Pól Ó Conghaile: Irish tourism is breaking records, but is it too much of a good thing?
Is our tourism growth sustainable? Or is talk of 'higher-value' visitors elitist and undemocratic? Let the debate begin.
A man walks into a bar in Ballycastle, Co Mayo.
He's hungry, but it's late and there's no food. He's about to resign himself to a rumbling tummy, when another customer offers him a sandwich up at his house. A smile steals across the stranger's face. "So this is Irish hospitality," he thinks.
That man was Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler.
Bellows visited Mayo two years ago, telling the story the next day at a symposium in Ballina. The Wild Atlantic Way would change "the whole place", he said. But we should be careful what we wish for, "because you could wreck that place very quickly".
Bellows has sadly passed away, but his words came to mind as I wrote about the records tumbling in Irish tourism in recent weeks - our busiest ever first quarter; Dublin Airport's second runway; extra pressure on the Skelligs.
On the face of it, this is good news (tourism employs 205,000 people).
But this summer, I think we're going to notice a strain. Lengthy queues at top attractions, tour buses backed up on coastal routes, complaints about toilets, bins and parking at remote beaches.
Last year, Barcelona put a freeze on tourist hotels. Italy's Cinque Terre is capping visitors. Bhutan famously prioritises 'high-value, low-impact' tourism.
Our government's tourism strategy aspires to attract higher-spending visitors, but it still shoots for 10 million by 2025. I think we'll hit that within three years.
Can we really give a quality welcome to that many visitors?
Or is talk of 'higher-value' visitors elitist and ugly, going against the very spirit of what happened in the bar at Ballycastle that night?
Either way, we need to have the conversation.
The Wild Atlantic Way always was, and always will be, far more than a tourist trail. Now two years old, some hail it as the saviour of Irish tourism, others fear it may kill the goose that laid the golden egg. That's according to Paul Clements, author of Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba's Crown to World's End (collinspress.ie; €12.99).
Like many of us, Paul travelled the west coast before it was a marketing campaign, and the book charts his 2,500km return journey.
Read his Top 10 Wild Atlantic Way Drives here.
Northwest Mayo is a spectacularly unspoiled stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way - with a fraction of the visitors.
In Erris, you'll find a Neolithic site older than the pyramids (the Céide Fields), cliffs taller than the Cliffs of Moher (Benwee Head) and a desolately beautiful national park (Ballycroy).
The Children of Lír (May 27-29) and Erris Beo (June 16-19) festivals offer a nifty excuse for a break (errisbeo.ie). For overnights, check out the Stella Maris (stellamarisireland.com) or Talbot (thetalbothotel.ie) and Broadhaven Bay (broadhavenbay.com) hotels.