Dublin-born Niall Leogue runs Caddie Tours, a tour-operating group based in Virginia that has long brought American holidaymakers to Ireland.
This year, he had 10 trips planned for 400 people. Not one of them is going ahead.
“Decimated is how I’d describe the business,” said Niall. “I knew by March that my June trips would be in jeopardy. My suppliers and hoteliers in Ireland gave me a month’s grace.
“But by mid-May I had rescheduled six trips for next year and cancelled five,” said Leogue. Some have decided to postpone their trips until next year and have stuck with him.
“I’m lucky that they’ve stayed with me. In my business, it’s about making connections and many people return year after year. No itinerary is ever the same,” said Leogue, who moved to the US in the 1980s on a Donnelly visa
The United States is Ireland's second-largest market for visitors after Britain, but according to Tourism Ireland, American visitors "tend to stay longer, spend more and tour extensively". In 2018, 1.8 million came.
No travel ban
Currently, Ireland, along with Britain, has not banned American visitors, unlike the rest of the European Union, despite the US's poor Covid-19 record. There is anecdotal evidence that some are coming, but numbers are few.
Living with an uncle in upper Manhattan near Gaelic Park, Leogue soon saw an ad in the Irish Echo paper looking for Aer Lingus staff in JFK airport. Having worked for Hertz in London and Dublin, he was quickly hired.
“I loved my job because no two days were ever the same,” he said. “When that shamrock landed at JFK, that was my baby. I loved meeting the flights – I got great training, developed a real passion for the job.”
With Aer Lingus’s financial woes in the 1990s, Leogue saw the writing on the wall and he was hired by Barry Twomey who ran a Manhattan-based firm specialising in Irish tours. In time, he had jobs elsewhere.
In 2002 he began Caddie Tours. Though it offered golf trips from the beginning , it soon moved into more wide-ranging tour offerings, many built around a musical theme.
The increase in the number of US airports offering direct flights to Ireland helped greatly: "2019 was a great year. One of the reasons was there were 22 gateways to Ireland with non-stop flights, if you include Canada. "
Now, Leogue must rebuild: “If social distancing is still in place next year, I have told my clients that pricing may be affected. This applies not just to restaurants where capacity will be down, but also things like coaches.
“When I price my tours I plan on about 40 people on a coach that seats 48. If they’re only allowing 12 people on a coach, well that means four buses for one tour. That’s not going to happen.”
He is also worried about consumer confidence. “No one wants to travel at this point. What this will come down to will be the confidence of the consumer. Without the consumer there is no travel.”
Even if the 14-day quarantine rule – which currently makes tourism from America virtually impossible – ends, he said the restrictions still in place mean that tourism to Ireland is not viable currently.
“ It won’t be the real Ireland they experience. What I try to create for my tours is the experience. Even though Ireland would welcome for them it wouldn’t be the same,” he said.
Instead, Leogue has turned his attention to next year: “I’ll see how Ireland does in the autumn and make a decision in the new year with my suppliers and clients. My first trip is May 15th, 2021. Let’s see.”