Tourism success brings along its own problems

 

Bord Failte reports that the Republic had six million visitors in 1999, who left £1.8 billion behind in the economy. To have more visitors than permanent residents puts Ireland in the league of Spain or Florida, but the very success brings problems.

Mr Kevin Shannon of Shannon Tours, specialists in the German market, says that "going after the numbers" for many years has paid off, but he wonders if having six million visitors may not be undermining the quality of an Irish holiday which made it appealing in the first place.

"I have clients coming on site visits to Ireland. They are planning an itinerary for their clients. They marvel at the prosperity in Dublin, the cranes on the skyline. Then as the conversation progresses, you detect a certain hankering after what Ireland used to be. Prosperity is fine, but we have that in Frankfurt", says Mr Shannon.

Bord Failte research shows that Ireland scores poorly as a fashionable destination for Germans and French. A spokesman for DER, the biggest German tour operator, says Ireland no longer enjoys as positive an image as it had in the early 1990s. Though the German economy has been in difficulties since unification, the DER spokesman adds that Germans have not stopped taking holidays. But they no longer favour Ireland.

Cruising on the Shannon was the Germans' favourite. "The cost of the cruise hire is still good value," says the DER spokesman, "but the associated costs - food and drink - have risen dramatically." Ireland is losing the "repeaters", the Germans who came year after year for their week on the Shannon, according to DER.

The Northern Ireland situation is also a problem. "German people simply cannot understand why Catholics and Protestants cannot get along. They agree on something and then they break the agreement. We are hearing too much that is just stupid out of Northern Ireland".

The president of the Irish Hotels Federation, Mr Bill Power, is not altogether sold on the fashionability argument. "I would have said this mattered more with the Italians. There was a time when if you hadn't been to Ireland on holidays, you did not get invited to the right Italian cocktail parties."

Mr Power believes the Germans are staying away because of the economic costs of unification.

Mr Power, who owns Tinakilly House in Co Wicklow, says he is constantly surprised by the German fascination with the Wicklow lakes and the nearby sea. "We just don't understand that for many Germans vast expanses of water are a novelty."

Litter is a problem with continental Europeans in particular, according to Mr Power. "You are told you're about to meet a great personality with enormous charm and then they turn up dishevelled in dirty clothes," says Mr Power of the image of Ireland depicted in Europe and the reality which many visitors encounter.

Mr Power believes the primary responsibility for dealing with the litter problem lies with the local authorities. Some are good - he speaks highly of Waterford County Council - but others do not view litter as requiring priority treatment. Bord Failte's research threw up another problem: Scandinavia. The Nordic countries are very attracted to Ireland but they complain about the cost of getting here.

Mr Gunnar Grosvold, managing director of Scandinavian Leisure Group, says air fares to Ireland are too high and frequencies too low.

Mr Grosvold adds that his company had failed to persuade the scheduled airlines to change their policies so it introduced a summer charter series two years ago which, he says, has been a great success.

The current year was not a good year out of Norway, according to Mr Grosvold. Not Ireland's fault this time, or the airlines'. "We had a very wet summer in Norway in 1998 and everyone wanted to go to the sun in 1999."

A spokesman for Worldwide Ticket, a tour operator in Stockholm, agreed that access is a problem in developing tourism to Ireland. "Ireland is very popular in Sweden", he said. "We love your music and the friendly people. It's a destination for all the family. We still see Ireland as a slightly exotic holiday".

Ireland scores highly on "value for money" with our main markets, the UK and US. Neither, of course, is in the euro currency zone. Bord Failte's chief executive, Mr John Dully, says it will now embark on a major analysis of the UK market.