Bringing back the tour bucks
Only San Marino has seen a worse fall in tourism numbers, writes Louise McBride. Can the industry be turned around
THE international spotlight to hit Ireland this week will turn May into one of our biggest tourist months ever. Queen Elizabeth II gets the ball rolling when she flies here this Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the British Prime Minister, David Came-ron, will make his first official visit to Ireland -- the same day the country hosts its first major European football final. A few days after that, the US President, Barack Obama, will land in Ireland to visit Dublin and his ancestral home of Moneygall, Co Offaly.
All of this will provide a much needed boost to our bruised tourist industry -- which has lost about a third of its overseas holiday visitors between 2007 and 2010 and 30 per cent of its earnings.
While the global recession has damaged tourism in most countries, Ireland has taken more of a battering than others. Last year, Ireland had the second-worst record in Europe for attracting overseas visitors. Ireland lost about 14 per cent of its overseas visitors last year, according to the European Travel Commission. Only San Marino, which is a tiny Republic based in central Italy with a population of about 30,000, fared worse.
So how has the Irish tourist industry, which attracted almost eight million visitors here at its height in 2007, landed in such dire straits?
"Ireland lost the plot with its prices," said the businessman and restaurateur Jay Bourke. "The country was obscenely expensive."
Charles Colthurst, the owner of Blarney Castle, believes Ireland got "too greedy" in the Celtic Tiger years. A couple of years ago, for example, a cruise ship, the Independence of the Seas, came to Cork. Taxis charged more than €150 to get from the boat to Blarney, according to Colthurst.
"A lot of people think Ireland is too expensive," said Colthurst. "You'll pay €180 in an Irish pub for a meal and a couple of drinks for four people. You'd pay two-thirds of that in Britain."
Talk of our mad prices spread like wildfire.
"People who came here talked about paying €200 for a game of golf," said Paul Carty, managing director of the Guinness Storehouse.
"Headlines like that made their way on to internat- ional websites such as trip-advisor.com."
Between 2007 and 2010, Ireland lost about half of its British visitors -- our most important market. By summer 2009, 66 per cent of British visitors were disappointed with the value they got in Ireland, according to Niall Gibbins, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, the agency that markets Ireland as a tourist destination abroad.
"The industry didn't realise the importance of taking their eye off the ball with British tourists -- and of giving them value for money," said Maurice Pratt, a director of Tourism Ireland.
"As domestic tourism was growing so strongly here during the boom years, it hid the reality that we were losing British tourists. As can happen when times are good and business is won softly, the effort that went in to maintaining and growing our market share overseas (during the boom years) was reduced."
Some also believe that the tax breaks dished out by the last Government have damaged the tourist industry.
"Most of our seaside resorts are littered with hotels and apartments -- and most of them are in Nama," said Colthurst. "That's not what our tourists want."
He believes tourists here want to stay in hotels that have been run by the same family for generations.
"These family-run hotels however won't be able to compete with the Nama hotels that are charging the likes of €39 a night," said Colthurst.
"It's not Nama hotels that tourists want to stay in though."
The move by many Irish hotels into spas was also a disaster.
"Many tourist businesses borrowed money to expand," said Eamonn McKeon, chief executive of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation.
"Spas are very expensive to add and to operate, and they have very limited income."
Ireland should have concentrated on promoting its "green" rather than its "spa" image, according to Adrian Bartel, general manager of the Cliff House Hotel.
"We tried the spa thing but Ireland is not a spa country," said Bartel.
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