Sunday 1 February 2015

Where fiction and finance make easy bedfellows

We all laud Ireland's literary heritage - but, says Lora O'Brien, we could be doing so much more

Lora O'Brien

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan

What's your favourite book? A simple question, and one that most of us can answer, especially if we go back to our childhood. You may look to the left - off into the past… your eyes mist over, and a small smile breaks across your face as the title, cover image, and even the author's name come back to you.

Alongside happy childhood reminiscence and warm tinglies about certain books is a very clear desire, shared by many people worldwide, to know more about those books, their favourite characters, and particularly the authors' lives and places that inspired their writing.

Mark Rowlette of Failte Ireland says: "Three million overseas visitors annually engage in cultural activities while in Ireland," with "culture and heritage" consistently featuring in the top stated reasons why people are visiting us.

Literary tourism is a type of cultural tourism that promotes places or events from fictional texts, as well as the lives of their authors. Visitors can follow the same routes as favourite fictional characters, visit a writer's birthplace, childhood home, or the site where they wrote - even their grave. The quality and diversity of Ireland's incomparably rich literary heritage means it plays a huge role in the attraction of foreign spending to our shores.

We have some excellent literary events drawing crowds, like the Cuirt International Festival in Galway, the West Cork Literary Festival, Limerick's Eigse Michael Hartnett, or the Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival in Monaghan.

The Bram Stoker Festival was born out of the Dublin 'One City One Book' initiative in 2009, growing with the UNESCO City of Literature designation in 2010 and Stoker's centenary celebrations in 2012.

Bloomsday gets more engagement with each event, and the 55th Annual Yeats International Summer School again ran successfully this year.

Working with Failte Ireland and the Department of the Arts, Senator Susan O'Keeffe launched Yeats Day on June 13, 2012, to coincide with the poet's birthday, and ran a national and international collaborative event from dawn to dusk. They haven't looked back since, and there are major plans afoot for 2015 - a year-long celebration marking 150 years since his birth in 1865, intended to draw people to Ireland to understand what inspired Yeats, and to share that experience.

But we could be doing more. There are some obvious gaps in the literary tourism business market. Where are the Tain Trail Tours, spreading from Roscommon to the Cooley Penninsula - combining heritage and literature in one fell swoop? Where are the attractions based on Roddy Doyle, Neil Jordan, Colm Toibin and Maeve Binchy?

With advances in publishing technology, literary tourism is more available than ever worldwide. In America, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative published F Scott Fitzgerald's classic This Side of Paradise in Interactive Tourism Edition format in 2012. They offer web links to tours of Princeton, where Fitzgerald studied, and also links to Montgomery, Alabama, where Fitzgerald fell in love with his wife Zelda, just as the fictional Amory fell in love with Rosalind.

In London and New York, tourists sign up for guided Oscar Wilde tours, detailing places associated with him. Meanwhile, in the city of his birth and childhood, we have the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square, facing the house where his family lived right through Oscar's education at Trinity.

The house was taken over in 1994 by the American College Dublin, with the first two floors restored and open for guided tours - but only for one hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Colm Quilligan heads a company which does capitalise on our literary heritage - the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. "The Tour is running 26 years, so it's the first of its kind in the world," he says. It employs six people, who guide up to 20,000 visitors a year around the city's famous pubs associated with James Joyce, Brendan Behan (inset), Samuel Beckett, WB Yeats, James Larkin and Flann O'Brien. They've just launched a new Literature Walk, which "focuses on writers in other parts of Dublin, and some of the more modern ones." He has concerns though, over the competition from "these free tours out there that aren't charging anything"; so they are currently testing the market with the new offering one day per week.

Extensive market research has been conducted by Ipsos MRBI for the Irish Literary Trust, which indicates a significant level of demand for a literary tourism attraction from overseas tourists, domestic holiday-makers and the schools sector. Some 60pc of overseas visitors interviewed found this idea "extremely appealing or very appealing", while 36pc of Irish residents polled said they would be "extremely likely or very likely" to visit such an attraction.

Eoghan O'Mara Walsh, CEO of the Irish Literary Trust, notes that "Dublin is one of only six worldwide UNESCO cites of literature… We know Ireland's literary heritage is a real cultural differentiator for us from a tourism perspective and one we are not exploiting fully. Generally, the research showed that there was very strong interest in a literary-themed visitor attraction that was experiential in nature and celebrated Ireland's writers and the stories they have created."

Its new ALIVE (A Literary Ireland Visitor Experience) proposal plans to develop just such an attraction in a visually engaging, stimulating and accessible way, aimed at a generalist visitor audience. There are capital development costs of circa €5m yet to be met, with the plan being to raise half from the Exchequer and the balance from the philanthropic and corporate sectors. If the project opens as planned in 2016, with ticket prices of €10 per adult, revenue could top €1m per annum by 2019.

Looking at global trends in this market, it's clear there are literary tourism business opportunities as yet unexplored, and money to be made for those who take them.

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