How Dublin region will continue to gain most out of tourism's growth


SILENCE would have been the best course of action for Bord Failte when the Minister for Finance lopped II per cent or £33 million off its allocation in the Book of Estimates. Instead, Bord Failte volunteered a statement that described the cut as small, adding that substantial cuts in permanent staff would enable it to operate with the reduced provision.

Lewis Carroll must have been loose in Bord Failte's public relations department that evening.

Tourism is trumpeted as the growth industry which will shortly take over from agriculture as the most important source of jobs in Ireland, and yet the main promotional agency is given less money to spend.

Does any of this really matter to people working in the tourist industry? Last year was a very good year and the outlook for 1996 is even better. The awkwardly named Overseas Tourism Marketing Initiative (OTMI) helped Bord Failte gain market share in Britain and the United States.

The trouble with OTMI is that it is political in character. It is under the control of the Department of Tourism and Trade, and this control is being exercised more and more overtly. No Minister now travels to a Bord Failte workshop or promotion without a retinue of officials.

OTMI also includes the trade, which in its various guises has an agenda which is not always favourable to tourism. Take Aer Lingus, for example probably the most important single player in the trade.

The Minister for Tourism and Trade, Mr Kenny, was flying to New York last February. Hoteliers and others had told him that they feared Aer Lingus would not put enough capacity on the Atlantic to cater for the anticipated demand. The chairman of Aer Lingus, Mr Bernie Cahill, happened to be on the flight, and the Minister took the opportunity to raise the issue of capacity with him. "Aer Lingus has a commercial mandate, Minister," Mr Cahill told him.

In other words, Aer Lingus wilt" put enough capacity on any route to make profit and not for the sake of bringing more tourists to Ireland. This is a perfectly proper stance for Aer Lingus to adopt but its presence on OTMI suggests that it is a tourist promoter, which it is not and should not be.

Similar arguments might be made about other OTMI members. The issue of who is gaining from the growth in tourism was raised this summer by Mr Gerry O'Connor, president of the Irish Hotels Federation. A Cork hotelier, Mr O'Connor suggested that the evidence available to his members was that Dublin and the east coast were doing proportionately much better than the rest of the State.

This is undoubtedly true, but if there was any sinister implication of a national policy bias that is mistaken. The explanation is simplicity itself in one word Ryanair.

The attractions of Dublin for weekend breaks have been greatly enhanced in recent years. But so have those of Cork, Limerick and Galway. The difference lies at Dublin Airport. Ryanair created a competitive climate which has made access to Dublin so cheap that it virtually created a new market from Britain. The tourist enjoys dense frequency and cheap fares. Until other airports enjoy pro rata the same advantages Dublin and the east will always do better.

Indeed, the trend will be exacerbated next year when Irish Ferries and Stena Line will have jumbo ferries into Dublin.

In 1995, the peace process saw a new emphasis on Northern Ireland as a holiday destination. What the tour operators discovered quickly, however, is that Northern Ireland does not have enough quality bedrooms. A rush is now under way to build them.

Co operation between Bord Failte and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is evident at overseas trade promotions, though some cynics say it is more apparent than real and was lubricated by EU funds which would not have been made available if they operated separately. It is true that Mr Billy Hastings, the Northern hotelier, has no interest in filling somebody's hotel in Killarney, and vice versa. While these limits to co operation are acknowledged, it makes sense to promote the island of Ireland.

A factor in the success of 1995 is the newly invigorated Aer Lingus. What the trade is about to discover, however, is that the friendly airline is tired of being everybody's easy touch and intends to pursue a less amiable, commercial relationship with its partners from now on.

More than four million overseas visitors came to Ireland this year. Visitor expenditure was up by more than 16 per cent to £1.3 billion, while numbers were up 14 per cent to 4.2 million. Both figures, the highest ever recorded, are based on preliminary Bord Failte estimates for 1995, based on results for the first nine months of the year.