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Head to head: Is Ireland a tourist rip-off? Conor Pope and Georgina Campbell have their say

A good value haven for foodies and travellers, or heaven for gougers who want to charge €18 for 11 chips and two sausages? Two writers battle it out

Head to head illustration Conor Pope Georgina Campbell

Conor Pope: The quality on offer is depressing and disappointing in equal measure

Before considering whether Ireland is a rip off for tourists – either home-grown or imported – it is important to draw a distinction between value and price. It might seem obvious but the distinction is frequently overlooked in a debate that has been running for decades.

Something can be wildly expensive and excellent value for money or cheap as chips and exceptionally bad value for money. For instance, a tasting menu for two, with wine, in Chapter One could set you back more than €500. But, for those lucky enough to enjoy such an experience, the money would most likely be well spent, with all those Michelin-starred morsels living long in the memory.

By contrast, a plate of 11 limp and lukewarm chips and two greasy sausages priced at €18 in a self-styled gastropub or a strip of sweaty ham sandwiched between two sickly slices of white bread smeared with a hint of mayonnaise and sold for the guts of a tenner in what we optimistically call a delicatessen is now and always will be spectacularly bad value for money.

No one reading this can deny that this class of food is served at these types of prices routinely across the country. It is depressing and disappointing in equal measure.

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In recent years comparing prices at home and abroad has become a national pastime. While it is interesting and infuriating to tweet about how cheap excellent coffees, pastries and wines are in Porto when compared with Portmarnock, it serves no one to use such comparisons to definitively declare that Ireland is a rip-off.

We know that working in the hospitality sector in this country is hard. Far too many businesses go to the wall each year with none closing because they’re making too much money. Taxes are too high. Overheads are too high. Wages are higher than many parts of Europe – and they need to be – while staff are hard to come by. These factors combined make things dearer here than in southern Europe.

But none of the challenges justify the rip-off prices we’re wearily accustomed to paying. We’ve all been in pubs that charge €9 for a forensically measured glass of bog-standard wine that comes from a bottle that costs a tenner in the supermarket next door. We’ve all been served that plate of badly cooked chips and worse cooked frozen fish and paid over €20 for the feast. If I ask readers of this newspaper for examples of rip-off prices I’ll be snowed under for days by hackle-raising stories that will cast the Irish hospitality sector in a terrible light.

And, of course, it is not just food. A trawl of one hotel-booking platform last week found that the cheapest hotel in Dublin for two nights this weekend was €400. There’s no point in identifying the hotel but be assured it was not an establishment that would make you giddy with excitement. A deeper dive revealed that rooms in most average hotels in Dublin were priced at more than €500 for two nights. By contrast, there were dozens of three-star hotels in Paris for less than €200 for the same two nights. And Paris is not one of Europe’s less travelled and cheaper destinations.

Last year when Ireland was emerging from the darkest of days, many ordinary hotels started making hay and headlines by charging savagely high prices. Such was the outrage that the then minister for finance Paschal Donohoe rapped the sector across the knuckles. An announcement that the VAT rate was being restored to 13.5 per cent from 9 per cent was made months later, meaning the entire hospitality sector paid the price for the greed of those who artificially inflated their prices.

Ireland has never been billed as a cheap destination, with the buzz word when selling us to visitors being premium. That’s fine if the product is premium. And sometimes it is. There are restaurants selling the best of locally sourced food, putting considerable thought into how it is prepped and plated. There are hotels offering stellar accommodation at understandable prices and all manner of providers offering us adventures to cherish. But their work is undermined by gougers charging us what they know they can get away with rather than what they know is fair. In the end we will all end up paying the price for that.

Georgina Campbell: It’s not a rip-off if you’re looking for fair rather than cheap

Ah yes, rip-off Ireland. How easily it trips off the tongue and everyone has a tale to tell. But is it fair? Not if our own recent experiences are typical. To be honest, we’re finding a lot of variation ourselves, but there’s certainly quality to be found at a fair price. And that’s what we’re looking for, rather than price-led “cheap”.

