‘We were wiped out. Cancel. Cancel. Cancel,’ says Kerry B&B owner

Staycationers can’t replace foreign tourists, the core market for traditional Irish B&Bs

Mary Guerin, owner  of Killarney View House says of 2020: ‘We were wiped out. Cancel. Cancel. Cancel. And the cancellations kept coming.’ Photograph: Valerie O Sullivan

Mary Guerin, owner of Killarney View House says of 2020: ‘We were wiped out. Cancel. Cancel. Cancel. And the cancellations kept coming.’ Photograph: Valerie O Sullivan

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Hardest hit of all tourist sectors by the pandemic, the traditional B&B is clinging to the optimism that has distinguished its Irish welcome for more than 60 years.

Just weeks ago, bed and breakfast owners throughout the country had begun to hope for a good season after a disastrous 2020; but the post-Christmas surge in the virus, uncertainty over inward travel and issues over the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines have dampened all that.

More Irish people will be holidaying at home, though, if they are allowed to holiday anywhere this year: “The success of staycations in 2020 indicates that this channel of business will come again in 2021,” says Helena Healy, chief executive of B&B Ireland, which represents 700 independently-owned Fáilte Ireland-approved B&Bs.

However, the core market for Irish B&Bs is foreign tourists not locals, she says, and they are unlikely to be back in any numbers.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the sector. “The B&B is very much for the overseas visitor. Because there was no inward travel last year, a lot of owners asked themselves why should they open. And many of them did not,” Healy says.

Many owners are in business for years and are, largely due to their age profile, considered vulnerable when it comes to getting the virus, so the vaccine rollout will decide the season for many.

“We have people who have already said ‘I have had enough’,” says Healy, scanning the membership of the 48-year-old organisation, though new registrations are coming forward, too.

“We are still hoping international travel will start. Bookings are slow, but we know there is pent-up demand. We are holding on to optimism that travel will start towards the latter end of the summer,” she says.

The number of B&Bs was falling even before the pandemic. The tourist board had 1,100 premises on its approved list last year, down from 1,250 in 2017. But the 2020 figure is slightly inflated in that it includes historic homes, not just traditional B&Bs which tend to be family homes that take in visitors.

Mary Guerin of Killarney View House, on the Kerry town’s tourism “golden mile”, the Muckross Road, is the second generation of her family to be involved in the B&B business.

Last year should have been a good one, since she was fully-booked from early in the year right up to November, but then, “We were wiped out. Cancel. Cancel. Cancel. And the cancellations kept coming”.

New business

However, she did get a new source of business when the country reopened and foreigners living in Dublin booked in numbers during July and August.

“Brazilians, Americans, Canadians, [and] medical graduates from India. who had wanted to go home for events but could not because of quarantine, arrived. They came to Killarney, instead,” says Guerin.

There was a change in focus this summer in Killarney, she observes. The daytime was more important than the night-time.

Meanwhile, outdoor enthusiasts came too: “Everybody was heading out. Walking, cycling, climbing Carrauntoohil. That trend may well continue as so many Irish people said that now that they had found Kerry, they’d be back,” she says.

“Everybody seems to be saying there is a pent-up demand for travel,” she says, “because people have been ‘locked up’ for a year. It is difficult to predict. It will take time for people to move out into the world again.”

Meanwhile Mary O’Connell, a former nurse, of St Anthony’s Lodge on Park Road, is one of the legends of Kerry tourism having been in business since 1966.

Last year, she did not open the B&B. Advance bookings had never been better and she was ready to open in March. Then came the lockdown. After it was lifted in June, she remained closed.

“My book was full in March. During the summer, I never opened. I couldn’t risk it,” says O’Connell, whose guests traditionally have mostly come from the United States or Germany.

Now in her 80s, she says she won’t reopen until she gets the vaccine, adding that a lot of other older B&B owners will not open either unless they are vaccinated before the tourists arrive.

If they do arrive, that is.

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