At a time of economic uncertainty, the recovery of the Irish tourism industry shows what can be done through restructuring, hard work and providing good value for money. High prices and poor value were intrinsic aspects of the Celtic Tiger bubble and, when international recession struck in 2008, the knock-on effects were horrendous. In a three-year period to 2010, the number of foreign holidaymakers fell by one-quarter, dropping to six million. Since then, there has been a gradual, but accelerating recovery.
Visitor figures for last year exceeded seven million and Fáilte Ireland hopes to push that number close to eight million this year with the help of various local festivals and cultural initiatives connected with The Gathering. So far, the outlook is encouraging. The number of tourists from North America this year has risen by 13 per cent, with a 10 per cent increase from mainland Europe. Our main market, in Britain, remains sluggish, reflecting difficult economic conditions there.
The importance of the tourism industry should not be underrated. It employs about 200,000 people and contributes an estimated four per cent to GNP. The sector is still going through a difficult and painful transition process, with many traditional guesthouses and B&Bs struggling to survive, while hotels and hostels are gaining in profitability and market share. In spite of that, here is a growing belief that the worst is over.
The difference in performance is linked to price and service. Irish hotels now provide some of the best value in Europe while guesthouses are struggling to compete. Domestic holidaymakers are taking advantage of low prices and two-thirds of hotels anticipate an increase in return business and profitability this year. In order to plan more effectively, detailed visitor surveys should be undertaken. Raw numbers provide an inadequate snapshot. Common complaints and the expectations of visitors should be clearly identified so that their experiences can be improved.