Kilkenny's halls of marble on the increase

 

Construction is booming in the Marble City of Kilkenny, especially of hotels, but can the city sustain its huge increase in providing for tourists? Michael Parsons investigates

Ten years ago Kilkenny boasted five hotels. A consultant's report, commissioned by the local authority, suggested that future accommodation needs could be met by simply adding rooms to the existing hotels.

Today, there are 11 and, if current plans are fully implemented, that figure is projected to rise to an astonishing 23. Two are under construction, a further two have been granted planning permission and eight are being considered by the planning authorities.

The number of hotel rooms would increase from the present 722 to 1,774 - in addition to an abundance of guest houses and B&Bs. Tony Walsh, director of services with Kilkenny County Council says: "Tourism has become big business accounting for an estimated 20 per cent of local jobs and generating annual revenues estimated in excess of €100 million."

The sheer scale of the proposed developments has raised some eyebrows in the Marble City. According to Labour Party councillor Michael O'Brien, "a whole raft of applications to build new hotels was submitted at the end of last year" to take advantage of tax breaks which were due to expire.

He was especially appalled when in one case, a majority of his fellow councillors voted to ignore the advice of the county manager and amend the county development plan to rezone land at Leggetsrath, owned by the Kilkenny Livestock Co-Op Mart, and allow the development of a 120-room- 24-suite hotel by the Quality chain.

An Bord Pleanála is expected to issue a decision on this in September.

Can Kilkenny sustain such a huge increase in hotel accommodation? Bríd O'Connell, a marketing consultant with Kilkenny Tourism, believes that some of the new developments will "expand the market", citing the precedent of the Mount Juliet Conrad in Thomastown. There a rolling 1,500 acre estate draws the huntin'-shootin'-fishin' set, and a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course has lured an upmarket international golfing clientele.

The swanky Lyrath Estate, Kilkenny's first five-star hotel, is scheduled to open in December. It features an 1,500-capacity convention centre and hopes to attract major conferences. Its spa resort will complement the county's reputation as a destination for pampering weekends.

Officials also claim that increased competition benefits consumers. Mid-week deals at three- and four-star hotels "subject to availability" now cost an average of €130 per person for 2 nights bed and breakfast and one dinner.

But what if overseas visitor numbers drop? David O'Sullivan, managing director of the Newpark Hotel, has noticed a decline in American tourists since September 11th "and the British market has never fully recovered from the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland"; but Irish visitor numbers have more than compensated. "Over two-thirds of our guests now are Irish," he says, a trend confirmed by other hoteliers.

Kilkenny's trump card is its relative proximity to Dublin. Over the past decade, it has become the country's most popular weekend destination, and Dubliners can often account for up to half the customers in many local bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

The city's attractions include its well-preserved mediaeval architectural heritage, a spectacular castle, the National Craft Museum and a compact network of streets, lanes and winding slipways offering a diverse mix of shops which has defiantly stalled the relentless advance of "UK multiples". A lush pastoral hinterland is dotted with bucolic river-valley villages and a visitors can drop in to studios on the craft trail.

A slick marketing campaign to promote "the creative heart" of Ireland includes television and radio promotion. Dart commuters in Dublin are being lured by posters reinforcing the city's stress- busting appeal.

Long after summer festivals such as Cat Laughs or the current arts festival have ended, Kilkenny looks set to continue drawing the crowds. Last year about 100 Dublin-based companies took their staff on the 100 km journey south for end-of-year parties. As customers take summer afternoon tea at the stylish Ormonde Hotel, staff are busy accepting bookings for Christmas, already "up on last year".

Businessman Pat Crotty runs the popular Paris Texas bar-restaurant, which he hopes to expand with an on-site 40-room hotel. "The population of Kilkenny city will rise by 50 per cent to 30,000 within the next decade, fuelling increased local demand for hotels as venues for a range of social events." The Newpark Hotel alone hosts five wedding receptions a week and key dates are already booked out until the end of 2006.

But filling hotel rooms will ultimately depend on Kilkenny's ability to maintain and further enhance its unique tourist appeal. Ambitious plans by the county council include a much-needed expansion of pedestrianisation in the city centre, new by-passes to relieve traffic-choked villages, further improvements to rural attractions such as the magnificently restored gardens at Woodstock, Inistioge, and a "significant" new public cultural building which will house an art gallery of national importance.