Summer is gone -- but so are all the tourists
Visitors are staying away from Ireland in droves. Worse still, there isn't a plan to get them back, writes Roisin Burke
Official figures show that in the first eight months of this year -- including the summer season -- 700,000 fewer tourists visited than last year
BY Michael O'Leary's own admission, Ryanair's 'Irish Tourism Recovery Strategy', which the airline "launched" at its AGM on Wednesday, consists mainly of taking a pop at the DAA and airport tax.
But the dig also served to flag up a serious situation.
Tourism, our biggest indigenous industry, is in a fairly desperate state. Formerly the fastest growing sector of the economy, now visitor numbers are falling faster than an airborne jet plane with its engine switched off.
Visitor numbers fell 12 per cent last year, and they're still falling. Revenue fell by 19 per cent.
This is down to the "worldwide recession" Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin has been quoted as saying. But it seems clear there's more to Ireland's dire figures. Other countries haven't seen numbers go south as dramatically as we have.
Britain, our nearest tourism competitor and one with similar attractions and a rainy climate, saw visitor numbers actually increase by 4.6 per cent in 2009, despite a gruelling economic year there, figures from its tourism body Visit Britain show. Though the amount earned from tourism fell by 17 per cent, it has stopped declining now, unlike here.
Decline in visitor numbers elsewhere in northern Europe were minor. Germany (down 3.3 per cent), France (down 2.2 per cent) and Belgium (down 2.5 per cent) had minor drops in 2009, according to Eurostat data. What's more, they were recovering during this summer season -- unlike Ireland.
In Europe, overall tourist numbers fell by 5.6 per cent in 2009 and worldwide by 4.3 per cent. In Ireland it fell at twice both the European and global rates. A recovery in growth worldwide of 3-4 per cent is expected this year. There's little sign of that happening here.
Ms Hanafin's stated expectation that the market will have recovered later in the year looks seriously unlikely. In the first eight months of this year, including peak summer season, 700,000 fewer visited Ireland than last year.
When the grim figures were revealed at the end of last month, Ms Hanafin proclaimed that the market had "turned a corner", because they showed a smaller decline than earlier in the year. But in reality things are in a parlous state.
From being our fastest- growing sector, the tourist market has seen a €1bn-plus fall in revenue from €6.5bn a year in 2007 to €5.3bn last year.
Is anything being done to fix our single biggest home-grown industry, and protect the 200,000 jobs it supports?
On the face of it, it seems as if all that is happening is a heartsinking knee-jerk reaction of committees and taskforces.
The latest of a series of talking shops set up is the Renewal Implementation Group, established in July and chaired by Ms Hanafin herself. It was set up to implement the findings of the report from last year's hot air forum, the Tourism Renewal Group (TRG). Chaired by ex C&C boss Maurice Pratt, the TRG was tasked "to oversee and drive actions on measures to support tourism in Ireland to ensure that the sector is ready for recovery and growth". How inspiring.
Earlier this month, a 90-page report commissioned by the research quango the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation came up with the discovery that -- brace yourselves -- tourism providers need to do more online to attract tourists. Shocker.
At the launch of this ground-making missive, Ms Hanafin said that a web presence is "essential" for effective tourism marketing. We are several years into the social media revolution and this is the level of innovation at which our national tourism bodies are operating.
Tourism Ireland has an €80m all-Ireland annual budget. Marketing programme spend is €55.56m. There's a spend of €719,000 on overseas general sales agents and staff costs of €15.14m. Yet tourism numbers keep on falling.
After the ash cloud added pressure to already falling visitor numbers, Ms Hanafin announced that Tourism Ireland was spending €20m on a major drive to bring back visitors, but detail on what exactly this is directed at is hazy.
While the British and German tourism agencies are aggressively targeting the world's new big disposable income spenders -- Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric), Tourism Ireland's inroads into these new emerging markets has been negligible.
These Bric countries, with their huge populations and spending power, aren't even individually identified in Tourism Ireland's latest market research.
In sharp contrast, the German tourist board has been tracking its Russian visitors and noted that they are its highest spenders and is working to lure more of them in. Visit Britain has grown its Chinese visitor numbers by close to 20 per cent.
Among the big ideas Tourism Ireland is developing is the business visitor market. It is a 'strategic partner' in the new €416m Convention Centre Dublin which opened last month, but opinion is divided as to whether this will prove to be a great white elephant or a great white hope that will succeed in persuading conference organisers to find Dublin more attractive than Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, people have stopped flying in here in droves.
"We had two years of record traffic, followed by two years of losses," O'Leary told the Sunday Independent. "In 2008 we brought 30 million passengers into Ireland, in 2009 it fell to 24 million, and for 2010 it will be 21 million."
O'Leary blames the visitor number collapse on access charges, especially the airport tax that adds €20 per return journey to the cost of flying to Ireland. "Low access costs are what drives tourism. In Spain and Italy, where tourism is growing, it's the only thing that matters," he argues.
"In all fairness to Tourism Ireland, it's not its fault. There's no point producing a nice brochure if the Government is going to continue to scam an extra €20m out of tourists in this way."
It's not enough, he maintains, to have reined in the cost of hotel stays, restaurants and golf clubs if airport tax and charges remain as a major barrier to visiting.
"The conditions for tourism growth here have never been better, but nobody can bloody get here. There's been a 40 per cent increase in DAA fees this year and there will be another 40 per cent hike next year. The Government is going to have to do something.
Maurice Pratt called for the airport tax to be scrapped in the TRG report, but to no avail.
"What's the Government's response? Cowen and his gormless ministers are meeting with Fas," O'Leary says, referring to Mr Cowen's attending a job summit with Fas and other government agencies last week. "Fas wouldn't know a job if it bit it."
Swayed by the need to get tourists back at all costs, other countries have tackled airport tax. Spain froze all airport taxes in 2010 in a bid to boost tourist numbers and Belgium, Greece and The Netherlands did the same. "And what are we doing?" asks O'Leary. "Making it more expensive."
It's hard not to get the impression that Tourism Ireland and all its offshoots -- Failte Ireland, Ireland West Tourism and the rest -- are just carrying on in the usual way while the sector dwindles.
"Tourism Ireland's €20m summer overseas tourism marketing continues to roll out across all major markets, particularly in Great Britain, the United States and the larger markets of mainland Europe, to attract visitors in the peak season and beyond," Ms Hannafin's office told us when we asked what concrete initiatives were on the way to stop the tourist haemorrhage. But summer's gone and so are the tourists.
The vagueness continues. "The marketing campaign is a concerted effort, led by Tourism Ireland, but involving a wide range of industry partners, to bring a strong 'value' message and compelling reasons to visit to consumers across the world.
"Campaigns will play to the later-than-ever booking trend and will highlight great fares available by air and sea, attractive packages from the travel trade (on and offline) overseas, as well as terrific offers from the tourism industry across Ireland covering accommodation, restaurants, etc. Themes will include value golf, car touring, over-66s, regions and Northern Ireland."
It all sounds like more of the same. And look where that's got us.
More than one-tenth of the market wiped out in a year. And counting.