From tat to taste: selling Irish culture

Visiting Ireland used to mean kissing the Blarney stone. A new focus could help to attract well-heeled tourists

Give it a lash: marketing Irish culture becomes tricky only when it becomes a pastiche. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Give it a lash: marketing Irish culture becomes tricky only when it becomes a pastiche. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images


For a country that prides itself on its artistic heritage, Ireland hasn’t always proved a bounteous cultural destination. Not so long ago, the essential cultural stops on the average tourist itinerary were as predictable as they were few: kiss the Blarney stone, glance at a Celtic cross, maybe hear a fiddle in the background at a pub and buy chunky Aran jumpers and shillelaghs as souvenirs. One has only to look at tourism posters from the 1950s and 1960s to glean that the verdant landscape and the simple but friendly people who supposedly inhabited it were the country’s selling points. Culture, much less the arts, barely figured.

But the past is a foreign country: we do things differently now. Culture has become one of the main planks of Ireland’s tourism strategy, with potential visitors baited by the vibrancy and uniqueness of our heritage. Sightseers and culture seekers, to use the industry jargon, are arguably the most coveted of overseas guests: well educated and well heeled, they spend more time and money exploring and experiencing the arts, architecture and history of a host country than other tourists, and so are carefully targeted.

Just how important this group has become was emphasised at Dublin Castle last month, at an event called Culture And Heritage Tourism: An Emerging Economic Engine? The conference, which was organised by Fáilte Ireland as part of the Irish presidency of the EU, underlined how integral this kind of tourism is to the hospitality industry. But unresolved questions and even tensions surround heritage-driven travel, particularly from the point of view of the cultural sector.

As well as the obvious question of how to measure the effectiveness of cultural tourism, there are problems with two antithetical spheres becoming increasingly interdependent. Can the airily aesthetic ethos of the cultural world coexist comfortably with the hard commercial demands of the tourist industry?

“There’s an idea that the arts and commerce must be inimical, that they must be at each other’s throats,” says Aidan Pender, the director of strategic development at Fáilte Ireland. “But it’s a false dichotomy.”

Certainly, judging by Fáilte Ireland’s headline figures, cultural tourism is a thriving sector. Of the 2.8 million overseas visitors to Ireland last year, 64 per cent said the country’s culture and history were important factors in choosing it as a destination, and nearly three-quarters said they were very satisfied with their experience of Irish heritage. Meanwhile, international travellers who engaged in cultural activities in 2011 are estimated to have spent €2.8 billion. On the face of it, culture and tourism are natural bedfellows.

“From a tourist point of view, they fit very well,” says Dr Bernadette Quinn of Dublin Institute of Technology, a coauthor of a recent Fáilte Ireland report on collaboration between the sectors in the west. “In an era of experiential tourism, we’re all looking to connect with a place, whether by talking to people or experiencing their culture. Whether the suppliers and policymakers fit together is a more complex matter.”

Divergent priorities
Beneath the dazzling statistics lie divergent priorities and world views, not to mention differences in vocabulary. The very term “culture” is elastic. In tourism, it is taken to encompass everything from monuments and architecture to music, literature and folklore; it can even mean, according to Redmond O’Donoghue, the chairman of Fáilte Ireland, “our capacity for conversation and friendship”, as he said at the conference.

Activities defined as “cultural” in the figures include visits to houses or castles, gardens and interpretative centres, all of which might also be seen as traditional holiday pastimes. At times, the difference between cultural tourists and their more conventional cousins simply seems a matter of definition.

Even when it comes to activities that are more obviously artistic, there are huge variations. Museums and art galleries claim a huge slice of the cultural-tourism pie, attracting almost two million international vacationers in 2011. These figures dwarf the numbers of any similar area – festivals, another key activity, attracted 500,000 visitors in the same year – but the sector has always been well marketed, so that it is hard to see it attracting a fresh tranche of holidaymakers from abroad. “Museums are well established, and are a wonderful channel for visitors,” says Pender. “Our problem is how to support similar encounters with more intangible areas, such as literature.”

Ireland’s literary heritage is often seen as the jewel in its cultural crown, at least in terms of international reputation, but the dilemma of transforming this into palpable attractions for tourists is symptomatic of wider challenges. On one level, the problem is a familiar one. “Dublin is a city teeming with fantastic literature,” says the arts producer and programmer Maureen Kennelly, the curator of the Mountains to Sea literary festival, “but to try and capture that and make an experience of it needs serious investment.”

One possible solution, Kennelly suggests, is a hub, encompassing libraries, bookshops, exhibitions and performance spaces, which would have enough critical mass to attract large numbers of likeminded visitors. But even if the funds were available, trying to convey, through bricks and mortar, the deeply personal experience of reading a book is tricky: in 2011, Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan proposed that the Bank of Ireland building on College Green in Dublin be turned into such a site, to lukewarm reaction. Similarly, other disciplines lack a visible focus for tourists: Dublin’s theatres have no hub, for example.

