Caveat: There’s no place like home when it comes to tourism

Ireland is blessed with a priceless natural resource in tourism terms – its people

Man-made treasures such as the Great Western Greenway in Mayo pulls scores of walkers and cyclists to the region. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin

Man-made treasures such as the Great Western Greenway in Mayo pulls scores of walkers and cyclists to the region. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin

 

My Irish tourism road trip comprised six days, 950 miles, 20 counties, 28 interviews, a couple of mild hangovers and one inescapable conclusion: when it comes to tourism treasures, Ireland is as rich as Croesus. We don’t live on an island, we live on a floating, glittering trove of the finest natural resources.

Aside from tapping the revenues, jobs and other opportunities this provides, it is incumbent on those who oversee the industry to ensure that these resources are managed wisely and the benefits spread as widely as possible.

The treasures include the obvious ones, such as the stunning Cliffs of Moher in Clare. Other natural ones, such as the surfing in Donegal and Sligo, or the River Shannon, one of the best navigable waterways in Europe.

There are man-made treasures, such as the Great Western Greenway in Mayo that pulls hordes of walkers and cyclists to the region, or the splendour of fine estates such as Westport House, which is currently at the centre of sensitive sale talks.

Then there are the less obvious, but no less valuable, treasures that remain relatively untapped when you consider their potential.

These include the Rathcroghan archeological site in Roscommon and the adjacent Oweynagat Cave, which in mythology terms is to Halloween what the North Pole is to Christmas.

More than money

On the business pages of this newspaper and in the offices of policymakers, Ireland’s tourism resources are often weighed in euros and percentage terms. This is appropriate and pragmatic, as tourism is an industry like any other that must be managed to generate the best possible result for people’s livelihoods.

One thing that really hit home, however, as I willed my battered Mazda over and back across the island, is a truism, but worth repeating because we are sometimes prone to forget: Ireland’s greatest natural resource when it comes to tourism is the people that visitors meet every day.

William Sullivan, the owner of the Irish Military War Museum in Meath, has been a collector of military memorabilia since the age of eight. He would have become an army officer, only his father died when he was a teenager and he had to work on the family farm. Now, in his 40s, he has all but jacked in the farming and is selling off land to finance the expansion of his museum, a life’s dream.

“This isn’t work,” he told me as he strode across a field on our way for a tank driving lesson. “This is just me being a big kid.”

In Bundoran, Co Donegal, I met the elderly but sprightly Brennan sisters, Nan and Patricia, who were born in a room above the Criterion Bar on the main street and have run the place all their lives. They have seen many tourist seasons come and go, but the quiet bar – where even Phil Coulter, while on a visit, was forbidden by the sisters to sing – has remained the same.

The craic in Irish pubs is obviously a major draw for tourists. This is obvious from the buzz at the Helm in Westport, run by Shane Keogh and his irrepressible father Vinnie. Or at McDermotts in Doolin, where the initially hesitant tourists were dancing like they were at a crossroads by the end of the night, as the music from Blackie O’Connell and the few pints of Guinness hit the spot.

Some might consider this sort of thing sentimental, twee or even a bit unreal. It might be all of those things. But that doesn’t make it any less fun, as the tourists jigging in McDermotts would attest. And the fun there is as real as you can get.

I watched Joe O’Connell, a farmer who gives guided tours at the Jerpoint Park historical site on his lands near Thomastown in Kilkenny, take a coachload of US tourists and have them hanging on his every word within five minutes.

O’Connell, who is as Irish as bacon and cabbage, tells tourists the grave of St Nicholas is located on the lands. Yes, the original Santa Claus is supposedly buried in his back yard. I’m not sure they believed him, but they didn’t care.

At one point during his walking tour, O’Connell climbed up on top of a boulder to explain to the group the significance of part of the historical site. When he finished, he climbed back down.

“And there ends the sermon on the rock,” he quipped, before walking off down the field, cackling away to himself.

The tourists followed him like sheep. Some told me afterwards his tour was the highlight of their trip to Ireland.

Irish tourism, as was evident from the record visitor numbers announced by the Central Statistics Office on Thursday morning, is in extremely good shape, notwithstanding a few challenges that lie ahead, such as the impact of Brexit.

The industry has the potential to bring prosperity to parts of the State that other industries can’t reach.

Policymakers must manage this boom properly, to achieve long-term, sustainable growth. Some of the people I mentioned are counting on it.

Footnotes . . .

From big telecoms to big wind. Gary Healy has left his senior role at Vodafone Ireland, where he was head of external regulations and regulation, to become chief executive of the Irish Wind Energy Association lobby group.

He replaces Kenneth Matthews, who left as head of the IWEA in February and now works as an energy industry consultant.

“Big wind” is the sobriquet often used in relation to the IWEA by wind energy sceptics, such as UCD economist Colm McCarthy. I’m not sure the association minds the moniker all that much, though. Big wind, big profits.

Big membership list, too. IWEA members include big energy companies, such as ESB and Airtricity owner SSE, but also many of the big corporate and financial advisory institutions, such as AIB, Grant Thornton and the blue-blooded law firm Arthur Cox.

Healy gets his first outing as IWEA chief next week, at the organisation’s autumn conference in Killarney. It’s a bit early to expect him to give a major speech – it will be more of an initial meet and greet. But I’m sure the genial Healy will be psyching himself up for a big performance soon. Presumably he will be hoping to blow them away with his enthusiasm.

Davy holds its annual conference next Tuesday at the Convention Centre in Dublin. The main speaker is Mona Sutphen, a former senior adviser to US president Barack Obama and one-time White House deputy chief of staff for policy.

Her speech is on “the US election and the challenges ahead”. There is no shortage of futurology in this, of course. If Donald Trump, hair and all, wins the race to the White House, the challenges may be more daunting than we think.

Sutphen, who is married to a former senior adviser to the Clintons, was once asked for career advice.

“Play to your strengths, focus on gaining experience and don’t be a jerk.”

The Donald obviously wasn’t listening.

’Tis the season for new appointments.

O’Dwyer Real Estate Management (OREM), an asset manager founded by Siobhan O’Dwyer 30 years ago, has hired former Nama asset recovery manager Christine Nelson as chief investment officer.

O’Dwyer and Nelson probably know each other well, as Nama is listed as one of the firm’s clients on O’Dwyer’s website.

OREM, which has 100 staff in Sandyford, has also hired Denis O’Connor, a former head of Irish Estates, as chief operating officer. It has also appointed David McCarthy, once of IBRC, as head of commercial asset management.

The property party must be well and truly back in swing.

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