36 hours in Ireland’s busiest tourist town: ‘We’re missing the Americans’

Killarney is Heavily reliant on north American visitors, AND the Co Kerry town is experiencing a STEEP drop in tourist numbers. ‘We can do this only once,’ local businesses say

Friday July 10th, 2020

It’s Friday afternoon, July 10th – a warm, sunny day. I’m in Killarney, Co Kerry,  where tourism has long been established. Queen Victoria visited in August 1861. Her visit raised the town’s profile, and people began visiting in ever-increasing numbers.

It is representative of many Irish towns and villages that depend on tourism to provide a large part of their economy, but here the scale is larger. The town has the highest number of tourist beds anywhere outside Dublin: 10,600.

There’s a saying in rural Ireland: “You can’t eat the scenery.” Ireland’s scenery, with its glorious lakes, mountains, cliffs, beaches and windswept, verdant fields, is one of the elements that attracts tourists from all over the world. It provides essential local income, through accommodation, food, drinks, tours and gifts. But when only a fraction of those international tourists can visit, then you really can’t eat the scenery.

Randles Hotel on Muckross Road has been open for one week. Under current regulations, hotels and other forms of accommodation have been permitted to reopen since June 29th. Also now open are some pubs that offer food, although they must serve customers “substantial meals” worth at least €9 in order to serve them drinks. Time slots per table are 105 minutes. Pubs that don’t serve food remain closed.

Even if everyone in Ireland went on holiday at home this year instead of away, it still would not be enough

Tom Randles runs this family-owned hotel, which was built in 1991. It has 77 bedrooms. Its July rate for a double with breakfast is usually €175. Tonight, it’s €150. “Including seasonal staff, we usually have 45-50 full- and part-time at this time of year,” he says. At present, it’s 28.

I tell him that on the way into town I had passed a number of the traditional B&Bs that still line the various routes on approach. Almost every single one of them had a “No Vacancy” sign. Did that mean they were full, or not open?

“Most of those B&Bs are not reopening this season,” Randles says, adding that he knows of three different coffee shops in town that won’t be opening either.

Next to Randles is the 72-bed Dromhall Hotel, run by Bernadette Randles, his sister. Most hotels in Killarney remain under family ownership, unlike those in cities such as Dublin, Limerick or Cork. Bernadette is currently chair of the Kerry branch of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), in addition to being vice-president of the federation.

Tonight, 58 people are booked in. The price for a double with breakfast is usually €160. It’s €129 tonight.

“If I had 40-44 rooms full for the rest of the summer, I’d be happy,” she says. More than half of their business comes from coach tour operators, with guests from the US and Canada.

High Peaks Challenge event organiser and mountain guide Piaras Kelly on Céim an Fhiá - The Heavenly Gates - Carrauntoohil, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, Co Kerry. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
High Peaks Challenge event organiser and mountain guide Piaras Kelly on Céim an Fhiá - The Heavenly Gates - Carrauntoohil, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, Co Kerry. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

“The coach tour business has changed,” she says. “There’s a lot of bespoke tours now. Golf family reunions. Travelling choirs. People on garden and manor tours. It’s not all people sitting on a coach and being driven around. But the coach market for 2020 is absolutely obliterated. I am guessing 2021 will be heavily reduced, if only because a lot of that business is with the over-50 cohort, and they may be reluctant to travel.”

Like everyone else in tourism this summer, the Randles are relying almost exclusively on the domestic market. Will that help carry them through the season? The response is bleak.

“Even if everyone in Ireland went on holiday at home this year instead of away, it still would not be enough,” Bernadette says. “The domestic market is only 20-30 per cent of our business, and there are too many other hotels also looking for that business.”

In 2017, the Killarney Chamber of Tourism and Commerce commissioned an independent assessment of the value of tourism to the town, via a consultancy company. The resulting report, the Killarney Tourism Economic Impact Review, was published in 2018. and among its findings were these facts:

The town received 1.1 million tourists in 2017. The overall economic benefit to Killarney was in the region of €410 million. The two key tourism providers were accommodation and hospitality (defined in the report as “restaurants”). Of these, income generated from tourism to the accommodation sector was 88 per cent of all their income. For hospitality, it was 83 per cent. It could not be clearer how vital tourism is to the town, as it is to so many other places around the country.