When it comes to artistic activities luring potential visitors, the festival sector has been the main focus of attention in recent years. According to Kennelly, arts festivals such as those in Galway and Kilkenny, as well as Dublin Theatre Festival and Dublin Fringe Festival, are seen as “serious outfits with much to offer tourists”. Largely ignored by tourist authorities in the 1980s and 1990s, such events are now seen as playing a vital role in heritage tourism, receiving tourism funding accordingly, with the rebranding of the St Patrick’s Day parade as a festival signalling the change in emphasis.

While Kennelly says arts-events organisers were initially uneasy bedfellows with the tourist industry, they “now see how the hospitality sector can help festivals”, whether by tailoring operations and opening hours around festival events or by facilitating artists.

But prioritising festivals is not without problems. According to Bernadette Quinn, the approach can be a “bone of contention” for those in other arts sectors, who believe that funding such visible annual events comes at the expense of less spectacular year-round programming.

And for all their quality, Irish festivals have yet to attain the huge overseas tourist appeal of, say, Edinburgh. “If Irish festivals could cut through internationally, so that large numbers of people would make the trip especially, that would be great,” says Pender.

Not all initiatives are welcomed with open arms. Many in the arts sector view the Gathering warily, partly because it trades in somewhat cliched stereotypes of a folksy Ireland and partly because it is perceived as being geared toward social occasions rather than creative events. But it is not without potential, according to the arts programmer and marketing consultant Aoife Flynn. “It actually seems like it could be an interesting way of disseminating funding to smaller arts organisations,” she says. “It’s tricky only when it becomes a pastiche of who we are.”

In all these equations, there is a bias towards international holidaymakers over Irish ones, whom tourism bodies assume to be aware of arts events and heritage sites. “Any cultural entity will attract domestic visitors, but from a tourism-policy point of view, attracting the new money of overseas visitors is the aim,” says Quinn.

In the burgeoning relationship between culture and tourism, both sectors seem happy with that. But even this approach has been threatened by a lack of cohesive thinking: the mooted abolition of Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish arts abroad, is a prime example of shortsighted neglect of the wider appeal of our culture.

Other faultlines linger. “There is a fear that tourism can dilute,” says Quinn. “There’s considerable international research [to show] tourism can promote change that’s undesirable from an aesthetic perspective, that it commodifies culture.”

However, those working on the ground seem unworried by such a prospect. “Anyone who’s making work doesn’t need to change the work for it to appeal to tourists,” says Flynn. “The creative spark is the starting point. As long as they continue to make their work, it’s about mediating it for the visitor, so they can access it.”

Theme park
The real challenge, it seems, is how to alert large numbers of discerning tourists to the singular qualities of Irish culture without turning the country into a theme park. “If you try to overmanufacture the experience it can take away the authenticity,” says Pender. In this light, Irish cultural tourism is a work in progress, but there are heartening omens.

. The designation of Dublin as a Unesco city of literature offers the scope to coalesce the elusive literary tradition under an easily accessible banner, even if concrete projects remain thin on the ground.

The success of Wexford Festival Opera in carving out a prestigious and distinctive niche for international audiences likewise shows how small scale and adept thinking can yield satisfying artistic and tourism results. And last August’s Merrion Square Open Day, a Fáilte Ireland initiative that gave people access to buildings in Dublin’s famed Georgian core, was a tentative first step in opening up the capital’s architectural heritage in the manner of Edinburgh.

Much more imaginative thinking may be needed for cultural tourism to reach its full potential, but such developments are an encouraging start.

Above all, our culture needs to stay true to itself. “Distinctiveness is hard to come by, but what we have that is unique to us is our Irishness,” says Flynn. “Culture, for me, is an expression of who we are and what we do, so anyone who is expressing that is important for travellers looking to get an authentic experience, be they artists, writers, musicians, actors, even chefs. Having confidence in who we are is enough.”

Visiting Blarney Castle, attending trad sessions and buying shillelaghs might not be such a bad cultural-tourism experience after all.

Cultural Quarters: What Kilkenny and Waterford cities have done to attract more visitors
Ever since Temple Bar was transformed from decaying inner-city site to tourist cash cow, marketing an urban area as a cultural hot spot has been a perilous undertaking.

Certainly, the Celtic Tiger-era Temple Bar of tacky bars and marauding stag parties was a long way from the low-rent bohemian ambience that originally attracted State funding for development.

But recent efforts by the cities of Waterford and Kilkenny to create cultural quarters are rooted in the historical and creative legacies.

“Waterford is a good example of a city that had to reimagine itself, after the closure of the crystal factory,” says Aidan Pender of Fáilte Ireland. “They looked at their Viking and medieval heritage, thought of clustering them together, and made the Viking Triangle.” The result aims to pull together architecture, history and culture to create a distinctive atmosphere.

Similarly, Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile, which runs from Kilkenny Castle to St Canice’s Cathedral, trades on the city’s storied past while complementing its reputation as a design and craft centre. Such heritage-themed projects have their own issues, as Pender concedes. “All the time we come back to assess how we tell the story and interpret the place. Can we animate it with guides and street performers? “That’s tricky, as there’s not much money to be made in that.”

But so far both sites have avoided the garish fate of Temple Bar. Maybe culture and commerce can coexist.

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