Failed tourism policy is costing money and jobs

Fri, Aug 3, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:In looking after vested interests, the State has ignored an industry and volunteers who are best at attracting visitors, writes FELIM O'ROURKE

TOURISM HAS the potential for rapid large-scale job creation, but it is held back by the fact that discussion on performance in this area is dominated by State tourism organisations.

The performance of Irish tourism needs to be objectively assessed and the policy implications of that assessment need to be addressed.

The best measure of the performance of Irish tourism over a long period is bed nights for overseas holiday visitors. Incoming holiday visitor bed nights grew rapidly from six million in 1987 to 25 million in 1998, held steady for 10 years and then fell to 18 million in 2010.

Incoming bed nights for that year were 30 per cent below the number for 1998. It might have been expected that this disastrous performance would have led to an informed discussion of tourism policy but this has not happened.

Ireland, uniquely in Europe, has two State organisations involved in tourism.

Most countries have a national tourism organisation that supports tourism businesses in international marketing. Tourism Ireland plays this role for Ireland. However, the role of Fáilte Ireland, which is responsible for tourism development and local marketing, is problematic.

Tourism is intimately linked to community. When a tourist visits any destination, their holiday experience is based on all his/her experiences at the destination. A single business cannot control the totality of the holiday experience. Tourism needs the support of the entire community.

All other developed countries that are interested in tourism understand this and have local tourism organisations that harness community support for tourism.

Examples of such support include Martin Glasser designing the “I love NY” logo for free in 1977, the 120 volunteers who operate the tourist offices in Geelong in Australia, and the 5,000 volunteers who work in tourist attractions in Scotland every summer.

A good Irish example of volunteering is St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which has more than 40 volunteers working in all areas of the cathedral looking after visitors. This is an example of a church community organising voluntary support for tourism.

A centralised state organisation cannot organise community support needed for tourism. Joyce enthusiasts visiting Dublin this summer, as noted by Robert Ballagh, will not be able to visit the Martello Tower in Sandycove. Anywhere else in the world this fantastic tourist attraction would be run by local volunteers linked to the local tourism organisation.

Community support for tourism is needed, for example, to eliminate car parking in Dublin Castle, develop a walking route up Ben Bulben in Sligo or turn 600 miles of disused rail lines in the west of Ireland into “Greenways” for cycling, hiking and equestrian holidays.

Lack of practical community support for tourism may be one reason for the low level of repeat visiting by holiday visitors to Ireland. Ireland gets 0.5 repeat visitors for every first-time visitor compared with 4.5 for Spain and two for Scotland.

We get almost two million first-time holiday visitors but fewer than one million repeat holiday visitors. If we achieved the same level of repeat visiting as Scotland we would double our tourism numbers. Most studies of tourism produced in Ireland are controlled by the State tourism organisations.

These reports invariably make recommendations that suit Fáilte Ireland and the Department of Tourism. Examples include the 2004 PricewaterhouseCoopers report on regional structures and the 2012 Irish Tourism Industry Confederation report, Capitalising On Dublin’s Potential.

In 2004, PwC reviewed regional and local tourism structures in a number of countries and then recommended a centralised structure, even though all the countries reviewed operate a community approach.

All tourism businesses in Dublin were excluded from Dublin Tourism Ltd as it was turned into a Fáilte Ireland subsidiary in 2007, and the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation was given the right to nominate five directors. The chief executive of Dublin Tourism was a director of the confederation.

This masterly protection of the insider network in Irish tourism was presided over by then minister for tourism John O’Donoghue.

The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation study compares Dublin with six other medium-sized European cities. The major conclusion of the report is that Dublin is suffering “loss of competitive position against major European city competitors” because of “lack of co-ordination of marketing efforts”. It lists cities that “have established very effective city promotion organisations”.

These are Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna, Barcelona and Lisbon. Each of these cities has an independent city tourism organisation. The report, however, recommends the setting up of a Dublin Tourism Marketing Alliance as a unit within Fáilte Ireland.

Dublin Tourism was a subsidiary of Fáilte Ireland from 2007 to 2011. The confederation report recommends the replacement of Dublin Tourism Ltd, a Fáilte Ireland subsidiary and a failure, by a unit within Fáilte Ireland.

Fáilte Ireland itself was a political creation that had no basis in any understanding of the nature of tourism or international practice. The setting up of Tourism Ireland in 2000 deprived Bord Fáilte of its role in international marketing. Fáilte Ireland then came from the merger of the rump of Bord Fáilte with Cert.

Tourism is everybody’s business, but State organisations have controlled tourism for their own interests, excluding most tourism business and destroying the employment potential of Irish tourism. The Department of Tourism and the Minister for Tourism are responsible for tourism policy.

Irish tourism policy has no basis in logic and is out of step with standard international practice. The policy has failed and that failure is costing us tens of thousands of badly needed jobs.


Felim O’Rourke is an economist. He was joint author, with Jerome Casey, of the Dublin City Business Association report Rejuvenating the Tourism Product in Dublin, published in 2011

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