The great tourism gap
Tourists poured into Dublin in 2013 but not enough of them bothered to visit the rest of the country. How can the neglected regions get a slice of the action? Graham Clifford reports
Attempt to take a stroll down Temple Bar on any Saturday evening in the year and you'll play 'dodge the tourist'. In 2013 overseas visitors poured into the nation's capital in their millions, spending big and partying hard. But other streets across the country remained relatively quiet.
This week, figures were released for 2013 which showed overseas tourism was up 6pc on the previous year, with almost seven million visitors injecting more than €4bn into the Irish economy.
While applauding a good year's work in difficult economic times, Eamonn McKeon, chief executive of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC), warned that an imbalance remains in our tourism sector with an over-concentration on the capital.
He told RTÉ this week: "Almost 90pc of the air capacity into Ireland comes into Dublin so there's an inevitability that tourism here will continue to grow at a faster pace than in the rest of the country."
In recent years, overseas visitors have enjoyed more value for money in Dublin and it's become a popular city-break destination again.
"We mustn't give up on the west (of the country) though," said Mr McKeon, adding "the big initiative in 2014 is the unveiling of 'Wild Atlantic Way' (Ireland's first long-distance touring route, stretching along the rugged Atlantic coast from Donegal to west Cork).
"If you live in the centre of continental Europe the notion of exploring Ireland's Wild West Coast is phenomenal and so we're hoping it will bring more people to that part of the country."
Brian Quinn of Westport Tourism in Mayo believes towns such as his have to market beyond our shores if they're to attract more overseas visitors.
"We can look back on 2013 and say we had a good year but we won't have time to dwell on that for long. We need to come up with ways of selling Westport and Mayo into the future.
"The fact is while our town and the Green Way trail may be well known in Ireland they are not on everyone's lips overseas. That's what we have to change, we need to do everything we can to make tourists visiting Ireland aware of what's on offer along the west coast."
While he believes greater competition in the Irish Tourism sector would be a healthy development, Mr Quinn thinks the industry is very varied and says we have to be realistic about what can be achieved to right the imbalance.
"Look, there are different market segments. Dublin is a city-break destination while we go after the 'great escapers' or 'culture vultures' who favour the countryside and adventure breaks. We can't compete with Dublin in certain markets and they can't compete with us."
Further up the coast in Belmullet, there's a similar acknowledgment that the busloads of tourists will only come if there's enough on offer for them.
"During our festival in August we have horse and greyhound races on the beach, it's an amazing spectacle and the tourists can't get enough of it. It's these kind of events which help sell the area of Erris and Belmullet abroad," said local Fine Gael councillor Gerry Coyle, who is also involved in attempts to attract more visitors to the area.
"For years, we depended on our emigrants abroad to return to Belmullet and spend on their holidays, but nowadays young lads in London can get to places like the Canaries for less than £100 (€120) and off they go, so we have to change our tack. If the masses of people are still visiting Dublin, then we should be running exhibitions up there explaining what we have down here."
While the likes of Kerry and west Cork have long-established international reputations as quaint scenic Irish must-sees, both are attracting more mobile tourism markets and adapting accordingly.
Hill walking, canoeing and horse riding opportunities have increased dramatically in recent years while the coach touring American segment of the market (and their wallets) are still welcomed with open arms.
Hoteliers in Cork city, too, are reporting a strong year but Joe Kennedy, the general manager of the city's Imperial Hotel, says continued efforts to open new routes at regional airports is key to spreading the tourism market fairly across Ireland.
"There were some new routes from Cork to the UK this year and we really felt the impact of that. The news that Shannon will have a lot of new flights coming in over the next few months will also help our sector in the west and south-west. I suppose continued efforts to do everything possible to attract those new flights could have a huge impact in cities like Cork."
More affordable car-hire options and the vastly improved national road network have also helped entice overseas visitors away from Liffeyside.
"Fair enough, the statistics say Dublin enjoys an advantage over the rest of the country but in 2013 we felt there was an increase in the number of tourists leaving there and travelling south. It would be great if we could all get a fair bite of the cherry in 2014."
With the western region gearing up for the launch of the 'Wild Atlantic Way' and the south-east enjoying the benefits of its east-coast location and proximity to Dublin, it's the midlands and border counties which may well be left behind.
With new air routes from the likes of Canada to Dublin set to be start in 2014, tourism into the capital will grow. A new strategic plan for Dublin is to be launched this month and a taskforce has been working to create a new brand for the city.
The aim is to attract almost 6.5 million overseas visitors to Dublin annually, with a total tourism spend of close to €2bn by 2020. The imbalance, then, is set to continue, with the chasm between Dublin and the rest of the country likely to widen.
FACTFILE: Ireland's Tourism Renaissance
* Visitor arrivals up 6pc to almost seven million, the best year since 2009.
* Tourism businesses have created 15,000 additional jobs over the past two years, based on CSO data for the accommodation and food sector.
* A 26pc increase in transatlantic air services boosted demand from high-spending Americans, with further new services on offer for 2014.
* Government decision on maintaining the 9pc VAT rate on tourism services and the suspension of the air travel tax showing positive results.
* Tourism Ireland is targeting growth of 4pc in visitor arrivals in 2014.
* A return to growth in volume of visitors from Britain, the largest source market, after five years of depressed demand.
* In 2014, new Aer Lingus routes will operate from San Francisco (left) and Toronto to Dublin together with a year-round service to Shannon from Boston and New York.
* Further increases in lift-offs from Canada, with a new service from St John's to Dublin and expanded service by Air Canada Rouge.
* New European routes include Basel and Hanover to Dublin; Berlin, Munich, Nice, and Paris to Shannon; Eindhoven and Cologne/Bonn to Knock.
* Cross-channel routes see a major boost of frequency and capacity by Ryanair and Aer Lingus Regional on services from Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh to Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock.