We’re not alone. Spain is also struggling to cope with the strong rebound in travel

Demand for sunnier climes evident as Dublin Airport set to have busiest weekend in three years

The cost of car hire has gone through the roof, food prices have soared, restaurants and bars are having to operate reduced opening hours because no one will wait tables, and hotels have been forced to mothball rooms because they can’t find the staff to clean them.

No, it’s not Ireland, it’s Spain — a country even more reliant on tourism than here but one which, in spite of a hospitality infrastructure developed over more than half a century, is struggling to cope with the unexpectedly strong rebound in leisure travel in the first proper summer season since 2019.

“It’s amazing that a country so geared up for tourism is not be able to get waiters and chefs and all of these things,” says travel writer Eoghan Corry.

The Spanish authorities think it is less amazing than it is alarming and moves have been made to relax its employment laws to allow more foreign workers fill as many as 100,000 vacant positions across the hospitality sector to allow the tourism sector there to recover in lockstep with the recovery in the demand for it.

That demand will be evident this weekend in Dublin when the summer holiday season starts in earnest over what is set to be the busiest weekend in Dublin Airport for almost three years. There will be hundreds of thousands of people flying off the island in search of sun with as many as one in five of the people walking through terminal one jetting off to Spain, a country which attracts more than a million Irish people in a good year.

And this looks like a good year for travel, albeit one which is likely to cost Irish tourists at least 20 per cent more than in 2019.

“It’s looking very good,” says Eddie Wilson, the chief executive of Ryanair. “We’re back to 115 per cent of where we were in summer 2019, we’re fully crewed and ready to go.”

Even in his most wildly optimistic dreams, Wilson could scarcely have imagined that international travel would have rebounded quite so fast as it has, although, to Ryanair’s credit, it appears to have been more prepared that many of the other cogs in the aviation sector for the recovery.

“We kept all of our people employed, I think that was the key to it,” he tells The Irish Times. “We’re fully resourced for the summer and we’re happy about how it’s going,” he says, before pausing to address issues with air traffic controllers across Europe and delays at airports, including Dublin, although he acknowledges “it has improved there over the last number of weeks”.

He suggests Dublin Airport, “like a lot of other airports, didn’t see the rebound in traffic” and says increasing staff to cope with that rebound “has been a problem everywhere. You can’t expect people to disappear off your payroll, and then just hope they’re going to reappear”.

He plays down fears over industrial unrest in Spain and Portugal playing havoc with people’s holidays this summer. “We will have to wait and see what happens this weekend” but he is optimistic industrial disputes are not likely to impact Ryanair’s schedules too hard.

“The last time we had a strike like this back in 2018, the vast majority of flights operated,” he says, adding that some sectors of the media have been “irresponsible” in talking up mass walkouts and “scaring people who just want to go on holidays for the first time in three years”.

He says prices have been rising because there’s less capacity. “We said right at the start, book early, and I think the key is book early, particularly for September and October, because I think it’s going to be a much longer summer this year.”

Wilson was speaking at an event in the Spanish embassy in Dublin to mark the 20th anniversary of Ryanair’s arrival in Spain, a move which has done much to open all corners of the Iberian Peninsula to Irish visitors, and people looking for a bargain holiday this year might look to some of the lesser visited airports in Spain now serviced by Ryaniair, suggests Corry.

He has been watching the recovery in the European tourism sector since the beginning of the end of the pandemic. “The return to flying was quite a few percentage points ahead of the most optimistic proposed projections and that has created pressure points all over the system,” he says.

“Prices have been climbing without a doubt. They started climbing early in the year as travel companies started making up for the missing revenue over the two years of the pandemic but then in February, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, things began to slow down.”

He says the invasion “didn’t lead to cancellations but slowed down the bookings so much that you could actually track it in the prices dropping. Human beings don’t make decisions on the prices the bots decide, and if there are not enough seats being sold on a flight, the price comes down.”

Over a three-week window after the invasion, prices fell because the algorithms noted a stalling in bookings but they have climbed steadily since then as confidence returned to the leisure travel sector.

He describes the accommodation options across Europe as “troublesome” adding that as in Ireland prices have been climbing “and a certain amount of the beds haven’t been delivered back into the system because of staffing shortages”.

He believes for people who have yet to book there is still “loads of value to be found but you have to splash around in the pool a bit for it”.

In the post-Covid period people have craved familiarity and have been booking destinations they know well. “That means that anywhere that was peripheral before Covid is still fighting for a bit of the business [ ...] some of them are incentivising that as well. So that maybe means the provinces that are less visited away from the honeypots that attract Irish visitors.”

He points to the example of Murcia — easily accessible with Ryanair and nearby Alicante. “Your Alicante prices are through the roof but Murcia is stable,” Corry says.

John Spollen is the director and co-owner of the Classic Resorts travel agency and former president of the Irish Travel Agents Association. He is upbeat about the summer ahead. “We are an island nation and people want to travel off the island and as soon as they can.”

He has noticed a “desperation” among people wanting to get away. “Many of them have a few bob saved up and after experiencing the two years of lockdown they want to experience something different.”

Spollen says that while prices have climbed, there will still be value to be found in the most popular destinations for Irish people. “We have been getting an awful lot of inquiries for late bookings and what we are suggesting to people is be flexible, very, very flexible.”

He says if people are prepared to travel midweek rather than from a weekend to weekend and fly in the very early morning or late at night they will find offers on the table. “People should also be flexible on the destination as well as the number of days they spend overseas rather than the set week or two weeks.”

He says people can expect to pay in the region of €600 for return flights to Spain and Portugal this summer although they will see fares fall if they opt to fly midweek while there “is availability in property in hotels and accommodation in Spain and Portugal and Greece and Italy”.

As has been widely reported, car hire is going to be an issue for many tourists with prices across Europe doubling in many instances, something which is likely to add several hundred euro to the cost over a two-week period. And while eating out has climbed by about 20 per cent in many European destinations Spollen says it is “still very inexpensive when compared to this country [...] eating out in restaurants there remains excellent value for money”.

That is not a phrase often heard these days.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast