Tourism hotspots like west Cork will evolve if staycations make up more of the mix

Foreign visitor numbers may take time to recover and domestic visitors, with slightly different needs, will take up the slack

Rosscarbery in west Cork during the recent heatwave. Photograph:  Andy Gibson.

Rosscarbery in west Cork during the recent heatwave. Photograph: Andy Gibson.

 

After the longest and darkest of winters, the prospect of our family holiday this year had assumed almost totemic importance for us by the time summer rolled around. The whole country badly needed a break. We were all feeling it.

This is how things work in our house: my wife is far more efficient and effective than I when it comes to organising most things, but I am the undisputed vice-president of booking holidays. It is my job to research and arrange them each year. It is on the short list of domestic tasks at which I am reasonably competent.

At the nadir of our interminable winter lockdown towards the end of January, I calculated that we had almost no chance of a foreign holiday for the second summer in a row. I knew there would be too many virus restrictions and there was no guarantee we would be fully vaccinated in time. So I bit the bullet and arranged another domestic trip five months in advance, conscious of the fact that, even back then, the best places for summer were already being snapped up.

As I made the booking, little did I know I had bought a winning ticket in the staycation stakes. Usually when I visit the southwest of Ireland, it is a signal for the weather gods to deliver biblical rain. With luck, I arranged for the first week or so of our holiday to be in one of the most beautiful parts of coastal west Cork during the most glorious Irish heatwave in living memory, in mid-to-late July.

It felt as if we were on a summer holiday in a sun-kissed part of Italy, only with decent pints, as we sizzled on Ireland’s O’Malfi Coast. We spent much of the heatwave holed up in the surrounds of a beautiful house in a secluded location near water, close to the gem of a village that is Glengarriff.

While there, it occurred to me that this place, as much as any other in Ireland, is a microcosm of the challenge facing parts of the Irish tourism industry: how to adapt a summer offering traditionally geared towards foreign visitors for an increasing dependency on the domestic market.

Foreign visitors accounted for well over 70 per cent, by value, of the Irish tourism market prior to the arrival of the pandemic. But that metric has been turned on its head for the past two seasons.

The European Union’s Covid certificate should facilitate a trickle of inbound tourism for the remainder of this year. But US tourists – the fastest growing major segment of the market until 2020 – will continue to stay away for as long as the government there advises against all travel to Ireland, as it currently does. That poses challenges for the tourism areas they traditionally frequent.

If we have learned one thing about the virus, it is not to take too much for granted about its prevalence at any future time. It has a habit of tearing up predictions. Hopefully, there are no more variants in future as disruptive as Delta, and our reactions to them stay within the realm of common sense.

But it seems at least possible that there could be some kind of a flare-up in the near future that might, once again, put domestic tourism on the table as the most nutritious meal available for industry operators.

Even if there isn’t, the Government has a job on its hands to rebuild Ireland’s aviation connectivity that is so critical for delivering foreign tourists here. That connectivity has been devastated by the pandemic and travel restrictions. Domestic tourism may have to take up the slack while that damage is repaired.

Changes

Aside from the virus there are also other, more structural, changes coming for the travel market that may ensure domestic tourism is a bigger slice of the pie in the years immediately ahead. The EU is currently planning a suite of new aviation fuel taxes that will make it more expensive to fly from 2023. That is likely to take away a chunk of our inbound tourism, and it may also convince a segment of the Irish outbound tourism cohort to holiday at home instead.

Tourism and foreign travel is also being drawn into the heart of the debate over environmental damage and climate change. Flygskam, or flight-shaming, won’t be confined to nations such as Sweden when the pandemic abates and climate change returns to the top of all policymakers’ agendas, including our own.

Glengarriff has a unique microclimate and near-tropical feel as far as Irish villages go. It has been loved by many domestic visitors down through the years. But traditionally the area has also been a favoured haunt of US visitors at the height of summer. That is reflected in the evolution of its tourism product over time. US and Irish visitors both want the same thing – a good holiday. How that is typically comprised may be different for each national cohort.

Many of the built attractions in the wider region around that part of west Cork and south Kerry showcase a vision of traditional Ireland that is particularly interesting to US and other foreign visitors – snapshots of old Irish life, nods to the diaspora and that type of thing. But some of those attractions might need tweaking if they are to appeal to a growing numbers of summer domestic visitors.

The area’s tourism retail offering, although often of high quality, is also clearly aimed at US and other foreign tourists. Much of the wares on offer were the sort of touristy Irish trinkets that go down better with visitors from Detroit than they do with holidaymakers from Dublin. That also may change over time if Irish tourists take on greater importance in the years ahead.

I also wonder if even more camping and other low-cost self-catering accommodation options, popular with Irish visitors, will emerge in the area over time.

There were no US visitors in Glengarriff, for obvious reasons, when I was there last month. It is possible there will be far fewer of them for a couple years to come. The village and its surrounds are blessed with an array of natural riches that will always attract scores of domestic holidaymakers, if they are needed to take up the slack. West Cork has nothing to worry about in that regard.

But I suspect the area’s paid-for tourism offering may evolve slightly in coming years, as local tourists become a more important part of the mix. They may want different things. That scene may play out in tourism regions across the land in coming years. One way or another, Irish tourism, with all its natural advantages, will find a way.

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