Treating tourists like sheep at Dublin airport


OPINION:The tourists keep coming and we keep taking them for granted, writes ORNA MULCAHY.

IRELAND OF the Welcomes is it? Not if you arrive in Dublin airport on one of the early morning flights from the US any day of the week. The captain wishes you safe onward journey but first you have to navigate the mob scene in passport control. You’re decanted from the plane into a warren of corridors and staircases through which passengers shuffle towards a cheerless room where there may or may not be separate booths open for EU and non-EU passengers. You can be stuck for 20 minutes or more waiting to get into the room, bottle-necked in a low-ceilinged corridor without any idea of what is going on up ahead. There’s the hemmed-in feel of the sheep dip to it.

This is where I was stuck on Wednesday morning listening to a worn-out American mother explaining to her two young children the route their onward journey would take. “After we get through here we’re going to find another plane to take us to Cork and then when we get there we’re going to find a car and then we’re going to drive to the house by the sea.”

They’d be all day getting there at the rate we were moving, but still, God bless them for coming to Ireland for their holiday. This year we’re desperately in need of a good tourist season though it’s looking unlikely. Fáilte Ireland should have had someone there to greet her with hot towels and a garland of shamrocks.

Instead, as the Irish ducked and weaved and queue-barged their way through, the Americans were left waiting patiently in line, including the elderly lady leaning on two walking sticks. Is this the Irish revenge for the American immigration system with its green forms and white forms and what is the purpose of your visit to the United States routine? If so, then the Dublin Airport Authority is excelling itself.

At least those ex-US marines will talk to you while they are scanning your fingers, though their uniforms and general beefiness can trigger the sweats. As they ask you to press harder you wonder if a) you have early arthritis or b) do they know about that time you stole the flag in Martha’s Vineyard that time you were on the J1 visa. But at least they seem interested in your travel plans. The Irish official who tossed my passport back at me on Wednesday didn’t make eye contact, never mind a friendly word. I believe, though, that there is one friendly passport official who’s all smiles and chat, but he’s in Shannon.

Once you clear passport control there’s a short escalator leading up to a corridor decked out with cheesy posters of bankers offering business solutions when what most people want is a toilet. Forget oily men in suits and their female counterparts in the background. Give us instead a Ladies and a Gents, with clean floors, hot water and, if it’s not asking too much, a hook behind the door for the handbag.

There is no visual attempt to welcome the American tourist who has perhaps been planning their holiday here for months, or even years. A million of them came last year, pumping an estimated € 713 million into the economy.

This year, according to Tourism Ireland, the figure is likely to be about 15 per cent less, given the state of the US economy. That’s still 850,000 people who think Ireland is special, and have money to spend here. In fact Americans are just 11 per cent of the total number of tourists coming to Ireland. Last year there were 8.8 million tourists in total, spending more than € 4 billion. There’s no reason why the figure cannot grow, and plenty of reasons that it has to grow. Tourism is still Ireland’s biggest industry, and the industry with the most potential.

The Government has numerous tourism initiatives on the go. At the moment there’s a push on to attract business visitors. Some 250 “conference ambassadors” are being sent out into the business and academic world to sell the idea of conferences in Ireland ahead of the opening of the National Conference Centre next year. Conference visitors are considered the cream. They can be charged more for hotel rooms because they’re not paying from their own pocket, they’re more likely to splash out in restaurants and bars, and they play golf.

Until these high-yield visitors kick in, we have the solid reliable tourist. They keep coming and so we take them for granted, herding them from their first point of entry instead of greeting them with the smiles and charm for which we’re supposed to be famous. Okay, so we’re getting a new terminal at the cost of a billion or more. It cannot come quick enough.

The surprise this week over the airport authority was not that it was letting go staff, but that it had so many employees – 3,200! What do they all do? Surely among those numbers a team could be created to ensure that all passengers, and tourists in particular, are treated like people rather than sheep on arrival.