Signs of life on Irish tourism's rocky road to recovery

 

This week, tourism bosses were cautiously optimistic about the future for Ireland’s tourism sector. Will 2012 bring more visitors or more dashed hopes?

REFLECTING on the dismal time Irish tourism has had of it lately, Fáilte Ireland chairman Redmond O’Donoghue came over all Churchillian at a conference this week where, for the first time in three years, optimism about the industry’s fortunes was expressed.

“This is not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. There is a long road ahead,” he said.

There are grounds for optimism, however cautious or cryptic this “end of the beginning” outlook may be. Last year saw an increase of almost 6 per cent in the number of overseas visitors to this country, and nearly half of those providing accommodation here expect business to increase further in 2012. Newly published Fáilte Ireland research shows that 70 per cent of businesses in the tourism sector offered more competitive prices and reduced operating costs last year. And, despite its criticism of places such as Letterkenny, Larne, Armagh and Temple Bar, the new Lonely Planetguide has confirmed to its readers that, despite the misery of recession, this country is still worth visiting even if our main attraction, according to its writers, is the pub.

Those in the thick of the tourism industry acknowledge that while a picture of recovery is starting to emerge, with US and British markets showing signs of improving, the growth is still not at such a level as to make amends for the stark decline in recent years.

“I think amongst most of my brethren in the industry there is positivity creeping in,” says Michael Vaughan of the Irish Hotels Federation, who runs his own hotel in Lahinch, Co Clare. “It’s a cautious kind of positivity, though. While there may be good signs of growth elsewhere, the West of Ireland is practically static in terms of development. There has been a complete and utter collapse of the domestic market and nothing in terms of overseas tourism.”

There are exceptions, of course. “You see places like the Cliffs of Moher getting strong visitor figures, but then you see that a lot of that originates in daytrips from people in Dublin. The big quandary for us is how do we spread the increased business evenly across the country in all areas.”

At this week’s tourism briefing, hotels were declared the strongest performers in tourism last year, with room occupancy increased, particularly in urban areas. But, according to Vaughan, hoteliers are in “an unprecedented time of distress” even if the Vat reduction was a “huge boost”.

“The story at the moment is that there is cash flow but no profits. Most of our hotels are struggling to keep business afloat. Unfortunately, while this year may be a turning point, it is not going to be the year we return to profitability.”

Business for Trident Holiday Homes, owned by Jacinta Doolan, has been down around 20 per cent in the past three years, with bookings improving slightly last year. “It’s been tough but I am at this 25 years,” says Doolan. “You just have batten down the hatches and keep going.” In terms of her strategy for 2012, “everything is price-driven. We have our best offers out there already. We are not going to wait until later in the year to release them – you just can’t afford to take that approach an more.”

There are early indicators that the industry’s cautiously optimistic approach is not misplaced. “We’ve already noticed an increase in bookings from tour operators in France and Germany. They are up 22 per cent.”

While she is more hopeful about prospects for the business this year – the company has 720 holiday homes across the country – Doolan is still relieved that Fáilte Ireland is showing restraint and urging those in the industry not to become complacent despite their positive outlook. She believes The Gathering, a massive tourism event planned for 2013 in which people of Irish origin abroad will be encouraged to come home for a visit, could prove a winning tourism endeavour. “But I agree with Fáilte Ireland that there is no room for complacency. It is being thrown out the window along with all the crystal balls.”

There are some who deliberately pay no heed to what tourism officials have to say about anything regarding the industry. Cathal O’Connell, the owner – or “High King”, as it says on his business card – of Paddywagon Tours, prefers to go it alone.

“My attitude is every man for himself,” he explains. “If you sit back and think Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland or any state agency is going to cure your ills you’ll end up very sorry. I think the guy in charge of Fáilte Ireland is doing his best but I just don’t think there is a real understanding in the tourist boards of the many different variations of the Irish tourism product.

“What they understand well are the products out there for sale at the top end, the golf holidays and the packages in Killarney.”

Despite two bustling Dublin hostels, Isaac’s and Jacob’s, closing their doors this week, O’Connell says the budget end of the market is holding strong, but “not because of anything ever did for us”.

O’Connell is heading off on a three-week promotional trip to Australia for his company. At the bigger international tourism fairs the company makes an independent bid for customers rather than going under the official state tourism agency umbrella.

“We feel it’s still too much of a wine and cheese party. We are more interested in getting the work done. We are entrepreneurial in the market while the agencies are there to earn their salaries.”

Whatever about such criticism, there is a general air of measured relief at the news that the “end of the beginning” may be nigh. This week at an evening of “Food, Folklore and Fairies” in Dublin’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head, a group of college students from Illinois were being entertained by the resident seanachaí.

Owner John Hoyne says that the tourists who come to his pub are happy with the experience they are having in Ireland. “I believe that tourism can contribute in a huge way to getting us out of the mess we are in,” says Hoyne. “And the fact that the Lonely Planethas said pubs are the number one attraction in Ireland fills my heart with joy.”