Despite recession, bailouts and unemployment, tourism chief is optimistic growth will be feature of industry this year. By Peter Flanagan
IT'S probably fair to say that Niall Gibbons does not have an easy job. As head of Tourism Ireland, Mr Gibbons is tasked with marketing the island of Ireland to potential visitors from overseas. It might have been a relatively easy task five years ago, but one recession, one bailout and 14.3pc unemployment later, it is now immeasurably more difficult.
For a man faced with that sort of challenge Mr Gibbons is remarkably chipper when we meet, but then again the job would seem to require someone who can look on the bright side more or less all the time.
An accountant by training, Mr Gibbons joined Tourism Ireland in 2002 before becoming chief executive some two and a half years ago.
Anyone taking a new job in 2009 can appreciate the unique challenges of getting into a new role as the economy goes south and Mr Gibbons is no different.
"The global downturn has had an enormous impact on travel and tourism," he says.
"In 2005/6, the global economy was expanding, numbers were increasing, spend was increasing. The number of beds available was on the up as well.
"The decline for us started in July 2008 and that didn't arrest itself until the first quarter of last year.
"In addition, we had issues with the perception of Ireland as expensive during the so called boom and the idea of the "rip off culture" was out there.
"As well as that the British economy -- our main market -- was badly hit.
"The number of British travelling fell back to 2001 levels and Ireland was hit disproportionally by that," he adds.
So far, so bad, but there are signs of recovery in the market here, something that Mr Gibbons feels is the start of a longer trend.
"We saw a turnaround in all our markets in 2011 and increased our market share.
"Ireland's reputation as an aspirational destination is in pretty good shape so the brand is in pretty good nick at the moment.
"We did a bit of work on tracking our key markets and it showed Ireland as a destination in the top eight in our main four markets.
"The challenge now is that people might take only one break as opposed to three or four so we need to make sure they come to Ireland for that."
TI's research also shows the perception of Ireland as an expensive destination is falling away now as well. In the summer of 2009, 32pc of UK visitors were dissatisfied with the price of their holiday here. That fell to 23pc and has fallen again in 2011.
Given the weakening euro versus the dollar it is likely things will be even cheaper this year. The increase in competitiveness we've heard so much about in recent years is manifesting itself in many ways beyond just lower wages.
The area of concern for Mr Gibbons in recent years has been air access but he sees that recovering now as well.
"About 85pc of people who come here do so by air.
In the summer of 2008 there 500,000 airline seats available every week but by summer 2011 that was down to 424,000 so that was a huge blow for us. "That has stabilised during the winter now and we hope for some growth this year."
Unsurprisingly, the growth has largely been outside Europe. Aer Lingus has added routes to Scandinavia and Belgium but the arrival of Emirates in Ireland from Dubai and Abu Dhabi earlier this month are a sign of where the future growth is.
Tourism Ireland tiers its target countries by market share, with its top four: the US, UK, France and Germany in tier one delivering three quarters of the tourists who come here. The Nordics, Italy and Spain are in the second tier while Asia is in tier three. While TI's spend in the east is small, it is growing. "The awareness of Ireland over there is virtually zero so you're starting from scratch.
"We don't have a presence there ourselves but we have contractors who are promoting Ireland in Mumbai and New Delhi in India and Shanghai and Beijing in China as well as a few others.
"Already though there has been success, for example the visa waiver scheme introduced last year allowed people from 16 countries with a visa to the UK to come to Ireland as well, and we now have nine operators in China who have UK and Ireland on their brochures where they previously only had the UK so that is tangible success.
"When Riverdance was in China there is no better showcase for Ireland and although we're starting from very little, the prize is huge. Only between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese came to Ireland last year but it will be the biggest outbound market by 2020."
TI scored a huge win last year when the Bollywood film "Ek Tha Tiger" was filmed in Ireland and already the reaction has been "great", Mr Gibbons adds.
That sort of promotion of Ireland is part of the "long game" but in the short term TI has ramped up its marketing with a new campaign -- titled "Jump In to Ireland" -- that will, in Mr Gibbons own words, "define us for the next four to five years".
The campaign will be refreshed from time to time but will feature advertising across most media in the UK, US, France and Germany.
"Anecdotal feedback so far has been very good. We are on TV in the UK and Germany, and that is a response to what happened in 2008 and 2009 when we made a very tactical decision on cost and our voice market share fell back. Now we've the biggest share of voice advertising in UK tourism again and those ads will be run on and off.
"At the end of the day people still get tired and still want a holiday. "They want a sense of joy and immersion and that's what the ads communicate."
Mr Gibbons hopes the campaign can give a timely boost to the hospitality industry here -- he is targeting a 40pc growth in visitors from France over the next four years for example -- but he isn't immune to criticism. A recent report from the Dublin City Business Organisation (DCBO) showed Ireland's share of the global tourism market had fallen by a third in the last 12 years but he rigorously defends his organisation's performance.
"The big thing we took from that report was the emphasis on innovation and of thinking "outside the box" as it were. We definitely need to do that.
"The analysis has a few gaps but if you look at the forecasts, we grew our market share in Europe last year and one of the major reasons for the decline is that other countries are coming to the fore who weren't there before, especially those in Asia.
"Global tourism grew by five per cent last year and of that Europe is losing market share and Ireland is just a component of that.
"The other issue was the big decline in the UK. A decade ago £1 got you €1.60, by summer of 2009 it was punt for euro. Ireland has a very strong marketing presence, the World Economic Forum at Davos ranks us tenth in the world for marketing and brand effectiveness," he claims.
The DCBO report also criticised Ireland for its marketing spend given that it is around eight times that of France and 19 times that of Italy but Mr Gibbons is blunt in his criticism.
"That report doesn't compare like with like in that regard. Our figure includes total marketing spend but for other countries it does not.
"You have to remember that we are an isolated island on the edge of Europe where it rains a lot. We have to work hard to get people here," he says.
TI is now one of the highest profile cross border bodies, how different is marketing the north compared to the south?
"There were two challenges, one: the product wasn't as well developed as the Republic for obvious reasons but that is being rectified and two: the security issue. Unfortunately bad news sells and that is a challenge but we are getting there."
Looking ahead, Mr Gibbons is is targeting up to 4.5pc growth in tourism numbers for the Republic and 5.5pc overall.
"The first quarter will be difficult and we saw a slowdown in Q4 in 2011 but the soundings from all the operators are cautiously optimistic. With the good value out there gaining market share is a real possibility."