very difficult time when employment would otherwise have dropped significantly.
It is vital these measures continue as Irish tourism adjusts to new economic realities. One such reality is our over-reliance on the UK market, which accounts for over 40 per cent of overseas visitors despite a one million drop in annual visitors since 2007. Another is that we rely too heavily on holidaymakers from the island of Ireland which make up 70 per cent of overall business. This market is very sensitive to drops in consumer spending.
While we have learned many difficult lessons since the downturn, initiatives such as The Gathering show we must be more imaginative in how we develop our tourism product. We need to give holidaymakers new and compelling reasons to visit, and we need to attract a greater spread of visitors to the regions.
Part of this challenge lies in how we market Ireland. Irish lifestyles and activities have changed and we must reflect the authentic, real-life experiences of modern Ireland to prospective visitors. An island with the great outdoor adventure awaiting and the restorative power of returning to nature are part of that image. Another challenge lies in our understanding of our diaspora and what “Irishness” means to our kin beyond these shores.
Different way of seeing
One of the successes of The Gathering is that it has helped us rediscover a different way of doing tourism. Looking at how the initiative has captured the imagination of so many communities, I see clear parallels between this initiative and An Tóstal of old – the erstwhile legendary festival that started in 1953 and served as a rally around festivity and community celebration.
It was An Tóstal that began the creation of many of the great social events that local communities enjoy today. My father, now 90, was so imbued with the experience that it spurred him on to greater tourism developmental work within Clare and beyond. As I reminisce with him, I cannot but think that we could be on a cusp of something similar with The Gathering.
We have witnessed small communities and local groups embrace a new dynamic of “Tourism of the People”. With thousands of registered and informal events, The Gathering has awoken in people a spirit not seen for decades.
Ireland’s tourism family has grown dramatically as a result, and is now in rude health. Our task is to build upon this legacy and create a support framework to help communities continue their tourism efforts. Indeed, this could be the long-term success of The Gathering – harnessing the momentum and energy that has grown from the ground up to provide experiences for visitors that are truly “of the people” and bring the Irish welcome to life.