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European tourist visits to outrageously expensive Dublin are declining because our capital has an ambience issue

Una Mullally: Dublin is struggling to figure out what it has to offer

It will come as a surprise to no one that international tourist numbers are down in Ireland. Figures compiled by the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation show that for the first three months of 2023, the drop is 16 per cent lower than the same period in 2019.

This issue of sluggish international tourism is not unique to Ireland. People’s habits have changed, and so has their spending power. But when it comes to reversing this trend in Ireland, we have serious systemic issues that feel increasingly difficult to overcome. A big one is hotel and guesthouse space. More than a third of all tourist beds in Ireland are contracted to the Irish Government. The obvious reason for this is the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s also due to the housing crisis. Ukraine aside, last December about 5,000 people who had been granted permission to stay in Ireland were still living in direct provision, because there’s so little housing.

How our housing crisis creates dysfunction elsewhere is well documented. Having people who are homeless living in hotels, and tourists renting private homes through Airbnb, thus removing those homes and rooms from the private rental market, was not caused by a war. It was caused by dysfunctional Government housing policy. The staffing crisis across tourism and hospitality sectors is also underpinned by the housing crisis.

The Government taking tourism beds out of hospitality because it has not prioritised the construction of public and affordable housing is something Fáilte Ireland estimates will cost the Irish tourism economy €1.1 billion this year. On a practical level, it also means the areas that need tourism most acutely are the ones suffering the most economically from this dysfunction.


The Ireland that Joe Biden has been celebrating and connecting with – the ancestral, romantic version of Ireland – is a powerful marketing tool

But there’s another issue. And that issue is called Dublin. Last summer, according to a MasterCard report, spending by visitors to Dublin increased by 0.4 per cent. Spending nationally, however, increased by 11.9 per cent. Spending among French tourists dropped by 26.5 per cent, whereas spending by those visiting from the United States grew by 27.3 per cent. The Ireland that Joe Biden has been celebrating and connecting with – the ancestral, romantic version of Ireland – is a powerful marketing tool. It’s about beauty, history, cultural connection and people. Wealthy Irish-Americans will always want to visit.

But if you were a European couple thinking about a weekend break, how would Dublin tempt you? In 2022, 60 per cent of hotels in Dublin reported reduced bookings from Britain, and 38 per cent reported fewer European bookings. This is serious. Could it be that the Ireland American tourists want to see is doing all right, but the European capital others want to check out for a weekend is struggling to figure out what it actually has to offer? It’s an outrageously expensive place to spend time in. And the cost certainly does not match the value.

There is also a more complex, intangible, existential problem that needs to be addressed. What tourists look for in a city – what we all do when we travel to cities – is ambience. Dublin has an ambience issue. This is mostly due to how the connective tissue of the city’s anatomy has been brutalised by corporate gentrification, terrible urban planning and the multifaceted impact of the housing crisis.

A more holistic approach to urban planning is needed, one that preserves the character of a place and could begin to repair that connective tissue

There are very few places where one can simply hang out in Dublin city that aren’t transactional. There are no large public squares to relax in that facilitate the simple activity of having a beer or a coffee, where you can watch life go by. There is a feeling of restriction permeating the city. There is very little pedestrianisation. Shopping streets are increasingly homogenous, bar a few outliers. There are no permanent markets in the city with public seating and outdoor dining and drinking options. And there is a serious issue with the terrible architecture of so many new buildings. A lot of what has been built in the past decade is, essentially, ugly.

Beauty, pleasure, vibrancy and a sense of discovery are what make a city not just an attractive place to visit, but one to live in. Unfortunately, a lot of damage has been done to the integrity of the city over the past decade. The thing the powers that be need to figure out is how not to keep making those mistakes, if they even comprehend the errors that have been made. A more holistic approach to urban planning is needed, one that preserves the character of a place and could begin to repair that connective tissue.

The opportunity for pleasant and energising ambience to emerge can be designed. Character can be preserved. Authenticity and grain can be valued. Destroying a sense of place – as a lot of the regressive development has – and then trying to market that same place is a pretty terrible approach. Interestingly, right now in Dublin, there’s a surge of creative energy finding a new rhythm. There are a lot of great things happening in the arts that should fuel the city, not flounder within it. The question we should ask is not how that can be commodified, but how it can be facilitated and embraced to a point where scenes can thrive again. Otherwise, tourists arriving to the city will do the same thing so many young people in Dublin who live in it are doing: leave.