Fáilte Ireland is to implement a new five-year strategy which aims to provide international visitors with "immersive experiences" centring on Irish food and drink.
Underpinning the strategy will be changing people's perception by re-positioning Irish food and drink "from being a pleasant surprise to becoming one of the compelling reasons to visit Ireland", according to Fáilte Ireland's commercial development director Paul Keeley.
While food and drink is already an intrinsic part of the Irish tourism experience and provides a memorable experience for many visitors, prior to coming Ireland their expectations are lower, Mr Keeley said at a briefing on Thursday on the strategy.
“We undoubtedly have the product and expertise, we have the natural produce, fresh ingredients and great fish and meat but we need to ensure our food and drink offering gains a global reputation that matches the reality on the ground,” he said.
A pattern of seven years growth in tourism earnings “cannot be taken for granted”, Mr Keeley said. And while 2017 would be confirmed as a record year, building sustainability and ensuring the industry was recession proof was needed, he added.
Sustainability in the broader context was reflected in the demand by major conference organisers that they be located in sustainable cities. Being sustainable was also critical to winning consumer confidence. Likewise, visitors – especially millennials – wanted to be judged by their experiences rather than possessions, and that included holidays they took.
The strategy seeks to increase the number of Irish tourism businesses engaged with development initiatives to ensure food and drink is “a truly immersive, cultural experience”, while increasing and enhancing awareness and perception of Ireland’s food and drink offering abroad.
The Food and Drink Strategy 2018-2023 says food could help grow tourism revenue by €400 million over the next five years.
“As part of this, we need to ensure our visitor attractions use local foods to deliver an offering representative of the place,” Mr Keeley said, “We need to enhance our national menu in areas such as the Irish Breakfast, support pubs in bringing authentic experiences to life and assist the tourism industry in tailoring Ireland’s local food story.”
Fáilte Ireland food tourism officer Sinead Hennessy said that when it comes to food prevailing stereotypes were far from current reality. Pre-visit tourists did not really consider Ireland to be a food destination and came with low expectations. "In contrast, after their visit, they expressed praise for the quality of Irish food."
They generally did not, however, view the range of food as extensive, she added. They pointed to a”distinct lack of fish” and a prevalence of chips on some menus.
She underlined, none the less, the strides over recent years in the quality of Ireland food and drink offering, which was evident from the existence of 16 whiskey distilleries, more than 60 micro-breweries, 15 gin distilleries, over 2,400 restaurants (including 12 Michelin-starred properties) and 7,000 plus pubs. In addition, there were over 60 food festivals, 160 farmer markets, 40 cookery schools and 27 “active food networks”.
Food and drink enabled tourists to “get under the skin of a place”, Ms Hennessy noted, while the strategy’s aim was to move from a “well-intended” offering to “consistency delivered”, and to help businesses increase the probability of them encountering a high quality experience.
The report notes weaknesses in the sector, including poor knowledge about Ireland’s food heritage; “the story of Ireland as a place with great food and drink experiences is not being articulated well, if at all”, and restrictive legislation surrounding the sale of craft beers, gins and whiskeys.
It also cites a lack of good quality food offerings in many high-density tourist sites and some accommodation sectors; an absence of or weak food in pubs, and lack of understanding “of the value of improving and localising the food offering”.