To most Irish people in January, the new coronavirus was something that only existed 9,000km away in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But to the State’s tourism officials, it was already a rising threat.
Tourism Ireland, the cross-Border State agency for attracting foreign visitors, was due to bring 30 Irish tourism businesses on a major sales mission to China in the last week of February. They were to stop at major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as China-controlled Hong Kong.
But Niall Gibbons, Tourism Ireland's chief executive, grew increasingly worried through the first few weeks of the year. The agency's workers in China were all under lockdown, while the rest of us were yet to learn the meaning of the word. In late January, Gibbons called his bosses, Shane Ross, the then minister for transport, and Brendan Griffin, the then minister of State for tourism, to relay his fears.
“I had been talking to people in the international airline business, who told me about all the booking cancellations and no-shows they were getting. We wouldn’t have been as aware of this yet back home, but it was suggested to me that airlines were in for double-digit declines. It set off alarm bells, so I told Dublin about it.”
On January 23rd, the Tourism Ireland chief cancelled the China trip due to coronavirus. Within eight weeks, the virus had cancelled all tourism into Ireland for the remainder of 2020.
As the market peaked in 2019, overseas tourists to Ireland spent close to €6 billion in the purest of indigenous exports. Gibbons this week estimated that it would drop by up to 80 per cent this year, with almost all the recorded expenditure coming in the first 10 weeks of the year.
Businesses are either shuttered or on life support. Workers are on income supports. To say the Irish tourism industry has been devastated this year is not, for once, hyperbole. It might even be an understatement.
Clouds have parted
Yet hope has recently arrived in the form of two vaccines that are expected to imminently receive approval for rollout. Four more prime candidates are short odds to follow in coming months. Where a few weeks ago 2021 had seemed like it was set to be another washout for the tourism sector, the clouds have parted slightly. Next summer’s tourism season could yet be salvaged to some degree. State officials have swung into action, booking a series of international ad campaigns promoting the island.
Almost 11 months after he called his ministers to warn them about the threat from coronavirus, Gibbons this week hosted an industry webinar. He told the hundreds of businesses that tuned in that he hopes tourism into Ireland may resume “sometime in Q2”, between April and June.
But even as the vaccines present some light at the end of the tunnel, there may well be tension in coming weeks between the State’s public health and economic officials. The impending resumption of tourism is an obvious battleground where medical and financial priorities are sure to clash.
There is form. In recent weeks, Tony Holohan, the State's chief medical officer, deeply irritated several senior figures in tourism and aviation when he flatly rejected advice from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which had declared that it was safe to fly. The ECDC's intervention partially upended the "avoid all travel" narrative that Holohan has purveyed for much of the year.
He also appeared to suggest this month that the State’s official advice to citizens is still to avoid all non-essential travel. It is not. The State has adopted the European Union’s travel traffic-light system for grading the virus risks in individual countries. Its advice regarding whether to travel or not and what precautions to take is based on this system, and not on the blanket travel warning that once prevailed.
Meanwhile, on the same day that Gibbons suggested it may be possible to resume tourism by early summer Tánaiste Leo Varadkar reportedly told a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party that restrictions on gatherings would "probably" stay in place for the next six months. This specific restriction is not in itself a direct threat to tourism, but it may be a harbinger of official attitudes - it would bring us to the doorstep of July before there was any meaningful relaxation of anti-virus restrictions.
Gibbons insists the decision on whether or not to encourage bookings from foreign tourists won’t be made by tourism officials alone: “We will make a call on it in January, so let’s see what happens . . . we will take close advice from [other arms of the State] before we make the decision. This is not a call that will be made in isolation inside Tourism Ireland.”
The State’s tourism marketing machinery has already swung into action. Tourism Ireland has devised a strategy over three phases to help rebuild the sector, the 3 Rs. It aims to Restart tourism as soon as safely possible next year, then Rebuild revenues further as the pandemic continues to recede, and finally to Redesign the way the industry operates over the longer term.
As a precursor to Restart, Tourism Ireland is running several marketing campaigns in coming weeks to keep the island in potential future tourists’ minds. Over Christmas, it will run a social media video campaign promoted in Britain, the United States, Canada and across Europe themed around “Let’s get back to Ireland”. A separate campaign targeting the Irish diaspora in Britain, the US and Canada will run in print and digital until mid-January.