Friday 5.30pm: ‘Right now, we’re not busy’

Apart from the gorgeous lakes and mountains, if you had to identify just one element of Killarney associated with tourism, it’s the jaunting car. The clopping of hooves to Ross Castle, or the other lovely scenic destinations, all located in the Killarney National Park that is so close to town, is the sound of summer. Not this summer. I don’t see or hear a single jaunting car as I drive through town on my way to meet Laura Tangney.

Tangney is the fifth generation of her family to work in the jaunting car business. “The jaunting car is our iconic product; it was the mode of transport originally,” Tangney explains.

Laura Tangney of Killarney Jaunting Cars. The Tangney family have been in the tourism business for more than 220 years and Laura is the fifth generation of family to operate in the business. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan0
Laura Tangney of Killarney Jaunting Cars. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Her father, Michael, and two brothers, Paul and Michael, also work with her. They own Killarney Jaunting Cars; a business with eight cars of varying sizes. They are the single biggest owner of cars in town; the total number of cars is in the region of 70. The majority of the others are owned and operated by individuals; most people who have a licence for a car own only one of them.

At very busy times of the summer, the Tangneys contract out some of these additional cars; at present, all the jarveys are male. “A lot of tourism in Killarney is still family-run. Or we all know each other, and we are connected,” she says, echoing what I hear a lot of over the time I’m in the town.

“There are so many families invested in tourism businesses here. We all have to be a spindle in the wheel of tourism for it to go round.”

We started back with just one, so I suppose that’s progress

The busiest stand in town for the cars is outside the Great Southern Hotel, which is located beside the railway station. A trip for one hour for two people costs €45.

How many of their cars are in use at present?

“Four,” Tangney says. “We started back with just one, so I suppose that’s progress.”

Are there many other jarveys out with their cars?

“Not even half of them are out on the road.” It’s not only lack of business that’s keeping them away, but anxiety about possibly contracting Covid. “A lot of the jarveys are of the older generation, and have a concern about getting back to work.”

The main season is March to October, with July and August the key months. Normally in July, each car would be doing some seven trips a day (the Tangneys have 50 horses to serve their eight cars). Of their customers, 80 per cent are usually from the US and Canada.

The cost of feeding and maintaining their horses is ongoing, no matter how few tourist they have. There’s also the maintenance of the cars themselves. Most are imported from Canada, and they have one from the Amish community. They’re six-, eight- and 10-seaters. “There’s maintenance every year, and they need new tyres,” she explains. “They have to be revarnished every three years.”

The family also operate several boats, under the name of Tangney of Killarney. They have one large cruise boat, the Lily of Killarney, and eight smaller ones at the Gap of Dunloe. The Lily of Killarney can seat 80 people and, in July, sails five times a day. The eight smaller boats seat 12, and sail several times a day. What’s their usual capacity at this time of year?

“They’re all full.”

And this year? She laughs. “We had two people all day, the first day we started sailing the Lily again. And we still had to put diesel in the boat, and the boatman still had to be paid. I only got €24 for that trip. It was lovely for the couple, though: they emailed me later and said it was like having their own private tour.”

Up to the time we’re speaking, they had not yet put any of the smaller boats back on the water. “We’re starting tomorrow with one boat, to see how it goes.”

I’d take the pressure of being busy 10 times over not being busy now

Between having to reduce the number of seats to comply with social distancing, and the absence of overseas tourists, their number of sailings have gone right down. “And of course, we have to watch the weather all the time too.”

What’s the drop in their business right now?

“Between the cars and the boats, it is at 5-10 per cent of what it usually is at this time of year.” Tangney talks about pressure for a few minutes, and how non-stop busy it usually is during the summer. “There is a difference in the pressure of being busy and not being busy. Right now, we’re not busy, but it’s very stressful. I’d take the pressure of being busy 10 times over not being busy now.”

How long does she think their business can survive in these circumstances?

“This is as bad as we can take it,” she says, looking horrified. “And I definitely don’t need more loans. I have enough loans. I don’t need more headaches. We can only go through this pandemic once. Once. One time.” And she writes a 1 in the air to emphasise the fact.

Friday 6.30pm: A rare upgrade

I’ve been upgraded to a junior suite at the hotel in which I’m staying for two nights, in the town centre. Capacity here tonight is not much over a third. I have often been in Killarney for work at short notice at this time of year, and getting any kind of a hotel room in the town usually requires a fair bit of phoning around, due to heavy pre-booked capacity. It has certainly never before involved a free upgrade to the kind of lovely room I’m now given, with windows on two sides, two fancy complimentary spa products, and a paper basket of chocolate-dipped strawberries and macaroons.

There’s a miniature bottle of sanitiser and disinfection wipes on the desk, along with a sheet of paper which relates the multiple measures that have been taken to infection-proof the room. My head begins to melt just reading through it. I can only imagine the stress involved for the staff in preparing to reopen this hotel, and the similar anxieties experienced by all the other hotels around the country.

Friday 8pm: Buzz on the streets

Masked cowboy Rob Roy is taking the Covid-19 restrictions seriously at Rob’s Ranch House on Plunkett Street, Killarney. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
Rob’s Ranch House on Plunkett Street, Killarney. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

The streets are pretty buzzy. Definitely not anything like the usual numbers, but there’s a welcome atmosphere about the place. The Arbutus Hotel and the Killarney Towers, both on College Street, are still shut. There are six socially distanced small tables set up outside the Lord Kenmare, where there are usually cars parked, and all are occupied.

Down on Main Street, there are queues outside the Laurel Bar, and outside Murphy’s Ice Cream Parlour. There are families out with small children in buggies, and crowds of young people. There’s not much social distancing going on. I see hardly any face masks, and one of those is not even on a human; it’s on the statue of Cowboy Rob outside Rob’s Ranch House on Plunkett Street.

Friday 8.45pm: A walk-in

I walk in without a booking to a restaurant on College Street. The staff are wearing face shields, and it’s evident several tables have been temporarily removed. The menus are laminated, single pages. Every time someone leaves the restaurant, their table is promptly sanitised.

In Ireland, restaurant kitchens usually close at 9pm or 9.30pm. This one is staying open until 10pm, to try to make up some business due to reduced capacity. By the time I leave, an hour later, there are still people walking in, looking for tables.

It’s only when I’ve left the restaurant that I realise no staff member asked me for my contact details, for tracking. Nor had they asked any of the other walk-ins, even though this information is meant to be collected for each lead member of a party. When you phone to book, the restaurant obviously has your name and number. But as a walk-in off the street, the onus is on the restaurant to pro-actively ask for your details. If you pay by cash, they don’t even have a name.

Friday 10pm: Any chance of a drink?

I’m back at my hotel. I’m passing the entrance to the bar when it occurs to me to ask a question. There’s a staff member at the bar entrance.

“I’m a resident here, but I had dinner in town,” I say. “Is it possible to have a drink from the bar?”

Current regulations state alcoholic drinks can be served only with food worth at least €9. “No problem at all,” replies the staff member. “You can go sit over there with the others.”

I order a glass of wine, and it’s delivered to me, in the residents’ lounge. When I ask the hotel manager the following day if it’s policy to serve alcoholic drinks to residents who have not eaten in the hotel, the manager says definitely not. “If you are having a drink, you must dine with us.”

I’m not naming either the restaurant or hotel. This isn’t about publicly shaming anyone in a hospitality industry that is already facing unthinkable challenges. It is abundantly clear that everyone is trying to do their best; their livelihoods depend on our business. The messy reality is that trying to adhere to all the current regulations is difficult.

