Covid anxiety among domestic holidaymakers could sink this summer

Fáilte Ireland wants us to ‘make a break for it’, but nervousness remains high

Cloudy skies and a leap for freedom near Malin Head, as seen in Fáilte Ireland’s ‘Make a break for it’ campaign.

Cloudy skies and a leap for freedom near Malin Head, as seen in Fáilte Ireland’s ‘Make a break for it’ campaign.

 

Have you made a break for it yet?

When Fáilte Ireland launched its Covid-proofed domestic tourism campaign late last month under the umbrella line “Make a break for it”, it sounded to my doom-sensing ears as if it was saying “quick, hit the accelerator before the second-wave Garda checkpoints are up”. The intended message, the authority assured me, was more “pack your suitcase now before school is a thing again” (not an exact quote).

Either way, the current television ad, in targeting cooped-up families with school-age children, deftly captures the newly potent thrill of leaving your own driveway for the open road: the premise is that Ireland will never have felt as expansive as it does post-lockdown. The action noticeably stops short of showing how these family units will occupy themselves at the other end of journey, but then it would be bad if everybody suddenly alighted upon exactly the same cliff because the sun was shining on it during the Six-One News ad break.

An imminent phase of Fáilte Ireland’s multi-pronged, 12-week campaign, and one more relevant to me, will see Dubliners encouraged to explore the “hundreds of attractions” in their own city – “tour your town” – in a bid to alleviate the economically-disastrous loss of almost all international visitors, which in a normal year generate 80 per cent of tourism business in the capital. As pain-mitigation strategies go, it couldn’t be more critical.

Walk around the centre of Dublin now and it’s hard not to be struck by how overwhelmingly spacious it is – even the Dame Street pavements seem roomy. Companies dependent on tourist currency are shuttering in real time, while for others the only real trade is in reusable cloth masks.

I ventured in a few times while on leave to hang out in cloudy parks with untrustworthy pigeons, stumble upon liquidation sales for much-loved shops, follow the arrows at the National Gallery and test Dublin’s most exciting new attractions: the public toilets on St Stephen’s Green and in Wolfe Tone Square.

But the light whirring of activity is a facsimile of normality that only makes town seem odder than it did during the dead mid-lockdown stage, when at least the full 28 Days Later vibe could be explained away by limits on non-essential travel or the pretence that it was 8am on a Sunday morning and everybody was asleep.

On one trip, the sense of 1980s parochial drabness combined with the upsurge in electric scooters had me wondering exactly which Back to the Future film I was in, a feeling confirmed when a solitary busker at the top of Grafton Street unnervingly broke into his Spanish guitar version of Mr Sandman.

Campaign realism

It hasn’t been unheard of for domestic tourism marketing campaigns to have a bang of “you never know, it could be better than you think” or “no, really, you might have a good time,” off them. In recent years, some of the Irish ones have admirably opted not to Photoshop out the grey skies at every opportunity, implying instead that you, too, can look ecstatic in raingear. This is the sort of heady mix of realism and fantasy that Ireland is adept at delivering.

No holidaymaker wants to go where they aren’t welcome or there’s little to do, yet no holidaymaker wants to run with a crowd either

The hook on what was meant to be Fáilte Ireland’s big campaign for 2020, Keep Discovering, was more ambitious. Before it was unceremoniously pulled just weeks after its late February launch, the ad stressed that not only is Ireland replete with gems that will force people to revise perceptions formed as a child, there are proper Instagram-worthy adventures to be had by eschewing the airport for the motorway service station.

The €6 million push, devised by Failte Ireland and its creative agency Rothco, was designed to offset a Brexit-related dent in British holidaymakers by persuading Irish people intent on spending their main holiday abroad – because nothing beats distance plus heat – to book secondary breaks at home during the off-peak and shoulder seasons. As it turned out, holidays abroad were soon null and void, but so, too, was all tourism in the shoulder season, plus almost all international custom throughout the summer, leaving much of the Irish industry desperate to see if domestic holidaymakers will overcome Covid anxiety and allow themselves a compensatory getaway before winter.

Fine lines

Fáilte Ireland hopes to revert to its original campaign later this year, but for now it recognises that the planned emphasis on novel experiences and undiscovered charms won’t quite hit the mark in a climate where people want safety, familiarity and a bucketload of assurances. It’s a uniquely fine line with high stakes: no holidaymaker wants to go where they aren’t welcome or there’s little to do, yet no holidaymaker wants to run with a crowd either.

Domestic tourism isn’t, frankly, the most appealing of terms for the practice of holidaying within your own country. Hello, we’re domestic tourists, we drive about looking for lonely beaches, then we retreat to the pot luck of self-catering for a fight about how to separate the recycling from the compostable waste. It doesn’t work. But nobody calls themselves a staycationer with a straight face either and, besides, the nation has been racked by a new division over whether a “staycation” can involve sleeping elsewhere in Ireland or applies only to an intensive period of day-trips.

In this environment, at once wisely cautious and slowly ruinous, only our despair at the cruel lack of distancing between Atlantic weather fronts can unite us – that and an official rejection of the notion that any part of this island resembles the Amalfi Coast, no matter what the New York Times says.

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