We travel independently (and currently have no sponsorship for our hospitality guide to cushion the cost) so, like everyone else, we want to have the best possible experience without the sour aftertaste of paying over the odds. The unfortunate truth is that, as elsewhere, costs in the hospitality industry are rising – rent/financing, insurance, energy, staffing and inflation are all taking a toll – and, unless there’s a change of policy, VAT is going up again soon. So, while many businesses are doing their best to absorb some of that, it will inevitably be passed on at some stage.

But we have great people doing a brilliant job in Irish food and hospitality, and they’re well worth seeking out. The long lists for our awards – which date from the early 1990s – are filling out very nicely this year, so there’s no shortage of “the best”, at all levels. A hotelier in the midwest asked me the other day if we ever stay at five-stars. I said yes, when necessary. I should have added: when the price is right. The B&B price for the least expensive room at a famous destination nearby was pushing €1,400 that night.

So how is the value to be found? It’s basic really – do the homework, take the time to seek out the best, be willing to pay a fair price and the rest (usually) follows. Be open-minded about destinations if possible – some areas may be more keenly priced than others. Last-minute deals are more easily available this year than they should be in high season, so research the options online, and then make some phone calls.

In accommodation, B&Bs have always offered great value and a particular sense of community but we’ve lost many of the best in recent years, with Airbnb a major factor. But there are still some terrific B&Bs, also a cohort of country houses and seriously good guest houses (many feeling more like mini hotels), with some offering the memorable breakfasts that spell real value.

At five-stars and other top-end places, where they are owner-run or have outstanding hands-on managers, they can offer a really special experience that is worth paying for. Also, prices that seem high can work out to be good value, if you not only time your visit well to avoid peak demand but – importantly – make a point of getting full use of the (usually extensive) amenities too.

Irish four-stars now encompass a very wide range of hotels so they’re a mixed bunch and value is hugely variable. But the best-managed offer a great stay and they are usually spacious and with good amenities. Some three-stars, especially the smaller owner-run hotels, offer real value and are genuinely hospitable. Not luxurious perhaps, but a real Irish experience.

To food, and provenance is king. It’s always worth seeking out the places with Euro-Toques chefs. As their recent Food Awards highlighted, they value the small artisan producers on whom they depend, and it shows on both the plate and the palate. Similarly, the wholesome locally-focused influence of Ballymaloe is to be found all over Ireland, especially in small owner-run restaurants, cafes and gastropubs that punch way beyond their weight, so look for those (and alumni of other Irish cookery schools) when deciding where to invest in a meal with true Irish flavour – and look out for supplier lists crediting local suppliers on menus too.

As for the very high-end restaurants, it’s hard to justify the mad money sometimes demanded for the menus, especially given the current feeling of uncertainty. But even those places can offer value, if that level of theatricality is your thing – although big money does not guarantee perfection as recently experienced in one of the country’s most highly lauded restaurants, where uneven service, over-seasoning, some strange drinks pairings and a badly chipped plate were among the unexpected aspects of an evening spent in a place where the menu was more than €150. Many of the most ambitious are also highly restrictive – online-only bookings, no children – but there are more welcoming examples, where shorter menus are available that are more accessible to the local clientele, and are sometimes family-friendly or have lighter, daytime or Sunday offerings.

While some restaurants may seem to be focused on their own convenience, with the customer secondary or way down the line, others go to great lengths to offer outstanding service, even in the face of widespread staff shortages. So is Ireland a tourist rip-off? No. Genuine value is thankfully alive and well in Ireland today.

Georgina Campbell is the founding editor of Georgina Campbell’s Ireland – The Best of Irish Food & Hospitality (www.ireland-guide.com) and president of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild (www.irishfoodwritersguild.ie)