Saturday July 11th, 8am

I have a pre-booking to use the hotel pool. Currently, it can only be used by pre-booking. I swim for 45 minutes, and in all that time, only one other person shows up briefly. On the way out, I ask the receptionist what the current capacity for the pool is. Post-Covid, it’s been reduced to 15. Even so, it seems people are not keen to use what is usually a very popular facility.

Saturday 10.45am: One positive aspect

The Great Southern Hotel is probably Killarney’s flagship hotel, situated as it by the railway station, which was at one time how many people travelled to the town. Kamile Lyne is its general manager.

While I’m waiting for Lyne to arrive, I notice a small stainless-steel sign on the table in the lobby. Wondering if it’s to denote that the table is already reserved for someone else, I look at what’s etched onto it. “Sanitised” is on one side. “Desinfizert” is on the other. I look around. They’re on every table.

Al fresco in Killarney: Reidy’s in Killarney town centre has adopted HSE Covid-19 measures which are proving very popular amongst visitors and locals. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
Reidy’s in Killarney town centre. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

“At this time of year, we usually have 96 per cent occupancy,” Lyne says. The hotel has 177 rooms. The previous night, they had 148 guests, down from their usual 400 or so.

Usually, how many of her guests in July are from the domestic market?

“Ten per cent at most,” she says. “The rest is the US, Canada, Europe. And we won’t be seeing them for a while.’”

Lyne reports one positive aspect of the new restrictions. “Everyone used to arrive for breakfast together, and it was very hard on the kitchen. Now, everyone has to book their slot, so things are much more structured in the kitchen.”

Irish people are not renowned for being on time. Has this proved a problem? She laughs. “In the beginning, people were very good. Things are slipping a bit now, and we are having some no-shows for breakfast.”

Saturday 11.15am: The party

I read on my phone that during the previous weekend, a group of more than 30 people from different parts of Ireland had travelled to Killarney to meet up. They had rented accommodation and gathered together for a party. Over the course of the weekend, they had also reportedly been out and about in the town, including in the pubs serving food.

It had since emerged that at least one of the group tested positive for Covid-19, and that public health officials were investigating this possible cluster. In addition, at least one of the group had used public transport there and back.

Saturday noon: Down 70 per cent

Muckross Abbey
Muckross Abbey

I’m at Muckross House, in the grounds of Killarney National Park. I’m almost late for my meeting with Denis Reidy, the general manager here, as the enormous carpark is so full I drive for ages to find a space.

Muckross House itself, which Queen Victoria visited, is now administered by trustees and is non-profit, but is located on State land. The house, gardens and surrounding park is one of the most popular attractions in the town, with half a million visitors between them each year.

“This time last year, there would be 40 coaches in the car park,” Reidy says. “This morning, there are none.”

Muckross, which also has a large cafe and craft shop, as well as pottery and weaving outlets, usually employs 60 people throughout the year.

“In the season, we’d have another 50. This year, we haven’t employed any seasonal staff. Most of those would be students.” They are down 70 per cent of where they were last year, between the cafe and shops. The house itself is currently closed.

If it’s wet, people in Cork or Limerick won’t come for the day

There’s a fee to enter Muckross House and, last year, only 12 per cent of those who paid that fee were from the domestic market. However, it’s free to visit the National Park, which explains the number of cars in the car park. It’s also a beautiful, hot day. I have passed people having picnics on the lawns, and the cafe is full, both inside and at their marquee outside.

“One of the things that really impacts us here with the domestic market is the weather,” Reidy explains. “If it’s wet, people in Cork or Limerick won’t come for the day. Whereas, if you’ve come from overseas, you are only here for a short time, so you want to see as much as you can despite the weather.

“Domestic tourism is going to be very important for Killarney this year but it won’t fill the void left by the overseas market as the scale is so big.”

Saturday 2pm: ‘We’re missing the Americans’

I’m back in town, wandering around. News has broken that morning of the death of Jack Charlton, the former Irish football manager. Variety Sounds, a music shop, is blasting out Give It a Lash, Jack on to College Street. A few of us gather silently near the shop, listening until the song ends. “You were one of us, Jack,” one man says as we disperse.

