It would be terrible if Staycation Nation turned into Rip-off Ireland

A week in Kerry is no longer the frugal choice of the bucket-and-spade brigade

Inch Strand in Co Kerry. The staycation subsidy announced on Thursday is a well-intentioned effort to bolster the hospitality industry. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Inch Strand in Co Kerry. The staycation subsidy announced on Thursday is a well-intentioned effort to bolster the hospitality industry. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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Your country needs you to holiday at home, so the Government keeps telling us. The Trip Advisor cabinet is all over your holiday plans – except for Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who is busy making sure we’re all over his.

We’ve become Staycation Nation. And so it feels practically unpatriotic to say it, but have they seen the prices?

A week in Kerry is no longer the frugal choice of the bucket-and-spade brigade. These days, the going rate for three nights in a family room in a three-star guesthouse in Killarney seems to be north, sometimes far north, of €600. A three-star hotel in Dingle is quoting almost €2,700 for seven nights in a quadruple room in August.

Meanwhile, the concept of “cost-friendly self-catering” has gone the way of the sweaty handshake. *

Subsidies

Kerry has never been shy about milking its own assets, but it’s not just the Kingdom capitalising on the boom in what we used to call “nothing much, just taking a break at home this year”. No amount of subsidies or VAT reductions can make up for the fact that in many places west and south of Barack Obama Plaza, prices are through the roof. If there were good deals to be had in April – and yes, the internet is awash with smug types who were busy locking down €100 a night hotel rooms in prime holiday spots during lockdown – those deals are gone, especially if you’re after accommodation for families. And yet, according to the Irish Hotels Federation, the country is coming down with empty hotel rooms. Occupancy rates in August are running at less than 30 per cent, and are lower for September.

Even before the pandemic made crowding into cities an unsafe prospect, Dublin’s appeal had begun to tarnish

“Dublin in particular is a ghost town,” Eoghan O’Meara Walsh from the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation told this newspaper recently, explaining that Irish people don’t want to holiday there. Can you blame them? Even before the pandemic made crowding into cities an unsafe prospect, Dublin’s appeal had begun to tarnish. There’s a bitter irony in the fact that so much energy has been invested in recent years in turning the city into a tacky holiday resort at the expense of people it belongs to. Now that the tourists are gone, Dublin would really like the rest of us to come back. But what exactly is it offering? Does it know anymore? A haven for the world’s most powerful tech multinationals isn’t much of a selling point.

Cultural life

There’s a thread of hope here too, though time is running out. If the capital used this time to focus on becoming a better place to live – making space for people rather than cars; allowing pockets of artistic and cultural life to flourish; supporting independent retailers and interesting eateries; aiming for clean air and clean streets; creating bike-friendly thoroughfares; reviving historic buildings, instead of throwing up more glass blocks and ensuring there is enough affordable, good-quality accommodation for people to live as well as holiday in – it would be a better place to holiday by default.

In the meantime, the staycation subsidy announced on Thursday, which allows taxpayers who spend €625 to claim back an income tax credit of €125, is a well-intentioned effort to bolster the hospitality industry, which won’t work if businesses just jack up their prices accordingly. That would be the worst kind of short-termism and greed – therefore, precisely the kind of thing we have come to expect.

Even in a pandemic, rip-off prices are rip-off prices

Restaurants are a different beast, especially those that are owner run, and operating on grit and paper-thin margins. The best experiences I had during a recent staycation were in these places. Still, there are worrying signs that some may be cashing in on the 105-minute rule. When I say, “worrying signs”, I mean the experience I had of being told we would have to order and eat dessert in five minutes “because of Covid-19 guidance”. Further questioning revealed that “because of Covid-19 guidance” actually meant “because we’ve another group booked in for your table five minutes from now”.

Bad service is bad service. Even in a pandemic, rip-off prices are rip-off prices. During a lunch in a Clare hotel this month, the spectacular Atlantic sea view and the knowledge that we were doing the patriotic, responsible thing did not make the pregrated cheddar out of a packet described on the menu as an “open ham and cheddar sandwich” taste any less like plastic.

Stag parties

Summer 2020 will be remembered for lots of reasons. One of them could still be as the year we rediscovered the beauty on our doorstep and the joy of not worrying about baggage allowances. Or it could be remembered as the year that we all had a lovely time holidaying at home, until we totted up the bills and found we had spent the price of a small yacht. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rethink our country’s tourism offering and entire business model, pivoting away from the quick hits of stag parties and busloads of Americans towards something more enduring. Other European cities are already coming to this conclusion. Prague, Barcelona and Amsterdam have all said recently they want a different type of visitor; a more “sustainable visitor economy that doesn’t harm the liveability of our city”.

This will require imagination, creativity and businesses deciding that fostering long-term relationships with the more discerning domestic market makes better business sense than cashing in and holding their breath until the Americans return. That could be years away. In the meantime, it would be a terrible waste if Staycation Nation turns out to be just another incarnation of Rip-off Ireland.

* July 25th, 2020: An earlier version of this article referred to a house in Sneem, Co Kerry, listed on a popular booking website for a weekly rental cost of €21,000. The owners of the property have stated this listing was incorrect and it has now been removed from the booking website.

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