Then, depending on the situation regarding the virus in Ireland and its main source markets, the agency may decide in January to forge ahead with a major new campaign, “Press the green button”, encouraging international tourists to go ahead and book trips to Ireland for later in the year.
If the virus stays broadly at bay and the campaign – effectively the starting gun for Ireland's re-entry into the international tourism market – is activated, it is likely to begin around St Patrick's Day, which is always a major marketing milestone in Tourism Ireland's calendar. During the pandemic-era lull, the agency has also invested in a major revamp of the ireland.comwebsite, tailored to 33 different markets and in 11 languages.
Far from that madding crowd
Younger travellers, those who have visited before, and tourists visiting friends and relatives (VFR) are expected to be among the first to return, the agency’s research suggests. Gibbons believes the luxury tourism market will also come back quicker than other segments, as rich travellers seek out individualised tourism experiences, away from crowds.
Demand from foreign visitors is expected to come at first from the UK and, then, Europe. But according to Elizabeth Crabill, the US-based chief executive of inbound tour operator CIÉ Tours International, there may also be pent up demand within the US market. Almost three-quarters of its tour bookings for 2020 have rebooked for 2021 instead. About 60 per cent of those are already tied to specific dates.
“We anticipate that people may not want to travel in the same large tour groups as before. They may want more private bubbles,” she said. “But we believe it will still be a fast reopening. When the time comes there may be an onslaught of demand.”
There will be no demand without air access, almost everybody in the industry acknowledges. At least 85 per cent of all foreign visitors to Ireland arrive at airports. Aviation authorities in every European country, including many direct competitors of Ireland’s, will be out in the market trying to tempt airlines to bring their mothballed fleets back into service to restore old routes.
It is understood that DAA (the State-owned entity that manages Dublin and Cork airports) kept its business development team entirely intact, one of the few groups at the organisation to escape swingeing headcount reductions. As the competition heats up, Dublin airport will try to sell itself (all over again) to airlines as a less expensive option compared to some of its European peers.
Airlines are said to be now planning on quarterly outlooks, instead of the 12 to 18 months ahead of time planning for routes that typically prevailed before the pandemic hit.
Cork Airport, meanwhile, which only has on average about 200 passengers passing through its halls each day, will focus on the VFR and leisure market in the UK and Europe. Gibbons predicts the various arms of the State will need to “sit down and talk about” the future of regional airports at some stage next year.
While Tourism Ireland and the airlines – virus permitting – bang the drum abroad, Fáilte Ireland will try to drum up interest from the domestic tourism market, as well as funnelling State aid cash to tide over vulnerable tourism businesses with more than €50 million in extra funding for 2021.
“One thing we learned from the last financial crisis is that if you don’t keep the core of tourism businesses trading, it holds you back when the recovery comes,” said Jenny de Saulles, Fáilte Ireland’s director of sector development.
The agency is finalising a new strategy for 2021 that will be released in January. It is likely to include a heavy focus on getting tourism businesses operationally fit again, with leadership training programmes, anti-virus safety advice and assistance for businesses in moving as much of their trade as possible outdoors.
“Public health officials have given us an indication of the state we need to be in with the virus if tourism is to be brought back,” said De Saulles. “But a big question remains: Is the Irish community ready to welcome back tourists? Our research tells us that, right now, Irish communities are concerned.”
Relaxed local disposition
Fáilte Ireland has surveyed scores of Irish people, asking them when they think it would be a “good time” to reopen for travel. In other countries, such sentiments tend not to carry as much weight as they do in Ireland: the cead mile fáilte is a core part of our tourism product.
The survey has found that locals are far more relaxed about welcoming domestic tourists into their areas. After that, they are most favourably disposed towards continental Europeans. Local Irish residents are most wary about visitors from the UK and US, which together make up the majority of foreign visitors in a regular year.
“If the virus is under control, sentiment can change quickly. We are due to do a new sentiment survey in March so we’ll see how the situation is then,” she said.
Gibbons agrees that the attitude of Irish locals to foreign visitors, and the depth of their prevailing fears about the virus at the planned time of reopening, may well be a decisive factor: “We really do hope to be ready to go back out into the market in Q2. But you couldn’t do it if there is still a lot of Covid in the air. There would be too much fear.”
Meanwhile, battered tourism businesses wait and watch in hope that the fear abates.