There are more people on the streets now, and the lack of masks is even more remarkable. I see hardly anyone wearing them in shops.

The Aran Sweater Market is closed, sheepskins piled high in the window. “Free Shipping Worldwide”, reads its sign. Serendipity Crafts is closed. At Wild Design craft shop, where I am the sole browser, the young woman behind the counter volunteers the information that “we’re missing the Americans”.

We’d have to see them returning by next summer, to be honest with you

At Quills Woollen Market on Main Street, the largest of their 11 shops, it’s just me and two other people, amid shoulder-high aisles of knitted jumpers and scarves and shawls.

Pádraig Quill’s grandfather opened the first Quills back in 1938. They opened their Killarney shop in 1986.

“At this time of year, the shop would be open from 8.30am to 11 at night,” he says. “We’re only open from 9am to 6pm at the moment.” Their staff numbers in the Killarney shop have reduced from 42 to six. “Business is down to 10 per cent of what it was.”

The main product Quills sells is Irish knitwear, and hand-knit jumpers. Quill says 80 per cent of their customers are from the US and Canada. How long could his business survive – and he has 10 other shops in Kerry and Cork – without overseas tourists?

“We’d have to see them returning by next summer, to be honest with you. We’re lucky that we own all our premises,” he says. “And that the Aran sweater in particular doesn’t date. It’s different to fashion. So we can hold on to our stock and know we can still sell it next year.”

Saturday 3.30pm: A tracing sheet

I have lunch as a walk-in at Casita Mexicana on New Market Lane. The minute I have put in my order, a tracing sheet is produced for me to sign, with my name and number. The proprietor apologises as he hands me the piece of paper and says it’s Government rules.

Saturday 7.30pm: ‘Two weeks in quarantine’

I walk up and down the town’s main car park, which has capacity for hundreds of cars. It’s about half full. There’s a smattering of registration plates from Limerick, Wexford, Meath, Kildare and Laois, but the overwhelming majority of cars are from Kerry, followed by Cork, and then Dublin.

The town is reasonably busy again on this Saturday night, although I wonder how much of that is down to the warm weather. I glance in the windows of the restaurants I pass. Most have some empty tables, even though there are fewer tables than usual in those restaurants.

I’m a walk-in at a restaurant on New Street, where the staff are wearing masks. There’s a couple beside me, who have accents that aren’t Irish. The waiter brings back the man’s credit card and asks if he wants to charge in krona or euro. When the waiter goes off with the machine, I ask – feeling uncomfortable as I do so, as it’s not my intention to “police” anyone – if they are visitors.

It turns out they are. The couple, one Swedish, one American, spent three months in lockdown in South Africa. They wanted to leave. Neither of their countries would allow them entry. “So we came to Ireland,” the man says.

“And spent two weeks in quarantine in a small hotel in Dublin on the north side of the city; more like a guesthouse. Ordering in,” the woman explains.

“Now we’re on holidays, travelling around. And we hope to go to Sweden soon,” the man says.

I have dinner and ask for the bill. Nobody has yet asked me for any contact details, and I’m on the cusp of leaving. When it’s clear that nobody is going to ask me to provide details, I offer them myself.

The waiter claps a hand to his forehead. “Thank you for reminding me!” He brings over the restaurant’s bookings book. Mine is the first name written in for the night, even though I’ve seen other people walk in since. Hopefully, once reminded, he went back to them once I had departed. After all, Killarney is this very day in the national news for the ad-hoc house party that took place the previous weekend.

If this happened to me twice in one weekend, it can only be a pattern that is being repeated all over the country. The restaurants and pubs that serve food are trying so hard to do everything right. The staff in the places I went to wore face shields and masks. The tables were socially distanced. The food was great, as was the atmosphere, and the welcome very, very warm. People were clearly delighted to be there, as I definitely was.

But in forgetting to ask for tracing details, two of the three establishments forgot to follow through on all their extremely hard work in adapting their premises to Covid-19. As Ireland continues to reopen, collecting that information might prove to be the most important thing of all.

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