Tourism promotion accused of ‘ignoring’ pubs as industry adapts to new realities

Critics argue that marketing of alcohol ‘colours our perception of Ireland as a country’

Now you see them, now you don’t? The number of seven-day licence bars has reduced by almost 5 per cent over a five-year period and could still be falling, one vintners association believes the Irish pub is also disappearing from tourism promotion.

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), says: “What has been noticeable in recent years has been the absence of pubs from the tourism promotion undertaken by this country despite a significant number of tourists to this country seeking out the pub experience.

“Pubs are a significant part of Irish culture. We know that pubs in this country do appeal to a cohort of visitors to this country and to a sizeable portion of the Irish public. Simply ignoring pubs doesn’t show the totality of the Irish cultural and tourism experience.”

In response, Failte Ireland said “Irish pubs have always been and remain an important part of Ireland’s hospitality offering.” It offered a number of examples of promotion of pubs on various platforms, and said a third of media trips including influencer and ambassador activity arranged by Fáilte Ireland feature a pub.


A Fáilte Ireland spokesperson added that through its Covid-19 Adaptation Fund, Fáilte Ireland also provided more than €4.8 million to pubs.

It might be a storm in a pint glass or something more, but according to Dr Sheila Gilheany, chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland, “I think there has perhaps been an overblown thing anyway that the Irish pub is essential to Irish tourism”.

What is less debatable is the recent fall in overall seven-day pub licences. Data from the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) shows 6,788 seven-day licences in 2021 – 352 fewer than in 2017. Over the period every county bar Carlow and Meath saw a decrease, with 42 fewer licences in Cork over the period, 23 fewer in Tipperary, and 21 fewer in both Galway and Dublin.

Up-to-date figures from Revenue show 6,908 current listings for publican’s licences, including 6,163 for seven-day licences – possibly indicating another decrease.

In February Fine Gael Senator John Cummins revealed that 53 former pub premises had been transformed into 169 housing units on foot of planning exemptions introduced 12 months previously allowing for the repurposing of commercial units. One prominent pub, Kielys in Donnybrook, has been replaced by student accommodation, and while the LVA believes pub numbers in the capital are remaining steady, the VFI said: “Generally speaking rural pubs are closing while urban venues are remaining in business. Some rural areas were ‘overpubbed’ so some closures were to be expected over the past 20 years as demographics and consumer habits evolve.”

This “overpubbing” has led both the VFI and the LVA to criticise a planned liberalisation of the pub market by the Government which would make it easier to open a bar from 2026 onwards. According to the LVA “rural pubs are closing because they don’t have a market. Their customer base is vanishing. New pubs aren’t going to appear in locations that aren’t commercially viable.”

Dr Gilheany also believes that Government proposals to liberalise licensing laws are unhelpful. “Our view from a public health point of view is if you increase the number of licensed premises, whether it is pubs or off-licences, it is not a good idea. With increased availability of alcohol comes increased sales, increased use and increased harms.”

Dr Gilheany says Ireland already has one of the highest densities of pubs anywhere in the world. Alcohol Action Ireland also see a fundamental problem with the Sale of Alcohol Bill and the many changes proposed by the Government-appointed Night-time Economy Taskforce, namely that it is driven by the Departments of Justice and Tourism, and not the Department of Health, which, according to Dr Gilheany, “is picking up the tab”.

“A health impact assessment needs to be done on all aspects of that Bill,” she says, adding that the content of the proposed legislation to this point appears to be weighed in favour of the drinks industry, possibly as a way of compensating the sector for the hardships of the pandemic period.

“You have the Public Health Alcohol Act 2018, the primary use is to reduce alcohol use by 20 per cent. That was one arm of the government, then you have this other arm through the Department of Justice saying, ‘actually, we want to increase the availability of alcohol’. It doesn’t make sense.”

Where Dr Gilheany agrees with vintners is that licensed premises are a safer environment for alcohol use, but added: “I would argue that our cultural thing around alcohol is driven by the alcohol industry itself. That it is central to our identity. What we would say is that, yes, we could reset our view of alcohol and one way is to reduce the amount of marketing we see at the moment. And that colours everything. It colours our perception of Ireland as a country.”

Implementing aspects of the Public Health Alcohol Act, such as limiting alcohol advertising before the watershed and other restrictions on alcohol advertising, would go a long way, she argued.

Both vintners’ bodies welcomed some recent measures, such as the retention of the 9 per cent VAT rate and the Pubs as Community Hubs pilot scheme – the merits of which were questioned by Dr Gilheany – but said publicans face a range of issues, including rising energy costs and Europe’s second highest alcohol excise rate. Another new challenge is the UK announcement that it will reduce tax on draught beer by 11p compared to supermarkets, something the LVA said would place extra pressure on pubs here.

Yet with the St Patrick’s Day weekend marking the start of the tourist season many publicans are hoping longer days to come mean more profitable nights. O’Keeffe says: “There is a significant portion of those people who seek out the pub experience in this country because it is a unique offering. No other country in the world can match it, and it is something we hear from those who are in the industry who come from all over the world to see if they can replicate that formula. They can’t.”

One visitor will be US president Joe Biden, who on his last trip to Ireland called into Coady’s in Castlebar. It raises the question as to whether he will again take a pint here. Dr Gilheany says: “I would be very disappointed if we did [host the usual pub visit], but I wouldn’t be surprised.”