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Lonely Planet row underlines how Dublin needs to work out who it is for

‘Surprising by nature’ is Dublin’s marketing slogan. The prices are certainly shocking

How insecure must a nation be for an article in a travel guide to unleash such paroxysms of self-doubt? The fact that a Lonely Planet piece questioning Dublin’s offering as a tourist destination dominated the news agenda all day on Tuesday says far more about how we see ourselves than about how the rest of the world sees us.

There was consternation at how a thoroughly researched article in a well-respected publication — written by a journalist who seems to have more than a passing acquaintance with the city — could have got things so right.

Tourists planning to visit Dublin this summer, the article suggested, can look forward to a range of authentic local experiences, including accommodation shortages, soaring car rental costs, airport chaos and getting laughed out of a restaurant if you’re looking for a table at the weekend (“as much chance [of] scoring the winning Lotto ticket”). The rest of us have been saying it for months, but it’s only when it is pointed out to the wider world there are such outbreaks of high dudgeon.

On RTÉ Radio’s News At One, chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation Eoghan O’Mara Walsh said he “hadn’t read the full commentary”, but the headlines he had seen “didn’t make for pleasant reading”.

Still, he wasn’t having any of the article he hadn’t read. “I don’t think the article, or certainly the headlines I’ve read, were fair in the round,” he said, before conceding that “Dublin has struggled to supply capacity ... If we lose the value proposition we’re in trouble”.

Dublin’s plan seems to have been to hold its breath until the Americans came back and then whack up the prices

Two years ago, O’Mara Walsh was in this newspaper explaining that “Dublin in particular was a ghost town” because Irish people didn’t seem to want to holiday there. This year, the industry seems equally thrown into disarray by the fact that too many people want to holiday in Ireland. There’s no sense that any kind of strategy is emerging as we bounce from one extreme to the other.

Covid gave cities a chance to reinvent themselves — places such as Prague, Barcelona and Amsterdam decided they would use it to move towards a more sustainable kind of tourism. Dublin’s plan seems to have been to hold its breath until the Americans came back and then whack up the prices.

The message that fleecing tourists may not be the best long-term strategy for recovery may finally be trickling through to hotels. A four-star hotel near Temple Bar that quoted me a staggering €870 for two people for a Saturday night in May has since halved in price to a still eye-watering €435 for next Saturday. That’s not including breakfast.

Overall, though, prices across the city remain in the realm of the fantastical. In March, I stayed in a small hotel room in a well-located place near St Stephen’s Green for €116 per night. If you want to book the same room for next Saturday, it’s now €348. Should you be travelling to Dublin with a budget of less than €300, your choices are sharing a two-bed dorm in a hostel at €293 per night, or a private room in accommodation designed for students for €207.

O’Mara Walsh argues that high prices and a lack of capacity are a problem all over Europe. Booking.com offers a slightly different perspective. In Barcelona next Saturday, rooms in 4-star hotels start from €147; in Paris it’s €158, while €216 will get you a superior double room with a private terrace overlooking the rooftops of the 12th arrondissement. In Freiburg, selected as one of Lonely Planet’s best places to visit for 2022, a double room next weekend is about €120.

The city authorities don’t seem to know who it serves or what it has to offer any more

Tourism, as people working in tourism love to remind us, is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry. This begs the question: with so much at stake, how can the capital be getting it so horrendously wrong? The most concise explanation is a shortage of rooms and no shortage of greed. The squeeze on rooms is partly due to the need to accommodate about 4,000 Ukrainian refugees and 5,000 people in direct provision, but it’s not as though hotels are giving those rooms out for free. There’s no justification for the extent to which the remaining rooms have been jacked up. It’s hard to imagine the Government not looking at current prices and deciding hotels are doing just fine without any need to extend the 9 per cent VAT rate beyond next spring.

A trickier problem for Dublin — which perhaps explains the outbreak of defensiveness this week — is the deepening identity crisis it’s suffering. The city authorities don’t seem to know who it serves or what it has to offer any more. It has pulled up the drawbridge to newcomers, and even people who grew up there, unless they work in Google or Facebook or Stripe and can afford the astronomical cost of renting. It is a university city that’s not particularly welcoming to students, other than the kind for whom €11,000 for two semesters in “platinum-room” campus accommodation seems reasonable. Dublin prides itself on its rich artistic and cultural output, but with a dwindling number of places for artists to live, work, or connect with audiences, that legacy is at risk. And now it seems to be doing its best to drive even tourists away.

Dublin needs to figure out who it is actually there to serve, beyond a handful of tax-shy tech multinationals, sprawling data centres and the ageing population of people who were lucky enough to buy a house at the turn of the century or during the last downturn. Small wonder that, for years now, Dublin’s once unique character has become a temple of bland.

Cities are at their best when they feel like open, vibrant, gritty places that surprise visitors; the kind of places where anything can happen. That’s presumably what Fáilte Ireland is trying to capture with its marketing slogan, “Dublin: Surprising by nature”.

At €435 a night for a very ordinary hotel room, the biggest surprise will be your credit card bill.